Quint Davis was one of the young workers at the Tulane Jazz Archive that northeastern concert promoter George Wein recruited to help him stage a traditional New Orleans music festival in Congo Square in 1970.
Davis’ first assignment for Wein was to track down Professor Longhair, and book him for the Fest. Davis accomplished that tricky task, and neither he nor the Fest have looked back since.
Three weeks before the opening day of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival’s 25th anniversary party, Davis reclined in his office, presiding over the efficient hurricane that swirled around him. The 25th anniversary, he said, had triggered a bit of soul-searching and self-evaluation amongst the staff, as they all reflected on the Fest’s growth, and what has been accomplished and what lies ahead.
In the following interview, Davis addresses some of the most commonly-heard complaints about the Fest, discusses why the members of the Black Crowes and Pearl Jam should be in the Festival audience but not on the stage, and reveals the fate of Bongo Joe, a colorful fixture of early Fests who carried an axe to tune his oil drum instruments.
Tell me about the self-evaluation. What have been some of the conclusions you’ve come to in terms of whether or not you’re accomplishing your original mission, and where you’re going in the future?
Without tooting our own horn too much, we do feel that the Festival has stayed surprisingly true, and that the balance between the need for a highly sophisticated, professional infrastructure and the informal, indigenous folk nature of the event has really been maintained. If you look at the first brochure from the first year, and saw the people that played, and the food and the crafts, and what the concept of a festival dedicated to the heritage of jazz might be in New Orleans …it was never the idea that this festival could be staged to provide entertainment, or to draw someone to town. It was like an old-fashioned rent pany.
Someone asked me what the difference was between the Festival before and now. The difference is a lot more people go. A lot more people go. It’s different than when there was a small core of people that just liked blues. But I dare say we’ve brought blues, gospel music, traditional jazz, African music-at 400,000 people a year, we’ve brought this music to millions and millions of people, which I think is good for the music.
I really feel like the Festival is still this dedicated core of crazy hippies that started out to do it, and it’s still a kind of funky, folky thing.
I mean, we have corporate sponsors, but we need ’em. Paint their name on the side of the tent, that doesn’t change that we’re standing in mud and hay, or the music in the tent, or that it really feels like it ought to feel.
Now, where it’s going-I don’t know. We’ve just got to keep up with it.
I’ve heard that the night before the Fest opens, there’s some kind of march by the staff around the infield of the Fair Grounds to conjure up the good spirits. Does that play a role in its success?
I don’t think the march-around … there have been various march-arounds, but I think that the motives and the intent of people that are doing something definitely set the tone and set the vibe, and they do carry over. We are really blessed with the vibe that happens out there. It’s almost perfect. Last year, the first weekend we had 150,000 people out there, and we had no arrests. No arrests. The whole Festival, we had like two arrests. It’s pretty fantastic that so many people can come together in the ’90s, when urban life is this pressure cooker, and it’s very separating, and they can come out to the jazz Fest and have a really good, shared experience, and everyone’s digging the music.
We have a participatory nature in the music-you end up sweating, you dance to it, you move your body to it. I think that has something to do with how good the actual music is at the Festival. We put it up there, but live music is the result of the interaction of the energy of the audience and the performer, and we get the best performances. The shows here are almost always the best you’ll hear these people.
Name a couple that have really stood out, either great sets or great collaborations that weren’t scripted.
I’ve seen Santana do one of the great performances ever, I’ve seen the Allman Brothers play, I thought, the best I’ve ever heard them since they were the Allman Brothers, I’ve seen Bob Dylan do the best set I’ve ever seen him do here, I’ve seen one or two of the best sets Miles has ever done.
And those are guest-y type people. Man, I’ve heard Wynton [Marsalis] play a blues on one of the ballroom shows at night, where people just gasped. I’ve seen the Nevilles play one of the hottest sets they’ve ever played, at the Municipal Auditorium last year. Allen Toussaint on the Riverboat used to be, absolutely transcendent, cause no one had ever seen him before and it was the only live performance he did [see box]. Chris Owens, the first time she ever played, was amazing. It was all anybody’s ever seen Chris Owens, cause locals don’t go see her [at her Bourbon Street club]. And here she was-what a performer, what a hoofer. She was like two inches off the stage the whole hour. She danced and sang as hard as I’ve ever seen any professional.
