As one of the city’s legendary production managers, stage managers and soundmen, Michael Paz has had his finger on the pulse of New Orleans’ music scene for decades, but his most recent creation—Paz Fest, a charitable concert honoring the music of Joni Mitchell—came about through his mother’s love for a decidedly antiquated technology.
“My mother [Ruth] and father moved to Honduras in 1965,” says Michael now about the impetus for the all-star benefit concert, which happens again at the Civic Theatre on September 3rd. “She wasn’t much for bridge, or golf, or any of the other hobbies of ladies at the time—she was into ham radio. And she heard American ‘do-gooders’ coming into the country to help poor Honduran children that needed surgery.” Ruth was grateful for having survived cancer and eager to help others, and she threw herself fully into the cause for nearly 30 years. “When she passed in 1996, my sister and I took her death hard,” recalls Michael, “and we started the Ruth Paz Foundation to honor her legacy.” Two years later, actor Dennis Quaid and New Orleans physician Dr. Mayer Heiman donated a clinic to the foundation that became self-sufficient; Paz began staging concerts in 2000 for a hospital to further his mission, which broke ground four years later.
His love of Joni Mitchell was the main theme. “I was in need of some healing after my mother’s death. One of the first searches I ever did on the internet back then, perhaps the first, was for Joni Mitchell.” After attending several Joni fests around the world, he found that Mitchell fans were not only friendly but legion—and he began to realize Paz Fest and the celebration of the Canadian singer-songwriter’s music, not just hits such as “Help Me” or “Big Yellow Taxi” but her entire catalog. The first Fest presented the cream of local and national talent covering Joni’s classics, including Susan Cowsill, Kim Carson, and Beth Patterson.
Moving to the Civic Theatre for the first time, this year’s Paz Fest features Alex McMurray, Harry Shearer and Judith Owen—and also, for the first time, Deacon John, David Torkanowsky, Asylum Chorus and Joni’s first husband, Chuck. And if you’re wondering, not only has Joni been invited over the years, Michael actually got to meet her a few times thanks to mutual friends. “We danced to the Neville Brothers the first time we met. She loves to talk—my God, so gracious and intelligent. I’ve never been star struck before,” he laughs.
The fourth annual Paz Fest is $25, but there’s also a special pre-show at the Ogden Museum on Aug. 31st; tickets for both can be purchased at civicnola.com. You can read more about the foundation and hospital at fundacionruthpaz.org.