Q’s With Jazz Fest’s Quint Davis: From His NOJF Team to Doing Jail Time With Chuck Berry in Spain

Quint Davis And George Wein
Doug Mason 2018
– Quint Davis And George Wein
Quint Davis and George Wein at Jazzfest 2018

With the second weekend of The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival in full swing, Pollstar presents part two of our conversation with the fest’s inimitable director Quint Davis. Here, the veteran promoter spoke about the Jazz Fest team, tour managing Duke Ellington and his “sodas” and, of course, doing jail time with Chuck Berry in Spain and Miles Davis’ love of Russian tigers.

Pollstar: How did you become the manager of Professor Longhair and a and road manager?
Quint Davis: When I became manager of Professor Longhair, and the Wild Magnolias, that was my first New Orleans music life. we actually created the first ever Mardi Gras Indians recording of modern funk music. Actually, George Wein was responsible for the rediscovery if you will of Professor Longhair. When George came down in one of those very first visits, Fess [Professor Longhair] and Snooks [Eaglin], I had them at Congo Square, I took him to an Indian practice at H and R, which was at 2nd and Dryades, it started an hour and a half later than it was supposed to and it was Mardi Gras.

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

George and I were standing on the sidewalk waiting, and there was a sweet shop in the front room of this house so we went and got a soft drink. And they were playing “Go to the Mardi Gras.” And George is an accomplished jazz piano player, he played all his life. And he heard “Go to Mardi Gras,” and he said, “Who’s that?” And I said, “Not that’s not really anybody, that’s just a record that comes out of Mardi Gras.” He says, “Well that is somebody. If you want a great festival down here, find that guy.” And that’s how my life started with Professor Longhair.

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

How did you get into tour managing?
When I met George in ’69, he was the only person that I ever worked for my whole life up until maybe 12 or 13 years ago and we never had a contract, actually. I’d never done a tour, and the only festival I’d done was like Zydeco and Fess and Snooks in a little square. First of all, he brings me up to the Newport Jazz Festival, and that was the year there was a riot, and so the first big festival I was at they kind of burned the stage down under me. I hoped the rest of the festivals were a lot less eventful than that. And then he put me on a plane, and I flew to Copenhagen. And walked into this hotel and Paul Gonzalez was at the bar, and Harry Carney was there, and it was Duke Ellington’s orchestra, and it was Duke Ellington’s first tour, Russia and behind the Iron. Curtain. We did 44 shows in 42 nights.

Wait with Duke Ellington!?
Yeah. Romania, all these countries that no one had been to. But that was the first tour I was ever on, 44 shows in 42 nights. Different country every day. We did a couple of nights, two countries in the same night.

What were you doing on that tour?
At that time, before hijacking and stuff, you could check bags without the person whose bag it was. So we did everything: we took the bags up to each guy’s room and put them outside the door. When we were going and the airports were far away, they’d put their bags out, we’d pick them up in a van and take it to the airport in the middle of the night and check them in. But we also set up the stage, we put the music boxes out by the bandstand.

What did you do for Duke Ellington?
We used to travel with a sack of lemons and a couple of five pound bags of sugar and a case of Coca-Cola. That was Duke’s thing. He would have a glass of Coca-Cola,with about an inch of sugar on the bottom and a couple lemons squeezed in it. Every night we would set up a piano in his room because he wanted to compose. He was in his 70s then.

Touring must have been tough on him

Oh man, there would be these young guys  out of North Texas State jazz program there, and they were hot players. And they would last about a month and get burned out and go home. And Eric Carney and them, they had their shoulder bag, their Courvoisier in their shoulder bags. And they’d been going since the ’40s.

How big was the band?
It was a big band, 17 or 18 people.

Was it backbreaking work?
It was fantastic. One day though, I got left three countries and a continent behind, with nothing but a shoulder bag. This was my first tour but I was determined to catch up because I was in the south of France and they were going to the north of England. I rode across part of Brussels in an open sided mail train, through cow fields.  That was Duke’s first tour behind the Iron Curtain. And then I took B.B. [King] to Africa for the first time in history and did a lot of tours with B.B.  and Muddy [Waters]. I took Muddy to Africa for the first time too. And this was all George. I went to real prison at machine gun point with Chuck Berry in Madrid.