Across the board …the Wild Magnolias did a set a couple years ago, with a cowbell, bass drum and electric guitar, some cross between Jimi Hendrix and the deepest Congo meets the ghetto. And it was astounding. Charmaine Neville did an unbelievable set. Irma Thomas did a version of “Try A Little Tenderness” by Otis Redding that was one of the greatest things I ever heard. Raymond Myles in the Gospel Tent. John Campbell’s last set at the Festival was maybe his greatest set. The ReBirth in the jazz Tent almost tore the tent down, cause they got everybody going.
The jazz Tent is a good example. We have jazz in that tent where people are standing and screaming and jumping … the same kind of energy, the same response to jazz that you get for rock’n’roll. It has brought an energy and a vitality to jazz that’s really exciting.
Last year, getting Sonny Rollins to play the Tent was a coup. We had called Sonny about playing a concert, because we knew he was very particular-he wanted the right circumstances. And he said, “You still have that tent thing?” And he blew the roof off of it.
Who are some folks that you haven’t been able to get that are on your wish list, or people that you never got a chance to book before they passed away?
Fred McDowell is somebody I wanted to have bad, and he had cancer, so we were too late to get Fred.
There aren’t too many people …there were people-Sleepy John Estes, Mississippi john Hurt, Leadbelly-who were almost gone before we got here.
People we’d want to have …with the evolution of Louisiana talent …seven years ago, there wasn’t an act here that was on a major label.
Now there’s 10 or 15 zydeco bands that have record [deals] and tour the world. There’s two different generations of traditional jazz.
Contemporary jazz, you’ve got Alvin Batiste and Ellis Marsalis making the best and most successful records of their life, and this whole generation of Marlon Jordan and Kent Jordan and Nicholas Payton and Donald Harrison.
We’ve seen all these people become viable. When we started doing this, New Orleans wasn’t part of the music industry.
Any luck in getting Snooks Eaglin booked for this year? I heard that there were some problems, that when you tried to book him a few months ago, he said he was sick and wouldn’t be coming out until summer.
Snooks wasn’t playing this year. He was not playing, was not playing, was not playing. Wasn’t playing the Blues-A-Rama night, wasn’t doing anything. Couldn’t do it, wouldn’t do it, couldn’t do it, wouldn’t do it.
And that’s how it stands now?
No. We got him.
What finally convinced him?
I don’t know. I guess he got better.
Did you intervene? Did you get on the phone?
When I talked to him, he turned me down. But I put it in such a way that he could come back when he was ready. And one night he called me up and said, “OK, I’m playing.”
Some of the bigger names that we’ve seen a lot of recently-Little Feat, the Allmans-I guess that reflects, to some degree, your own personal taste, and you think they fit in well with the overall scheme of the Fest.
I don’t know if it’s my personal taste; but we have about 17 categories of music-traditional jazz, modern jazz, gospel, blues, rhythm & blues, Cajun, zydeco, Afro-Caribbean, country, pop, Latin, folk, Social Aid and Pleasure clubs, Mardi Gras Indians, and kids– and in every one of those categories, we have special guests. In gospel, we have 67 local groups, and 10 guests. So, through the years, where we’ve had Lightnin’ Hopkins, Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Etta James, there’ve always been that cadre of people who were, in most cases, southern–I’ll be a little chauvinistic there-blues people that had rock tinges, and they were always a part of this festival. They weren’t big-Jimmy Vaughan, the Thunderbirds, Bonnie Raitt. The Allman Brothers, oddly enough, last year was the first year they played the Festival, whereas they were the band that always played every New Year’s Eve at the Warehouse [the late great venue on Tchoupitoulas], and they had a tremendous history with the people of New Orleans. But anyway… The Stevie Rays and the Thunderbirds and the Bonnies who started with us and stayed true to their own traditions, were very important to the growth of the Festival. As they grew and hit commercial acceptance and kept coming back to the Festival, they started drawing bigger audiences.
I wouldn’t say that I don’t like them, that I have them over and above the fact that I can’t stand them-no, I like them. But it’s not hard to figure out which musicians have been involved in traditional forms of music–rhythm & blues and blues or Caribbean music. The set that we’re going to have of Ry Cooder and David Lindley and three singers, these are people who are masters at playing traditional folk and blues stuff, and that’s what they’re about. They happen to be the best players in the world.
So yeah, I like these people.
You didn’t ask me about Aretha Franklin.
What about her?
Well, doesn’t she fall into that same category, a big name that’s not from here that you can draw some connection as to why they are perfect for this festival, even on your own, without me testifying [laughs].
