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For 50 Years, Quint Davis Has Never Let New Orleans' Jazz Fest 'Go Down'

Quint Davis, photographed during the funeral of Theodore Emile "Bo" Dollis, Big Chief of the Wild Magnolias, at Xavier Convocation Center on January 31, 2015 in New Orleans.
Erika Goldring
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Quint Davis, photographed during the funeral of Theodore Emile "Bo" Dollis, Big Chief of the Wild Magnolias, at Xavier Convocation Center on January 31, 2015 in New Orleans.

Each year, Quint Davis commissions two aerial photographs of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival's massive operation at the Fair Grounds Race Course in Mid-City. The first is a still life: Passels of white tents and purple, green and gold bleachers are easily visible in the frame, grass is still growing in front of the food booths and the stages look quiet. The outside track encircling the field is, if not pristine, nearly so. Without horses or people, it has a moat-like quality, making the distance between the grandstand and, say, the stables, a matter of navigational skill — dead reckoning on dry land. It's a rendering of possibility.

The second image is of possibility fulfilled. In his conference room across town, Davis — who has worked on the festival since 1969 and been its chief steward for more than two decades — has in his hands that fulfillment. Taken in 2017, the aerial shot he's holding shows what peak attendance looks like on the fairgrounds. On that final Sunday, the constellation of tents and booths is obscured by a dense swell of humanity — festivalgoers, Mardi Gras Indians, Social Aid and Pleasure Club members, musicians, festival workers, press. It's a microsecond in time, capturing as many as 90,000 people in a vibrant, pointillist mass. It's what a half century of dreaming and tweaking, cajoling and imploring, risking and revering has wrought.

Davis is especially eager to take in the scene. The conference room at Festival Productions Inc. — New Orleans, on the 22nd floor of the One Canal Place tower, is festooned with all manner of Jazz Fest images. But the pictures he likes best are of populated landscapes. He has a 1970 shot of Mahalia Jackson with the Eureka Brass Band at the original venue near the French Quarter, when the musicians were said to have outnumbered the audience. Then there's that super duper Sunday in 2017 on the fairgrounds; nearly half a million people attended the festival that year.

"My whole career is a testament to what you can do when you don't know any better," Davis says, staring into the photo. He didn't originate the idea for a "jazz and heritage" festival in New Orleans. George Wein, founder and producer of the Newport Jazz and Folk festivals, did that. But in 1969, when Wein was looking for scouts in New Orleans to book local talent, Davis was one of the people he hired. Davis, whose father was the modernist architect Arthur Q. Davis, knew the kind of local music that Wein did not yet know — and was willing to work for a song.

Child's Play

Some of Davis' earliest connections to popular music were made under his shirt. That's where, as a child in the 1950s, he hid the cord connecting his brand new transistor radio to his ear. He'd take it to school. He'd take it to bed. "And wake up in the morning and it was still there and it was still going," he said. "So it was in my subconscious at night." Growing up in a house with what he called "non-musical" parents, the young, white, tow-haired Quint was listening to black music on AM stations: WLAC out of Nashville was a bedtime favorite of generations of listeners; WWEZ was the first station in New Orleans to hire an African-American DJ; then WMRY and WBOK were the first to design their programming for a black audience. Much of their programming featured golden-era artists of New Orleans R&B — Deacon John, Tommy Ridgley, Irma Thomas — some of the same people who would play at the high school dances he would later attend.

At home, young Quint was spinning the few records his parents had and buying his own. He loved "Maybe the Last Time," by James Brown and the Famous Flames. Also, "I had this 45 on the Kent label" he said. "It was 'Rock Me Baby,' by B.B. King. I would go downstairs in the house — at that time we had record players. I would put the arm over, so it would play 'Rock Me Baby' over and over and over again."

That was in the early 1960s, when live performers were electrifying the biggest venues in town: Jackie Wilson, Edwin Starr and Bobby "Blue" Bland at the Municipal Auditorium. Brown and the Famous Flames at City Park Stadium. Quint was there — dancing. Then, New Orleans photographer Jules Cahn invited him to come along when he shot Mardi Gras Indians on the streets at Carnival and again on St. Joseph's Day. Quint was there — dancing. And when Cahn photographed the city's social aid and pleasure clubs at their second-line parades, Quint was there too — dancing still. In a plaid shirt, jeans cut below the knee and tube socks. (Really. There's film.)

In an era of racial integration, he was integrating in the opposite direction. "I was going to every Indian practice every Sunday," he said. "I was going to every jazz funeral. I was going to every gospel show, I started going to some gospel churches. I was going out to [the predominantly black neighborhood] Shrewsbury and seeing blues players."

