Decades before the first chord was ever struck at Coachella or Bonnaroo, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival was packing them in down South. Launched in 1970 and steeped in the rich musical legacy of its home city, Jazz Fest has weathered hurricanes, economic troubles and ever-changing musical trends, due in no small part to the boundless energy of Quint Davis, CEO of Festival Productions Inc. (FPI) New Orleans. A Crescent City native and fifth-generation Louisianan, Davis’ deep knowledge of the city and its blues, jazz and gospel music led festival pioneer George Wein (the now-90-year-old founder of the Newport Jazz and Folk Festivals, as well as Jazz Fest) to tap the then-19-year-old to help program the first Jazz Fest. He then sent Davis (who declines to give his age) out as tour manager with Duke Ellington, Chuck Berry and B.B. King.
And while Davis’ résumé also includes the Essence Music Festival, two presidential inaugurations and, with FPI partner AEG Live, successful country music fests including Bayou in Baton Rouge, La., and the Country 500 in Daytona, Fla., his first love remains Jazz Fest. Its 47th edition runs from April 22 to May 1 with a typically eclectic lineup that unites Stevie Wonder, Pearl Jam, Neil Young, Julio Iglesias, Beck, Snoop Dogg, Nick Jonas, J. Cole, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Elvis Costello with such New Orleans greats as Dr. John, Irma Thomas, Trombone Shorty, Mystikal and Terence Blanchard — more than 600 acts on multiple stages for a low ticket-price range of $65 to $75.
What are some lessons you learned from George Wein?
George told me little things that took me a few years to understand, but they’re keynote things. Like, the only time he ever gave me a description of my job: “Anything that f—s up is your fault.” Or “The No. 1 thing to do is break even. After that, everything is good.” Or “If you want to do anything important, importance only comes from longevity, and in order to have longevity, you have to master the economics of creativity.” Otherwise, you’ll do something real big, lose a lot of money and it will go away. As a kid who loved music, I wasn’t thinking about the “economics of creativity.” George is the kind of person who sees around corners.
You were a tour manager for many years. What were some of the memorable things that happened?
The year after the first Jazz Fest, George put me on a plane to Europe — I’d never been on a tour, and it was Duke Ellington and his orchestra going on their first tour behind the Iron Curtain. We did 44 shows in 42 nights, with no nights off. Then I started tour-managing B.B. King and Muddy Waters, and booked them in Africa for the first time. There’s the night in Paris that B.B., Miles Davis and Duke sold out the big sporting arena, but no one told us that the concert was the off day of the Russian circus, which had the largest Bengal tigers in the world. When I get there I turn a corner and there’s bears, but they’re not in cages. They have ankle things stamped into the ground and they’re going “Argh!” at you as you walk by. And these tigers are the size of cows — they’re getting fed and they’re roaring and you can hear it all through the building. That was my life until I moved into the office and became a producer.
How did the AEG deal affect Jazz Fest?
We became co-producers the year before Katrina, and that year Jazz Fest had lost money for the first and only time in what’s now 47 years. [AEG] propped it up so we could go on, and the next year the city was destroyed by a flood! We had to make a decision whether or not to put the festival on — there were hardly any hotels, flights or even homes for people to stay in — and we decided we couldn’t afford not to do it. Shell Oil stepped in — their offshore exploration arm had always been based in New Orleans — and between them, us and AEG, we put on the post-Katrina festival.
To be clear, the festival is owned by the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival Foundation, a 501c3 nonprofit — we don’t own it, AEG doesn’t own it. Well, when a nonprofit sees a big loss, their instinct is to cut costs by 20 to 40 percent. Our biggest talent [cost] at that time was probably $150,000. AEG came in and said, “No, you can’t get out [of trouble] by cutting. You’ve got to spend on talent. Your budget’s going to go up dramatically.” When I first saw their budget projections it scared the hell out of me, but they were absolutely right. We started having Jimmy Buffett, Dave Matthews Band, Santana.
Was there ever a time that the festival could have failed, or at least veer off in a different direction?
At the beginning, we were barely breaking even, [and] we wouldn’t have broken even without Miller [Brewing], who became a sponsor very early on, and still is today. At that time, these big rock festivals were going on, and if we would have gotten the Allman Brothers Band or one of the really big Woodstock-type bands, we’d have had a big crowd — but George said no. He said, “Never get a band that is bigger than the festival.” If you go get that band, you’ll never get the festival back, it will never be a family event, it will never be for everybody. It will turn into a rock event that’s just for those people and everybody else is going to go away. George had the idea of this festival — which we grew beyond anything he was actually envisioning — and those kinds of guiding principles allowed us to get the festival to where it is today.
Why is Jazz Fest a daytime festival?
We are plunked in the middle of an old residential neighborhood and, from a safety standpoint or quality of life standpoint, we did not want to be pouring out 75,000 people after dark. When the people come out, they’re a little bit more loose than when they went in.
Jazz Fest’s lineup is unlike any other festival. What’s the philosophy?
People who don’t understand what Jazz Fest is say, “I’m not really a jazz person.” But it’s Pearl Jam and Van Morrison and Paul Simon and J. Cole and Boz Scaggs and local talent. The festival started from a roots of American music [perspective]: gospel, contemporary and traditional jazz, R&B, blues and some Afro-Caribbean. It’s local talent first of all, but in order to have a successful, large-scale event, you have to have national attractions — you can’t just have local acts that people can see any time of the year.
Who puts this puzzle together?
I program it and book pretty much all the guests with our five bookers. You’ve got to do two things: First, get every one of those acts to route their tour to be in New Orleans the same weekend, and I have to lay it out with all the stages and all the days and start doing what we call “daying up.” I make each act on each stage work and be a specific show for that stage. So if your headliner changes because of routing or whatever — say you’ve got Stevie Wonder on one weekend and Pearl Jam on the other — oh, my God, everybody else on the stage is wrong. Then you’ve got to start moving all those people around.
That is quite a logistical feat.
One of the great miracles is we get 300 New Orleans bands to start — and stop — on time. That just doesn’t happen outside of the fairgrounds!
A version of this article was originally published in the April 9 issue of Billboard.