Wait, you’re kidding.
That was when they had that dictator there. He wasn’t fooling.

Chuck Berry
AP Photo
– Chuck Berry
John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston, Conn.

Yeah Franco. When the detectives came to get us from the hotel and we went down to the police station and tried to pay the fine Chuck said, “Don’t pay the fine, didn’t do anything wrong.” Long story, but then the Guardia Civil came to get us with their little patent leather Mickey Mouse hats and their machine guns in between the seats and they took us to the prison. Big prison. And we were in a cell. We had one Salem cigarette, Chuck did, and I remember passing it back and forth. S I did two Chuck Berry tours, and then a fantastic Fats Domino tour in like 1980. I think I did McCoy [Tyner’s] first tour of Europe after Train passed.

Wait, why did you go to prison with Chuck Berry?
It’s a long story, a really long story. I won’t say that  it was a usual day with Chuck Berry, but it wasn’t that unusual.

Oh my God.
Like when he took this $400,000 Mercedes that was the property of the conductor of the Strasbourg Symphony  and sort of kidnapped me and another woman across international boundaries. There were things. A lot of things with Chuck. Yeah the tour with Fats was fantastic. Because it was all New Orleans guys, and got to know them all. So this was George, the world of George. I started working festivals. It was the year after the riot and Newport moved to New York, the Big Apple.

What was that like
That was, oh man, the first time I worked with Darlene Chan, who I still work under, still call her boss, I was assigned to her at Carnegie Hall. We did something like 30 shows in 10 or 11 days. We would have one show in the afternoon, and then one or two shows at night. Different people. And then he would have these midnight shows at Radio City. Diana Ross had made Billie Holiday movie [“Lady Sings the Blues”] so she did a Billie Holiday thing there. I wasn’t actually working on producing that one I don’t think, I was just at Carnegie Hall. But George started having me do stuff every year. So at the same time I was working with Fess and Snooks and the Indians locally.

It’s just incredible all you’ve accomplished and all the legendary artists you’ve worked with.

It’s just unbelievable luck and a blessing, here’s a kid running around New Orleans at jazz funerals and blues joints and gospel concerts, and we’re talking about in the ’60s and the least commercial music in the world. Most people hadn’t heard any of it. Gospel music out of a church or a real jazz funeral and along comes one of the only men in the world who has made a worldwide industry out of that music. He’s got groups touring Europe.

Bob Jones who did a lot of Duke Ellington, he had dinner with Haile Selassie, on the Duke Ellington tour. George would take six or eight groups to Europe, and oh man it was Duke and Miles and B.B. and Dave Brubeck and Sarah Vaughan. The Giants of Jazz group was Dizzy on trumpet, Sonny Stitt on saxophone, Art Blakey on drums, Thelonious Monk on piano and I think Kai Winding on trombone. George was taking all these groups to Europe and each one had a tour and a road manager, but he could meet up three or four a night somewhere and make a festival.

What were some of the most memorable shows from then?
We had this great night in the Palais des Sports in Paris, and I think I was with B.B., Miles and Duke. That was the night of the feeding of the giant Russian tigers behind the stage during the show. You could hear the roars in there, which Duke didn’t like. Miles loved it. Because he was doing Bitches Brew and he had all these foot pedals anyway. So yeah, I fell into this. I fell into a guy who was making go of the music that I loved most in my life, the least commercial music in the world, and just the luckiest guy ever.

I hope you’re writing the book as we speak, and you can call it either Tigers Backstage at the Miles Show or Sitting in Jail with Chuck Berry in Madrid. So I was wondering, if AEG helpd you land some of these more mainstream bigger acts this year like Jack White, Beck or Aerosmith this year?
By now I have relationships with the managers and the agents. Chris Dalton is the agent for Sting, Lionel Richie, and Aerosmith.  But for Rod Stewart, I’ve been doing this a long time, so I’m able to call them up and see what’s happening. And actually it’s not that easy because we end up getting a lot of people who aren’t on tour. A one off, which is the hardest thing to get them for. Like Aerosmith. To get one of the biggest rock bands in the world, that want to come play so badly that they will come as a one off. We have planes picking up people all over the country because they want to do it. They’re not on tour. Lionel Richie’s not on Richie’s not on tour.