Members of the Wild Red Flame Mardi Gras Indians, photographed during Jazz Fest in 2008.
Chris Graythen / Getty Images
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Members of the Wild Red Flame Mardi Gras Indians, photographed during Jazz Fest in 2008.

He was a disinterested student. Two colleges in nearly as many years, Davis nurtured an abiding attraction to music that school rarely spoke to. The exception was Norma McCleod, a visiting ethnomusicologist at Tulane University in New Orleans and a specialist in West African music. "I was an acting major, but I took everything that she taught," Davis said. "So for the first time, I started to see it from without — the role that music plays in society. Kind of like Prince Hal."

Davis organized a concert at school, featuring his muses: piano player Willie Tee, saxophonist Earl Turbinton and the Wild Magnolias Mardi Gras Indians. He later produced the Wild Magnolias' single "Handa Wanda," now a staple of the Indian repertoire. There's no overestimating the impact of McCleod's visits to New Orleans. (Another of McCleod's students became a co-founder of Tipitina's, the Uptown nightclub created as a home base for Professor Longhair, a.k.a. Henry Roeland Byrd, a.k.a. "Fess.")

"What Does a Producer Do?"

In 1969, Davis and Allison Miner from the Hogan Jazz Archive at Tulane University set about booking artists for what was then called the "New Orleans Jazz Festival and Louisiana Heritage Fair." Hogan curator Dick Allen had recommended them to George Wein as the kind of young people a new festival needed. Wein encouraged them to think creatively and widely about the artists they'd include for the festival's debut in 1970. So they did. "George said we needed Cajun and blues and gospel," Davis said. "I had never been involved professionally in concerts. I just told him, 'I know those people.' "

By all accounts, the 1970 Jazz Fest, at what was then called "Beauregard Square," was an artistic, if not a commercial, success. The program featured intimate performances by the best local artists around — tiny stages under enormous live oaks, an upright piano in the grass, no microphone in the gospel tent. Men in ties and toupées. Women in pearls. Nuns. "You could have fit them on a school bus," Davis recalled. "But I've personally shaken the hand of about 120,000 people who say they were at the first one." In 1971, Wein and company repeated the experience in the same location, later re-named Congo Square. For that festival, Davis and Miner continued their work identifying and booking Louisiana acts for the daytime concerts. But they almost missed one.

"That's how Longhair got discovered, because of George," Davis said. "I took him to Indian practice at the H&R Bar [in Central City] and, as usual, it started late. We're standing on the sidewalk and it's Mardi Gras time. There's a house that has, like, a little store in the front room. They had drinks and a little food and stuff — a storefront. And so, 'Go To the Mardi Gras' comes on, Fess, and George says, 'Who's that?' "

That question changed history. "Fess" was Professor Longhair and he hadn't been playing publicly for a decade. He'd been in ill health and was doing odd jobs to earn money — like sweeping the floor at a record shop near his house. And while other music lovers had sought him out over the years, his career was going nowhere. "(George) said, 'Go find that person. That is somebody. And that is New Orleans.' "

Longhair's 1971 performance at the festival re-ignited his career. It also helped establish him as the undisputed patron of all post-war New Orleans piano players. What's more, Longhair's popularity confirmed Wein's vision — that the future success of the festival would be on the Louisiana Fair side, which was held during the day and featured mostly local artists, and not on the side of national acts. Wein had bet on the idea of high-caliber, homegrown artists combining the best tenets of the Newport Jazz and Folk Festivals. Louisiana artists would represent Louisiana's one-of-a-kind cultural landscape by playing a wide variety of sublime, indigenous music. It worked. More people came. And when the festival moved to the fairgrounds in 1972, even more still. Soon, Fess was calling Davis "Quince." And Wein was calling him a "natural producer."

"I said, 'What's a producer,' " Davis remembers. "He said, 'A producer is: If anything f***s up, it's your fault.' "

The Feel of It

Fear of "f*** ups" may be the reason why festival photos without people give Davis the heebie-jeebies. They're necessary for logistics, but, "a picture with no people in it? That's horrible," he said. "I want the perspective from one end to the other, looking down [over] the festival. So you have a feel of it."

In the early years of Jazz Fest, Davis spent months away from New Orleans producing tours for Wein. He needed to get the feel of it. After all, producers can be visionaries, but they're most often problem solvers. First up, 44 concerts in 42 days with Duke Ellington across Europe, and the Soviet Union. Then he took B.B. King through Europe and West Africa. "I was with these giants and they were allowing me to lead," he said. "I was the production manager, the tour manager, the business manager. I would pick up the money, get cash and put it in my jeans — not in my pockets, in my jeans — 'til I got back to the hotel."

