New Orleans Jazz Fest’s Quint Davis on This Year’s Fest, Partnering With AEG


Quint Davis And Fats
Doug Mason
– Quint Davis And Fats Domino
The late Fats Domino and Quint Davis at the 2009 Jazz Fest.

The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival kicks off today (April 27) for the first of two consecutive weekends and this year celebrates the city’s 300th Anniversary and its status as the ur-source for so much of the American music canon. In part one of this two-part interview, Pollstar spoke with fest’s inimitable director Quint Davis about Jazz Fest’s history, this year’s Fats Domino tribute and his partnership with AEG.

Pollstar: How did you first catch the New Orleans music bug?
Quint Davis: I can’t remember not having the music bug. When the first transistor radio came out in the early ’50s, my parents got me one so I would walk to school, sit in the class or put it under my pillow and listen to it.

What were the first shows you saw?
There was a gas station a couple blocks from my house, and I made friends with the guys that worked there. Particularly with a guy named August and those were the first people who took me out to the black clubs in New Orleans, live and in person. It’s been my life ever since.

Which clubs did he take you to?
The first club he ever took me to was on St. Bernard, I think James Rivers was playing there. And there was a club called Sylvia’s on Freret. The other set of clubs was a section of North Claiborne, downtown under the overpass where Club 77 was and the Nightcap which was the first place I ever heard Walter “Wolfman” Washington.

Music is so ingrained into the fabric of life in New Orleans and the festival really seems to reflect that.
Over the years what started out in a way as a presentation of the culture has really become a part of it. New Orleans is a magic kingdom if you can dive into it, really. During Jazz Fest, I call it a funk principality actually, but during Jazz Fest it’s like a funk Olympics in a small Tyrolean town. Jazz Fest ends at 7:00 p.m., which is not like rock festivals., so where we have 13 stages, New Orleans has 40 music clubs at least that are going all night after us. We have 80 some restaurants, New Orleans has over 400 restaurants. So, the festival is really a microcosm. One of the great things about the festival is when you walk out, you’re in New Orleans.

When did you first meet festival founder George Wein?
It had to be ’69 or early ’70. He was friends with Allan Jaffe, the founder of Preservation Hall Jazz Band, who was really responsible for bringing back traditional jazz in New Orleans. George had his band, the Newport All-Stars, that would play this jazz club at the Royal Sonesta Hotel. He got into this idea of the Jazz and Heritage Festival and Dick Allen was the head of the jazz archive at Tulane. I was working in there and I think they went to lunch and he said, “I’m looking for some kid that can go out and get blues and this stuff.”  And Dick Allen says, “Well there’s a kid working up here, I don’t know if he ever goes to school really, but I think that’s what he does.” So I was told to go meet George at Café du Monde one day, and the rest is my life

Was there a festival before Jazz Fest?
There was a festival and it was a non-profit and it was tied in to Voice of America. It was at the Municipal Auditorium two or three nights, and I heard Cannonball Adderley there and Rahsaan [Roland Kirk] who I ended up hanging out with a lot because he loved New Orleans and would play with Preservation Hall Band. Of course the Newport Jazz Festival had become the jazz music event of the world

How did that play into Jazz Fest?
A group that were on the board asked George to come down and meet with them. They said, “We’re New Orleans. We want a jazz festival like the Newport festival.” George said, “No, if you do that you will always be second, you will always be it’s a festival like Newport. But New Orleans has something that nowhere else in the world can claim, and that’s the birthright to jazz. That’s what I want to do.”

So It really more came out of the

Where was it staged?
We started in Congo Square, which at that time before [New Orleans Mayor] Mitch Landrieu, it was named after a Confederate general PGT Beauregard. So it was called Beauregard Square, but it was Congo Square, which was the home of African music in North America, it’s where condensed African polyrhythms were turned into a beat. Like the birth of a beat. So we were there for two years, would be ’70 and ’71 and we moved to the fairgrounds in ’72. So we’ve been there pretty long.

What was it like in the beginning?  
When we started out, I wanted the world’s greatest backyard BBQ. But as we started bringing in the traditions, Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs, Mardi Gras Indians, brass bands, gospel, it was bringing them out of their culture to be at a festival. And over the years the festival has become actually part of the culture, the same way the traditional things are.

Was it a struggle to get those groups?

– Quint Davis

The gospel groups for the first few years the ministers said, “You’re not going out somewhere with people in shorts and drinking beer and you’re gonna do gospel?”

Who was Allison Miner?
Allison Miner was my significant other, and we lived together in an apartment. I don’t know why but the phone was disconnected and I was producing the festival with a sack of quarters on a payphone behind the hospital for a while.

