Jazzfest Goes For Gusto

Hurricane Katrina may have forced the Essence Festival out of town, the Voodoo Music Experiencee to split in two and even Mardi Gras to be scaled down, but organizers of the 2006 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival intend to let the good times roll, bigger and better than ever, at its traditional site and time.

Skeptics may wonder how co-producers Festival Productions Inc.and AEG Live / Concerts West intend to pull it off. At times, so does FPI’s Quint Davis.

“It’s pretty wishful thinking,” Davis acknowledged to Pollstar. “The reality is a little more sobering but it’s definitely the direction that we’re going in.”

Davis and reps from AEG Live met November 10th with the board of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and Foundation, the non-profit that owns Jazzfest.

Not only did they convince the board that producing one of the world’s top festivals in a recently devastated New Orleans was possible, but walked away with a commitment to stage it at the Fair Grounds April 28th through May 7th as scheduled, and pull out all the stops.

“We think that we will be the watershed event that will jump-start the tourist economy for this part of the world,” Jazzfest board president David Oestreicher told The Times-Picayune.

First-tier names like The Rolling Stones, Elton John, and Simon & Garfunkel – all of whom performed Katrina benefits – are being bandied about as possible invitees to the prestigious festival.

“Our No. 1 commitment is to New Orleans and Louisiana musicians,” Jazz and Heritage Foundation executive director Don Marshall told the paper. “But I think we’ll see some new faces at the festival. … The programming potential is phenomenal.”

The restoration of the music culture and rebuilding of New Orleans is the mission for Davis, who notes that in this case, timing truly is everything.

“The timing of the festival, coming when it does in the springtime, really positions it to have a major role and impact on the recovery and revival of New Orleans in general,” Davis said.

“Had the festival been scheduled in September, it would have been over for the year. But falling when it does – when all the hotel rooms will be back, the French Quarter is in full service, the Fair Grounds close to fully restored, if not fully restored – times out very well for the infrastructure here,” he continued.

Davis explained that after the departure of temporary workers and their families, who are currently living in hotels, and before the city’s first convention in June, New Orleans will have an estimated 30,000 empty hotel rooms just waiting for Jazzfest-goers.

Timing also comes into play with two other key events before the hurricane hit. FPI’s partnership with AEG Live forged in 2004 and Churchill Downs’ purchase of the Fair Grounds bring resources to the table that will be needed to drive an admittedly risky event.

“It was fated,” Davis said of AEG Live’s appearance on the scene. “Nobody expected us in year two of the relationship to be facing this kind of challenge with New Orleans being destroyed. They totally stepped up to the plate.

“Randy Phillips is one of the first people to call me after the flood to say, ‘We just want you to know that whatever you need, whatever help you need for your people and your staff, we’re here for you.’ And that wasn’t even about the festival per se,” Davis said of his relatively new partners.

Organizers hope to begin making announcements regarding a lineup next month. But Davis emphasized the big names should not be the main attraction for Jazzfest-goers in 2006.

“It’s going to be an incredible experience to be at Jazzfest this year,” Davis said. “It’s going to be very emotional. For a lot of the musicians and artists, its going to be the first time some of them have come back and played.

“I think it’s something that’s going to be a genuinely unique thing to be a part of.”

– Deborah Speer