Producing meant negotiating whatever realities were on the ground for touring musicians, whether it was political rumbling in Portugal, or a reluctant South African Airways during apartheid. Or, it meant going into — and getting out of — a Spanish prison with Chuck Berry. It was pushing vans filled with equipment up hills and using questionable bathrooms. It was seeing the sun rise twice in one day from two distant lands. It was sleeping head-to-head on cushions in an airport with the man who sang, "Rock Me Baby," on that record back in New Orleans — the one that Davis had played over and over and over again.

"I never missed a show," he says of those touring years.

B.B. King dubbed Davis, "General Custer." But most everyone in New Orleans calls him "Quint." That's because — irrespective of title — Davis has become synonymous with a festival that he has produced for nearly two generations. Local people may not know what Wein did for the festival — or even Allison Miner, who began interviewing musicians on the fairgrounds and for whom that interview space is now named in tribute. They may not know the names of the eight New Orleans mayors who signed 50 years' worth of proclamations welcoming festivalgoers, or exactly when Fess first played —or Pops Staples — or when the piano wizard James Booker ended his set saying, "For the last hour, you have been entertained by the great Eartha Kitt!" But they know Quint, a.k.a. Quince, General Custer, or — as the trumpet player Clark Terry called him, "Quinstville."

That's a wonderful thing when everybody's happy. But the other side of leadership is being present when people are unhappy, as when the Afrikan American Jazz Festival Coalition challenged Quint, Wein and Festival Productions to include more local African-Americans in its decision-making and in commerce on the fairgrounds. From those tensions came the Congo Square Stage and marketplace (originally called "The Koindu Marketplace") and, ultimately, a better standing for the festival in the majority-black city.

Yet another side of leadership is being around to fix what's broken. And people who fix things for a living sure get a lot of calls. When the grandstand burned in 1993 and the owners needed to rebuild quickly, they called Quint. When it's raining hard at the festival, and the staff needs guidance, they call Quint. When Hurricane Katrina hit, George Wein called Quint. And Quint Davis, with new production partners AEG and sponsorship from Shell, found a way. "There wasn't one structure on the whole place, including the grandstand, that had a roof on it," he said. "There was no plumbing. There was no electricity. There was no phones. There were no hotels for people to stay in. Our people that built the festival grounds came down and slept in barns. We've had challenges. But it's just like me never missing a gig on tour. We never let it go down. That is where I have to lead."

"Girls Were Crying"

The opening-day crowd of Jazz Fest in 2006, the first following Hurricane Katrina.
Mario Tama / Getty Images
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The opening-day crowd of Jazz Fest in 2006, the first following Hurricane Katrina.

And then there's the music. Ever try to make 450,000 people happy? "Three or four times, everybody said I ruined the festival," Davis recalls. "The first thing they didn't understand was Dave Matthews. But the lead instruments in that band are baritone sax and violin and acoustic guitar. The Allman Brothers Band and Santana they got, and Jimmy Buffet — Southern, Caribbean music. But when we had Bon Jovi, that was a departure."

And Pearl Jam. And the Red Hot Chili Peppers. And Billy Joel. And Snoop Dogg. And Pitbull. And Phish. Many festival lovers worry that these headliners cost too much, and come at the expense of heritage acts. Booking the Rolling Stones for the 50th anniversary in 2019 was a coup for Davis, but the day of that performance would have cost more than twice as much as the regular $85 ticket. Mick Jagger's subsequent illness forced the band to cancel, which prompted confusion among ticket holders. Their confusion was later compounded when Fleetwood Mac agreed to fill in, then also canceled due to illness. (Fleetwood Mac was subsequently replaced by the jam band Widespread Panic.)

And yet, Davis pushes back on the criticism, arguing that the headliners, or "guests" as they're called, help open the festival to new fans and their families. "You have to bring in the next generation," he said. "There were a lot of people from around here who never came to the festival, and they came. Who are you to say those people don't belong here? This has to be for everybody. Jon Bon Jovi can sing. Ed Sheeran was like the early years of Elvis and the Beatles. Girls were crying."

