Quint Davis On George Wein’s Legacy, Booking The Chili Peppers & Jazz Fest’s Return

Quint Davis, who’s worked with the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival
since day one, attends the New Orleans premiere of “Take Me to the River,” a documentary on New Orleans’ rich music heritage, at The Broad Theater on April 20, 2022. Photo by Josh Brasted / FilmMagic

No person is more synonymous with the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival than Quint Davis, the fest’s longtime producer and director and CEO of Festival Productions who’s been there from day one. Originally conceived by the late, great George Wein (who sadly passed in September at age 95), the first Jazz Fest was held April 22-26, 1970, in Congo Square with a lineup that included Mahalia Jackson, Duke Ellington and Fats Domino among others.

In 1972, the fest moved to The Fair Grounds, steadily expanding its footprint and infrastructure along with a growing cornucopia of glorious music, delectable food and regional artisans. 50 years later, and a partnership with AEG Presents started in 2004, Jazz Fest today boasts some 600 acts, thousands of musicians and hundreds of thousands of attendees over two weekends. Finally, after two years of pandemic postponements, in which the Crescent City’s world-renowned live music dried up, Jazz Fest and the bon temps are so very thankfully back. Pollstar caught up with Davis a few days before the fest to discuss the massive undertaking of booking and rebooking a festival, the Fair Grounds’ evolution over a half century, George Wein’s legacy and more.

Pollstar: How happy are you that Jazz Fest is really happening?
Quint Davis: At long last. It’s incomprehensible that it’s been three years. When 2020 got canceled, that was a sword through the heart; but, after three years, it’s coming out of the unknown. It’s got to rekindle itself, it’s got to be reborn. I’ve never really experienced that before.

What was New Orleans like during the pandemic?
For there to be no music in New Orleans for a year is incomprehensible. That’s unthinkable, because music here is like food. Every neighborhood has a club, and they got music just about every night, and it’s just part of the fabric of life, it’s not entertainment. So for there to be no music here for over a year, is just unbelievable.

Post-Katrina, many thought New Orleans would never come back, but it seemingly did – would you say the city is back?
I think it has more going on. I wouldn’t call it a Golden Age yet, but it has more restaurants than before. All the music clubs are going strong as ever and some of the roots things like gospel choirs, Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs, Mardi Gras Indian Tribes, there’s more than ever before. The brass bands that play for funerals, we have 30 of them. I’d say it’s come back stronger.

q.cj .chenier
Born On The Bayou: C. J. Chenier, the Creole son of the Grammy-winning “King of Zydeco,” Clifton Chenier, is pictured performing May 1, 2022, at New Orleans Jazz Fest with his band the Red Hot Louisiana Band. Photo by John Davisson

Promoters, club owners, people from around the world, come to the festival looking for artists. The festival helped gospel tour Europe when they were just touring blues acts. We’re also a day-only festival. Because it ends at 7 p.m., you’ve got this whole vibrant nighttime scene during Jazz Fest in New Orleans. It’s the biggest week of the year for the restaurants, clubs and the nighttime activity is an integral part of the festival. It has a lot of ripples in the pond.

Jazz Fest also helped birth other festivals. I know the Superfly guys worked there and Paul Tollett from Goldenvoice loves Jazz Fest.
Yes, and coming from George Wein’s vision, which actually goes back to 1959 on a smaller scale, with what the Newport Folk Festival was doing. They had blues, zydeco and Cajun, and gospel on little stages, but this festival came along in 1970 with the structure and format of an outdoor, multi-stage, music, food and art festival.

In September, we lost the wonderful George Wein, who we were lucky to have on our cover. Will there be a tribute?
The festival will be very George Wein-centric, if you will. There’ll be a 30-foot painting of him hanging up in the grandstand overlooking the festival. There’ll be two jazz funerals for him, one each week. We made a larger-than-life painting statue of him that’ll be unveiled at the end of the jazz funeral, so he’ll always be at the festival. We brought down the Newport All Stars to play. We’ll have a seminar on George, a program book and a museum in the grandstand all about George and his history. I’ll do an interview with Keith Spera on him, because [Wein] was the only person I ever worked for up until when he sold his business about 15 years ago.

What was his impact on you?
George and I met in 1970, and I didn’t know anything about festivals. I knew the kind of music he wanted to find, the Mardi Gras Indians, Cajun music and jazz funerals and all, but I didn’t know anything about a festival. He set me on Duke Ellington’s first tour, behind the Iron Curtain. We did 44 concerts in 42 nights with no days off. [laughs]. That was the first time I found out what a tour was.