Quint Davis Bo Dollis Funeral
Erika Goldring/Getty Images
– Quint Davis Bo Dollis Funeral
Quint Davis participates in a second line parade following the funeral of Big Chief “Bo” Dollis of the Wild Magnolias of Mardi Gras Indian fame in 2015.

How many curators do you have, with over 500 artists playing?

I do the programming sort of and then I do the timing—how long each group plays and how many minutes in between sets. But we have a gospel coordinator, we have traditional programmer, Dr. Michael White, one of the top people who curate the traditional New Orleans jazz. Rob Savoy, who comes by his name honestly, is from Lafayette, he does Cajun Zydeco and blues. And we have Reggie Toussaint, Allen Toussaint’s son. He’s executive music producer of the festival. He produces everything on stage. Sound, lights, bands, stage design. Everything that happens on all the stages and 580 groups, is done by Reggie.  Reggie does the R&B. And then Christine Bayer,.  who’s become the great culturalist of New Orleans, she books all the Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs, all the brass bands, all the Indians. She programs all the parades. And she’s really my top programmer. We work on putting the program together, booking the people. Because after I get it laid out, then we start finding out who has a gig at what time. Oh my god, who’s using the same bass player, who’s using the same drummer. It’s a big puzzle

How about headliners?
When we started out it was all New Orleans for a bunch of years. The first outside person to play actually was Bonnie Raitt. And so we would have one guest. B.B one week. And then we moved to having two guests, one each week. And what we’ve evolved to, if we have 580 groups let’s say, probably 80 of them are these headliners and the rest are New Orleans. So what we’ve evolved to is now each stage has one, hopefully of that genre’s greatest living musician. So each stage has one guest all seven days. That’s what we’ve grown into.

What else is playing that you’re excited about?
So the jazz tent this year has Leslie Odom Jr., Charles Lloyd’s 80th birthday with Lucinda Williams. Actually George Benson’s playing in the jazz tent. That’s gonna be explosive. Even the Cajun Zydeco stage now has Calexico and The Last Bandoleros.  So every stage every day—and that’s been the big evolution—has one guest each day. It may be two or three days at most that has a second headliner, but basically it’s one a day and then the rest is New Orleans music, which is a miracle.

I talked about Darlene Chan being the first person I really worked under at Carnegie Hall, Darlene Chan in Santa Monica is Festival Productions West. And she took over from Marie St. Louis in George’s office. And Darlene books all the jazz names. She books the R&B names. She books almost everything with CAA and William Morris. So she’s a big piece of the puzzle.

How many full-time staff do you have?
I guess 30 or 40 in the office. And then, going toward the festival it starts to build and build. At the festival it’s 400. But the office is like 30 or 40. And I’ll tell you something interesting about that: let’s say [roughly] 75% have worked there 20 to 25 years or longer. We’ve been through a lot of stuff together. We grew up together. Tag Richardson who’s the site director, who designs and builds every festival, he started in I think ’74, so he’s probably the longest one besides me. But almost all of our core, we’ve been together 25 years. But we believe in family. We learned that from George. that’s something we definitely learned from George

How many people are you expecting this year? Is it 80,000 a day
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.

Does it ever reach capacity? What’s capacity at the racetrack?
When it was smaller. There’s been a few days where sort of out of the blue there’s big growth, a lot more people came than we were set up for, and then the next year we try to keep up with that and do a bit expansion to hold that many people. I mean on a really big day, the fairgrounds are fourth largest city in Louisiana. New Orleans, Baton Rouge, Shreveport nd Jazz Fest. And we have three hospitals, we work with the US Postal Service, we have a post office out there, and we have our own postmark. We’re a town.

Can you talk about budgets and revenues for Jazz Fest?

No not really, but it has steadily grown over the years. Things have come along and knocked it down, like 9/11 and Katrina and then we’ve had to sort of start over from there and build it back up, but it’s built back up.

It’s the 50th next year, do you have any ideas about what you’ll be doing for celebrating? That’s a pretty major milestone.
I can say it’s once in a lifetime, for me for sure. I don’t think I’ll be around for the 100th .It’s gonna have to be really special on every level, but we’re not ready to talk about it yet.