I’m sure you’ve got a defense ready. What about somebody like-
Sure. There’s an obvious New Orleans tie-in there.
Little Richard came to New Orleans from Macon, Georgia, met Esquerita and changed popular music in the world.
I interviewed Little Richard a few months back, and he said that there had been some overtures made by the Jazz Fest to him in the past, but, as he put it, you guys couldn’t work it out. Which I assume means you wouldn’t meet his price. [Davis nods in agreement.] So did both sides give a little bit to get him this year?
Oh, yeah. Well, we wanted him bad. We always wanted him. We couldn’t quite get together. I think this is a good time. If he’s going to be here the first time, it might as well be [the 25th anniversary].
Do you think you’ll move towards some of the younger Southern bands in the future, like the Black Crowes? I understand they were trying to play in town during Jazz Fest.
Everybody’s trying to play in town around Jazz Fest time. And they all are. Counting Crows are going to play [at Tipitina’s on April 24]. Blues Traveler wanted to play, and they’re going to play at the State Palace [on April 30] . Richard Thompson wanted to play the Festival, he’s played two or three times [he’s playing in the 13th floor theater at 333 St. Charles the night of May 1st].
I don’t know. I think, personally, all those people should be at the Festival. I think Counting Crows and Black Crowes and Pearl Crows and Nirvana-Crows and Screaming Crows and Burning Crows and every single one of ’em should be at this festival-but not on the stage.
They should be in the audience.
Every one of them should be here. And hopefully there will be something in the rhythms, something in the tradition, something in the musicianship, something that’s happening in the Jazz Tent…I mean, if you’re a drummer in any kind of Crows you’ve got-Counting, Screaming or Burning—and you don’t want to go to a tent to hear Max Roach play a 20 minute solo…I think it would be good, I think it would be helpful.
Our generation, the generation of Eric Clapton, Van Morrison, and all these people we talked about, we came first generation from the tradition. I was the first person to take B.B. King to Africa [Davis managed tours earlier in his career], I was the first person that took Muddy Waters to Africa-those are the people I worked with.
We worked with and were directly tied to the rhythm & blues musicians of the ’50s-Fats and Little Richard and Chuck Berry and Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters, and all those people-those were our influences. Now, this is 30 years since that time. There doesn’t have to only be traditional music-there can be alternative forms of music, there can be metal and everything there can be.
But this festival is a heritage festival.There are alternative festivals-we’re not one of them.
And oddly enough, the people from that [older] generation do come-which is why you find Steve Winwood at the Festival, or Billy Gibbons, and John Fogerty, and Paul Simon.
Peter Buck from R.E.M., I ran into him out there two years ago.
Boy,that’s a great band, R.E.M. I’d love to have them at the Festival.
Have you tried to get them?
No. I’m gonna, though. That’s a great band.
But anyway, in general, those people are coming to the Festival.
I would like for the Black Crowes and these people to think, just as much as Paul Simon and John Fogerty, “Boy, I’m goin’. I can’t wait to go.” If I’m a bass player, I want to hear George Porter. If I’m a drummer, I want to hear Max Roach. And if I’m a guitar player, I want to hear B.B.You know what I’m saying?
I hope that maybe in ways that our Festival has helped foster support for the traditional music of New Orleans and Louisiana, that if it could have an influence on bringing different jazz forms and blues forms and just different rhythmic’ subtleties and different tones and different instrumental things back into popular music by these people coming and soaking it up, then that would be good.
I don’t think that people come to a heritage festival to hear a 21-year-old feeding a guitar back. I would hope those people would come to hear the Como Drum and Fife Corps. There’s nothing more surrealistic on earth than the Como Drum and Fife Corps. That’s what our alternative music is.
That’s what our focus is.
This gives me some insight into why you took offense to The Times-Picayune’s story on the “dinosaur rock” acts [the AIlmans, Bob Dylan, Carlos Santana] that were playing the Festival last year.
I told [the writer] that I took offense, and he put it in the article that I took offense! I took all kinds of offenses-there were racial offenses that I took, because he was only talking about white rock acts. I said, “Well, you’re not calling Champion Jack [who was over 80 when he last played the Fest] a dinosaur. And you’re not calling Danny Barker or Percy Humphrey [who also played the Fest post-80] a dinosaur.
