The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival has become the sun at the center of the city’s musical galaxy. It and Mardi Gras are the events with the largest impact on the New Orleans economy, but Jazz Fest has helped create international interest in such New Orleans traditions as second lines and Mardi Gras Indians, and it has created an enduring market for New Orleans’ legacy artists. It has introduced audiences to a few generations of area musicians, and it has helped to codify the city’s musical values, not by decree but because Jazz Fest is so important to local musicians’ bottom line that they’re hard to resist.
“From what John Blancher and the club owners say, to go through the summer and these bad Katrina falls without Jazz Fest at the end of spring—it’s what makes their year,” says Quint Davis, executive producer of Jazz Fest. He has been a part of Jazz Fest since its inception in 1970. At that point, he admits, he wasn’t much of a businessman. In the late 1960s, he’d been in a psychedelic band, Yesterday’s Children, and he started hanging out with Mardi Gras Indians before the first Fest. Still, George Wein put him in charge of the music for the Heritage Fair component. “It turned out to be everything we kept doing,” Davis says.
For Davis the businessman, meeting the festival’s producer and long-time Newport Jazz Festival producer George Wein was a revelation. “George had made a worldwide industry out of this music that I loved, which was the least commercial music in the world, not being rock. That’s where I got into the business and learned the business. George would tell me simple-sounding things that it would take me five years to really learn what he meant. One of the things he told me is, ‘To do anything important, you’ll have to master the economics of creativity.’ That was a brilliant lesson.”
Davis learned about business by being thrown in the pool at the festival, managing Professor Longhair, Snooks Eaglin, Willie Tee and the Wild Magnolias, and road managing Duke Ellington, B.B. King and Chuck Berry tours. He admits his music fandom probably affected his business sense early on. “I led the life of a music person,” he says tactfully. “I didn’t know how to make a business work.” But a conversation with his father, architect Arthur Davis, opened his eyes. His father asked him about how much money he was making working with Fess, and Davis said “nothing,” that whatever money’s coming in, he gave to Longhair.
“He said, ‘You’re the manager. You get a percentage of what he’s making. If you’re not making anything, how much can he be making?” Davis recalls. “You need to make a million dollars so that he can make 10 million dollars.”
Davis has overseen Jazz Fest through the early years, its near-automatic growth through the ’80s and ’90s, and some scary times this decade. “People look at big festivals that have been around for a while as some kind of monolith, and they’re not,” he says. “There have been a lot of survival moments. We had 9/11, so all the out of town people stopped coming, we had a rainout year, we lost a million dollars, then, oh yeah, the city was destroyed by the flood four years ago. There’s always some kind of edge.”
His principal role in Jazz Fest is talent booking. “That’s why I got into it, and I guess somewhat selfishly kept myself doing the music because otherwise I wouldn’t work here,” Davis says. “The anchor headliners are the hardest to get. Remember, last year we got Bon Jovi and Neil Young in February. We used to book Essence, R&B people—it’s hard to get them to commit real early. Same thing with rock people. Country people book themselves up a year ahead, and if you don’t get them a year ahead, you’re too late.”
Davis and Festival Productions now also produce the Bayou Country Superfest in Baton Rouge and a Jazz Fest-like festival in Louisville, Kentucky. “Festivals are a different kind of business from the other businesses of entertainment,” he says. “They’re not a concert, they’re not a tour, they’re not a club, they’re not a theater – they’re a festival. And it’s a different business model