Allison was just as into the tradition of music as I was. She had come from Florida where she grew up and hung out with the Allman Brothers, and she was a beautiful singer. We started working together and had a little apartment over the Dream Castle, it was s an attic apartment with a bunch of stairs, and I would trot out with my trusty reel to reel and go record things and drag them back up. She was fiery and real passionate.

What’s her legacy?
Now we have the Allison Miner Music Heritage Stage, and that’s where the dialogue is. That’s where the interviews and panels are. We’ve had Brian Wilson and Santana there, and they come sit down and talk about their life and their music, and they play a little bit. Because Allison’s passion was, you’re liking the music, but the music comes from musicians. You’ve got to make that connection and work your way back, don’t just enjoy the music, always work your way back to the musician.

How will New Orleans’ tri-centennial be celebrated?

Man, we’re doing something  we’ve never done programmatically, which is fantastic. This year we dedicated the Cultural Exchange Pavilion to New Orleans and its history. I got a bigger tent and brought in groups from all over the world in addition to commissioning music that spans the entire 300 years of New Orleans music. There’s a Native American pow-wow, a tribute to Sidney Bechet, the Mardi Gras Indians, Creole dancing. Then Sona who is originally from Gambia, a Louis Prima tribute, a big band from Guatemala. There’ s groups from Paris playing early jazz and Vishten from Canada who are playing with the Savoy Family Cajun Band. Henry Butler is doing a Jelly Roll Morton tribute and Kermit Ruffins is doing a Louis Armstrong tribute. There’s a group called Socks in the Frying Pan who are incredible. Oh, Jupiter & Okwess is the top of my list for the festival, they’re from the Congo and they are way, way out there.

And how will you honor the late Fats Domino?
We’re going to do a big tribute to Fats Domino and his music on the festival this year. I mean big. I could go into detail, but I’m sure I’ll talk way too much. But we’re gonna do a big tribute to Fats and his music, on actually that first Saturday will be tribute to Fats with Bonnie Raitt and Rod Stewart.

That sounds amazing.
I went back and started listening to Fats records, and actually… YouTube is an amazing thing. I actually had live versions of a lot of the recordings and a number of them were my tour. I tour managed Fats in Europe, so I’d been there. One of the first things I heard, the first record he made in 1949—and I want to see what Richard and Chuck Berry were doing in 1949—called “The Fat Man.” And his playing, just barrelhouse piano, rock and roll thing and it was incredible. Oh man, he was fantastic. But that’s the lineage.

How is the partnership with AEG going?
It’s the best thing that’s ever happened to our company. George’s company was called Festival Productions. And then as the festival grew and George and I started Festival Productions Inc., New Orleans,  the company that we were producing Jazz Fest from. That went on for, I don’t know, say 35 of the 50 years. And then AEG came in the year before Katrina (2004). So they came in to a festival that for the first time literally….well after the first three or four years actually, the festival had never lost money

So they came in really as a financial partner. As an underwriter and a risk taker. And the first year the festival lost money and they propped it up. And then the second year in New Orleans the city is destroyed by a flood. I’m like, oh man this is a rough initiation, jeez. But George stuck with it and they stuck with it. That was a tough decision. We were in a city that the airport was closed, there was no houses, the hotels were full of first responders, what are you gonna do?

It sounds like a nightmare.
But the commitment was made. That’s when Shell came in actually. Shell had had a big history in New Orleans and they were the one oil company that came back to New Orleans, that didn’t end up staying in Houston. They were looking around for different things to do and they looked at the festival as a cultural environment. They did a lot of other things too that weren’t known, but we were sort of the goldfish on the kitchen floor when Shell came along and said, “We’ll put this money up.” Then George and AEG commited to put their money up, and the festival happened that year.

How were you able to put on a festival with all that?
It was one day less. I can’t believe we did two weekends. It was one day less and one stage less. And we kept having these deadlines, like if you don’t have it by November we can’t do it. We didn’t have it by November. Well if you don’t have it by the end of the year, that’s the deadline. Well we didn’t have it by the end of the year. So we got into January, and Shell came in, People’s Health came in because they had a big sponsorship with the NBA team, the Hornets at that time, who had to move to Oklahoma City, so they put their sponsorship in the festival.

So now we have a festival and there’s no musicians living in New Orleans. And we’re in the middle of January. And we think we’re doing this festival for six days over two weekends. We’re not like some of the rock festivals that have gone to two wekeends, we’ve been at two weekends for I don’t know 30 years, but they’ve gone recently to two weekends with the same show both weekends. I’m like, “Man that’s good work if you can get it. We don’t do one band twice.”