These people have been playing music for 70 years, and you think it’s just as valid. And B.B. King is in his 60s and he’s playing. And Dizzy was in his 70s. You’re not calling any of these people dinosaurs. You’re only calling a few, forty year old rock/blues guys from the South a dinosaur. What kind of prejudice is that? Everybody out here is playing this music all their life.
When I was touring with Muddy …it must have been about 1975. And Muddy was 60-somethlng years old. He had a bottle of [booze], his wife was about 22 years old, and he was playing the meanest slide you ever heard In your life. That summer, Mick Jagger was saying, “I could never Imagine me doing this at 50” (which now he’s doing). And I wanted to write the guy: “What are you talking about, you can’t do it at 50? Of course you can. Muddy’s out here, he’s 70, playing his ass off, singing as mean as he ever did.”
Was he a dinosaur, because he was true to an art form and did it his whole life?
So I thought there were all kinds of artistically bankrupt concepts going on there [in the article]. [laughs]
Everyone has a good James Booker story. Did you ever have trouble getting him to the stage?
No, I don’t think we ever did. People tend to make their Jazz Fest gigs, even if they don’t make other gigs.
Because of the way we run our schedule, I guess in the early years, people didn’t quite realize that you had to be there on time, or else you didn’t play. And not only that, but at a certain point you have to allow for traffic, and a few other things like that.
So you had performers that missed their shows because of traffic?
Yeah, we had some that would get stuck in traffic, That’s another fairly amazing thing…to a certain degree it’s because of our own magic. Like we had AI Hirt at the Kentucky Derby on the day he was playing here. And we had jerry Lee Lewis in Memphis while we were setting up his stage. Man, Junior Walker one year was driving through town and picked up a guy on the corner and asked him where this Jazz Fest thing was. The guy led him to the back gate, and brought him in.
We’ve done some pretty amazing picking people up, finding them in the airport in Atlanta while the stage Is being set, getting them on a plane, getting the tail number of the plane, picking them up on the runway and running them to the stage.
Did Al and Jerry both make their shows?
Yeah, yeah. Our history of people canceling, even due to illness or just not showing, is almost sainted. This is a festival that has 500 or 600 shows a year, and almost everybody makes it.
You generally seem unflappable. Give me one episode were you were …
Where I was flapped? Well, I don’t flap.
What’s the closest you’ve come to flapping, then?
James Brown spending 45 minutes on his hairdo with 25,000 people waiting in front of the stage in the hot sun.
That’s good. And there was nothing you could do to convince James to come out?
Well, we were trying awful hard. That was uncomfortable, marching back and forth on the stage. That was uncomfortable.
But the flappable things … our twentieth anniversary, we had a tornado that blew the whole Festival down. The Fair Grounds went down first, about 3 or 4 in the morning, and then the River Tent went down about an hour later. By 6:30 in the morning, I had two walkie-talkies and two portable phones on a table in my living room, and I was picking up calls.
By 6:30 in the morning, there was no Festival left anywhere. We had four or five sold-out shows at the River Tent that we reproduced in the Auditorium that night, and we rebuilt the Fair and opened it up the next day. So if you don’t get flapped when the whole Festival is blown off the face of the earth, you’re not going to get that flapped by James Brown’s hairdo ..
What is about these anniversary shows? The twentieth anniversary, the Festival blows down, the twenty-fifth, the Grandstand burns.
Well, it didn’t burn during the Festival.
I’m not going to make a connection there. I hope this actual event goes without any catastrophic happenings.
Real quick, rattle off the complaints about the Jazz Fest that you find the most irksome, or the most trivial or silly.
When we hear the complaints, they’re generally not silly. They’re generally worth considering. Some of the things people complain about are valid, and we look to work with them. I think we haven’t had enough toilets. And I think we haven’t had the toilets arranged right. There’s no greater anniversary present we can give people than no lines for the Port-O-Lets.
Amen. You can never have enough Port-O-Lets.
Yeah, well, we’re gonna come damn close. And we’re gonna completely rearrange ’em.
I think the main thing that some people complain about is that there are a lot of people other than themselves at the Festival. I don’t know how to respond to that. We try to do things, like moving the stages and opening up the spaces and relieving congestion, and letting people walk on the track to get around-now we’re expanding into the parking lots because of the tents that were built there, which is a really nice thing to do, regardless of whether they had a fire [in the Grandstand] or not.
I can’t say that it’s a trivial or untrue thing that there are a lot of people there. If you don’t want to go to a festival where there are people, then you’re not going to like it, cause there are people there. You might want to go on a Thursday or a Friday.