That's the "vision" part of producing — knowing what needs to change and when. The overwhelming majority of performers at the festival are Louisiana acts. But even in the heritage tents Davis says he's looking to challenge the expected. "We have to stay all the way down deep to find stuff because people get complacent. They say, 'Blues — I know that.' Oh yeah? Well, I'm going to find something to kick your ass. We want our roots to go deeper. "

The festival invites musicians from from all over the world, including the entire African diaspora — Cuba, Haiti, Mali, Benin, the Democratic Republic of Congo — many homelands that Davis has already visited. Sidi Touré of Bamako played the blues tent in 2018. This year, Diassing Kunda of Senegal and Moonlight Benjamin of Haiti played. And yet, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation — the non-profit that owns Jazz Fest and its archive — chose an overwhelming majority of Louisiana acts for a box set, to be released shortly after this year's event, celebrating the festival's half-century lifespan.

"Maybe The Last Time"

The last turn of the New Orleans Race Course at the fairgrounds is a humdinger. The entire earthen track is just over a mile in circumference and oblong, which means that — after the final turn home — horses face the longest straightaway in North America. Most thoroughbreds don't have the legs to manage a come-from-behind win. But, then again, some do. Two champions are buried on the fairgrounds, which says something about tradition and New Orleans and tasks that are super hard, yet still worth doing. It also points to the fact that the living and the dead are not so far apart in the city, or at the festival.

Almost every year, Davis walks with processions that mark the passing of local musical heroes on the fairgrounds, some of whom he introduced to George Wein a half century ago. Guitarist Snooks Eaglin was memorialized in a procession, as was gospel tent coordinator and Zion Harmonizer Sherman Washington, Buckwheat Zydeco, radio personality and producer Larry McKinley, photographer Michael P. Smith, producer Allen Toussaint and Fats Domino. They and a fair number of other musicians and loved ones who've gone to glory are represented by large, painted-plywood images in what is called the Ancestors Village. The village also includes singer and bass drum player Uncle Lionel Batiste, clarinetist Pete Fountain, Allison Miner, Big Chief Bo Dollis of the Wild Magnolias and photographer Jules Cahn, among others. "We're not presenting culture anymore, we're woven into it," Davis says. "So we honor our ancestors, which is an African thing, too. I don't know what other festival has done that."

Indeed — that the creators of a seven-day, musical Brigadoon make space to honor their dead each year seems to be a singular ritual in the world of festivals. That may be yet another reason why people talk to, and about, Davis as if they've known him all their lives — they probably have. In 1980, he was a pallbearer at Professor Longhair's funeral. In 2012, Etta James' family asked him to speak at her memorial service in California. Nearly four years later, he was the offstage emcee for Allen Toussaint's memorial at the Orpheum Theatre in New Orleans.

From left: Quint Davis, Elvis Costello, Allen Toussaint and Steve Martin, photographed backstage at the 2010 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.
Rick Diamond / Getty Images
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From left: Quint Davis, Elvis Costello, Allen Toussaint and Steve Martin, photographed backstage at the 2010 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.

"It's part of the great mandala," Davis says in his conference room overlooking the Mississippi River. "We've had three to four generations of people as part of Jazz Fest, musically and [in terms of] audience over 50 years."

At age 71, Davis has been around long enough to appreciate rebirth and what new generations can bring. And yet, loss and the prospect of loss, which the festival addresses head on, bring home the preciousness of what happens on the fairgrounds for those seven or eight days each year. His old favorites James Brown and the Famous Flames couldn't have captured it better:

Maybe the last time

It may be the last time

Maybe the last time we shake hands

Maybe the last time we make plans

Oh I, Oh I — I don't know

Davis says there will likely be no single successor to fill his role as producer-director of the festival, should the role need filling. But he has no plans to step away. He and many of his staff continue to work year-round. "We know what it means to the city and to the world."

Once a month, Davis flies to New York City to visit with his mentor George Wein, 93, who sold his financial stake in Jazz Fest years ago. Wein now focuses most of his attention on the Newport festivals. "He has a hearing aid and he has a cane to walk, but when I sit down across the kitchen table from him, eye-to-eye, bam! He's right there."

George Wein, left, and Quint Davis announce the 50th annaversary of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival on April 29, 2018 in New Orleans.
Douglas Mason / Getty Images
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George Wein, left, and Quint Davis announce the 50th annaversary of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival on April 29, 2018 in New Orleans.

What do they talk about?

"I ask him stuff and he tells me stuff," Davis said. Producer talk. No outsiders allowed. And yet, there's more to the relationship — a deeper bond.

"I was someone who not only loved jazz, but gospel music, blues music, zydeco music — the least commercial music in the world," Davis said, "I met the one person who had made a whole business out of that worldwide. Figure what a blessing that is. We found each other. Who gets that? Whatever there is to have in life, I've had it 50 times over."

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Gwen Thompkins
Gwen Thompkins hosts Music Inside Out on WWNO in New Orleans.