So here we were wanting to do a six-day festival, one stage less, mostly local people, and we needed headliners. It was amazing, you never want that to happen again. Somebody ran into Irma Thomas at an airport parking lot or something. So when we’d find people–and remember everybody had different phone numbers, different area codes, —and ask them if they want to do it and they’d say sure. Then they’d say, “Well my bass player’s in Houston, my drummer’s in Boston,” so the bands were literally meeting up at the stage for the first time. And they’d all lost everything.

Who headlined?
I made some calls, we ended up, we had Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Jimmy Buffett, Dave Matthews Band, and Keith Urban I think. So that was substantial. And the festival happened. It was a miracle. I think probably my greatest experience in all 50 years was the opening day of the Katrina festival. Because we had no idea, like I said there were no flights. Normally if there’s no hotels people come down and stay with their friends. But their friends didn’t have houses, so it was like what the hell. We needed a festival with 50,000 people, and that’s more than the population of New Orleans.

How did it turn out?
That morning we started getting calls from our gate security, from the NOPD, that there were people lining up in every direction. And they were really far, like going into Esplanade. We’re like, “What?” And we go over to the gate and the fence, and there’s all these people lined up in every direction. And I mean we opened the gates, and a lot of people, a really lot of people, it was their first time back to New Orleans. Wherever they were around the country, if Jazz Fest happened, that was something they were gonna come home for.

How did that feel?
I remember being up on stage and there were 30 or 40,000 people out there. And saying, “Man, I don’t know where you people came from or how you got here, or how you’re being here, but it’s amazing. Thank you.” When Jimmy played, there was a T-shirt, I think they sent it up to him, and it said, Rebuilding New Orleans One Margarita at a Time. It was something. We had a lot of sponsors that came in. some of them stayed some of them didn’t, but they wanted to support things in New Orleans. And then ever since the festival’s sort of taken off.

Who did you work with at AEG when the partnership was being formed.
When the partnership was going to be formed between FPI and AEG, it was Jay Marciano who was assigned to make that happen. And he came down to New Orleans, and him and I got into a hotel meeting room or something, and we worked 200 hours a day. Nobody but us had produced the festival since day one. Jay is really smart and really spiritually humane at the same time that he’s in a tough industry. But we just sat and tried to figure out how the two companies would work together. So that was my first contact with AEG.

Didn’t you also work with (former AEG head) Randy Phillps? He cited working with Jazz Fest as one of his proudest accomplishments.

– Quint Davis

When the foundation put the festival out to bid and AEG was bidding against us, that was Randy Phillips. And George called up Randy and said, “Hey man, why you trying to take our festival away?” George is the kind of person that sees around corners. Like you’ll ask him A and he’ll tell you Z. It’s like, oh shit. So he started having these conversations with Randy and he says to me, “These seem like good people. I won’t be around forever. These might be good people to work with.” Talking to a guy who was trying to take the festival, not so much his fault, because the people on the board that were trying to get us out and were putting it up to bid. They were telling people we were not gonna get it back. So somebody’s gonna get it, so you may as well get it. So that’s what brought them in. And we’re still not gone and we ended up getting it back.

Who else did you work with there?
There was Tom Miserendino. He was assigned to be my guy at AEG, and I worked directly with Tom for years. You know it was interesting because here we were the country mice in the swamp, right, if not reptiles I guess. But this little company down in New Orleans, not knowing any better so we’re putting on this festival and it’s getting bigger and bigger. But we weren’t part of any kind of national scene. And then partnering up with AEG gave us a position and a platform. They made insurance available to us, they made their legal available to us.

What about in terms of talent?
Not so much. They got us Bon Jovi and some things, but mostly we got the talent. It was interesting because Jay, wanted me to be comfortable. Have a comfort level with them as being my partner, and then seeing what their role was going to be, particularly in the financing end.  “You’re the festival producer, we want you to produce the festival” he said. And I remember him saying to me, “Look, you’re not gonna be on a tight leash. You’re gonna have a very loose leash down here.” And I’m like, “You’re telling me that you’re handing me the keys to the kingdom of AEG? Are you kidding me? I’m not worried about your calls, you’d better be worried about my calls. Because I’m going to be taking whatever advantage I can. Calling you guys for help.” The rest as they say…it’s been just amazing. We’ve gone into partnerships on other festivals, and it’s just been hand and glove. We’ve never had a problem really between us.

And you expect 80,000 a day this year?
That’s sort of an average. You get maybe less on Friday and more on Saturday, but it adds up. After a while it adds up to a lot of people.