But I don’t think that the quality of the event or the nature of the event has been diminished. If we had one stage that 70,000 people got in front of, I can understand in that sense. But we have a distributed situation. We have one tent that holds 1.000-you can kind of be in a space and environment that’s relative to the actual art form that’s being played.
I’ll tell you an irksome [complaint]-the over-focus on the eight or 10 out-of-town guests that we have, and the perception that results from that that it’s all rock stars or all national attractions. We have … I don’t remember the exact number, but I think it’s something like 92 per cent [Louisiana acts].
There’s like 580 groups, and there’s a total of 34 groups that are the guests. And they’re not all the Allman Brothers–there’s nothing wrong with the Allman Brothers–but there’s Shirley Caesar and the Staple Singers and the Mighty Clouds of joy and the Williams Brothers and Max Roach and Horace Silver-I don’t think these are people that are, like, so bad.
And now, over half of our big-name “guests” are all Louisiana people-Randy Newman this year, and the Nevilles, and Wynton, and the Radiators, and Ellis [Marsalis], Irma, Zachary [Richard], Dr. John-all [Louisiana] people who have grown to the stature and price equal to everybody else.
One specific, common complaint about last year was the disappearance of the free, cold Kentwood spring water. What happened with that?
I think it was a confused complaint. We’ve always had water fountains. And we had water fountains last year. Kentwood used to give water away, in addition to our water fountains. And then Kentwood decided they did not want to give water away for free anymore. So we started talking to bottled water companies. And we got into a situation where Evian wanted to sell their water. And then it got all complicated, because they wanted to sell a small bottle that was very expensive.
We know that very, very few of those bottled waters sold [last year]. We did away with them this year. There might be some future point in time where one of these water companies like Kentwood comes back to us with a plan to provide the public with water or to provide large bottles inexpensively. There could be some formula where we go back to the commercial bottled industry.
I think the perception in [many Fest-goers’] minds was, “It was free, and now they put in somebody who sells water. »
It wasn’t so much that [Kentwood] just said, “We’re leaving,” but they said, “We’re not doing this anymore.”
They didn’t want to give away free water.
They wanted to sell the, water, and then it got complicated in terms of sponsorship and business and concessions with the Fair Grounds. So this year, we said–cause we didn’t like the perception of it, either-we said we’ll just take a step back from this. We won’t have any water sponsor concessionaire. We’ll just have free water like we’ve always had from our water fountains.
Do you think the Fest is starting to attract more of a younger, “spring break” type crowd?
I don’t perceive that. We have a marketing study that shows the predominant age groups are still the older ones. It was last year. Our demographic has continually gotten more professional, higher income, and a little older. If you look at our hotel occupancy and stuff like that, more and more the people that come for the Festival are people that fly into town, rent a car, go to a restaurant, and stay in a hotel room. Plus the locals.
Maybe to some extent at one of the larger stages, you get a [younger] crowd, but then again, we don’t have the kind of acts that appeal to that crowd. If you go to the Jazz Tent or the Economy Hall Tent or the Gospel Tent, you’ll find older people.
Kids are welcome to come, and hopefully they’ll grow the marketplace for these traditional musics. That would be a good thing. A lot of people coming just to get drunk and wallow in the mud, that would not be a good thing.
Will there be another Festival New Orleans! tour this summer? [Billed as a traveling miniature Jazz Fest, last summer’s debut Festival New Orleans! tour-featuring the Radiators, subdudes, Evangeline, Buckwheat Zydeco and others–met with mixed commercial results in the two-dozen towns it visited.]
There will be, amazingly enough. I was really surprised at how much the people liked it, particularly the hard-core [Jazz] Festival people. They’re so picky: “We know what’s real and it’s ours.”
I expected those people to come up and say, “Heresy! Heresy! Heresy! What are you trying to do to this?” But it was surprisingly positive and rewarding. Putting all New Orleans food and music and brass bands and parades in an enclosed environment, it’s a good thing. It worked.
Final thing: Whatever happened to Bongo Joe?
Well, you see, Bongo …well, he [was] temperamental. He kind of shot a heckler. And after he paid his debt to society, we tried really hard for about four years to get him back every year. It was kind of a thing about leaving the state [of Texas]. We tried to get a permit for him to leave Texas, and we never quite got that together.
Was the heckler he shot at the Jazz Fest?
No, no, in Texas. We’re sure he wouldn’t do that at the Jazz Fest.