He threw you in the deep end.
I could have either drowned or been useful, one of the two. He gave me a tremendous opportunity. I took BB King and Muddy Waters to Africa for the first time in history. I went to prison with Chuck Berry at machine gun point in Madrid.
He let me create my world, but the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival was his vision and his concept. In 1972, there was an interview with him standing in an empty Fair Ground saying, “We’re going to make a festival that one day the whole world is going come to.” George was amazing.

Dance ’til You Cry: A Jazz Funeral tribute to the great George Wein who founded the New Orleans Jazz Festival, as well as the Newport Folk and Jazz Festivals, and who passed away at the age of 95 in September 2021. Photo by John Davisson

It’s also the 50th anniversary of Jazz Fest at the Fair Grounds race track. Can you talk about the venue, its development and importance?
The infield was not designed to have activities, it’s a racetrack. Infields are where rain drains off the track as fast as possible because you want it to dry for the horses. When we started there’s wasn’t electrical distribution, drainage or a lot of surface. There’s one kind of paved road. We started with that as the core and had to redo it a couple of times. Then we started to terrace the infield so it would drain and started putting in electrical distribution and cement pads so the field wouldn’t get muddy. We put in different paths and got a layout where most of it has stayed.

Any idea how much you’ve invested over 50 years?
No, but the Fair Grounds have pretty much shared it with us, particularly if there’s something they could also use. We started out in the middle of the infield, and the public was parking on the racetrack. People who played drove their car up to the stage and got out. We filled in the infield and and got people off the dirt. As we started to grow, we filled up the parking lot and put in the gospel tent, blues tent, jazz tent, contemporary crafts. We kept expanding within the site. We love being here. It’s a great part of town, it’s fenced, everything works together, we’ve figured out how to do sound, where to put the food – it’s unified.

How is the AEG Presents partnership going?
It’s the best thing that’s ever happened to us. We’re a small company doing a festival and getting deeper and deeper and deeper into the weeds. We would have to get larger talent and deal with things on different levels, and the people with AEG, they’re just like us, they just have a different decimal point. They’re great people that have been loyal and as helpful as they can be. I’ve worked with Jay Marciano 15 years now. When we were putting together the partnership, he said, “Well, now don’t be afraid that we’re gonna yank your chain or something like that.” And I said, “Don’t be afraid, are you kidding? You better not be afraid that I call you too much.” [laughter]. I’m getting AEG as a partner and all the resources there. Shoot, “ I’m gonna call you, you don’t have to call me.” And the people there, from Paul Tollett to John Meglen, Jay Marciano, and right up to Mr. Beckerman and ever Mr. A, they could not have been more supportive of this festival in any way. They’ve been through Katrina, through Ida, now we’re about to go through the pandemic, and they take the risk. They’ve stood by this festival through thick and thin and are loyal and honorable people to work with.

After the tragic loss of the Foo Fighters’ Taylor Hawkins, did AEG help you with booking the Red Hot Chili Peppers?
We’ve also built great relationships. The Peppers have a great connection to New Orleans and the festival. Their last tour they took Trombone Shorty as their opening act. They love the music and The Meters and New Orleans music. They played the festival once and absolutely left it in ashes, it was phenomenal. But their tour doesn’t start until late June in Europe so they’re just starting to rehearse. They went with new management, right around the same time this started to percolate. One of the managers is Scott Rodger and he moved to New Orleans and manages Bocelli and Paul McCartney. So he and his company, Maverick, along with Guy Oseary, just happened to sign Chili Peppers around that time. I went to him, and he introduced me around, and helped make the connection, and we got it done. We couldn’t have got it done if they didn’t want do it.

How are ticket sales?
Good. Our festival is a little different because we sell a lot of tickets at walk-up and the other festivals sell them all in advance. I won’t say a figure, but it’s tens and tens of thousands of tickets.

Jazz Fest and New Orleans are inextricably linked. What’s the state of New Orleans and Jazz Fest, in a sort of macro sense?
Jazz Fest is like having New Orleans in New Orleans. We’ve got 95 restaurants, 14 stages, which are like music clubs and it’s all New Orleans, Louisiana food, and it’s 85% New Orleans and Louisiana music. It is a microcosm of the city itself. I’m very biased about New Orleans, we have one of the finest cuisine cultures in the world, one of the greatest music cultures in the world, green space, architecture, everything. It’s a great place to be, period.