Quint Davis: A Grand Father of Jazz Fest
He was there, back when it all began. Hell, he was making it happen, as a member of the triumvirate that unknowingly created the granddaddy of all festivals, now over three decades old. Quint Davis could be New Orleans’ and Jazz Fest’s biggest endorser. He is true to the role in enthusiasm and authenticity, even reducing New Orleans’ three syllables into only one, of distinctly southern origins, Nawlins. To him, it is the greatest musical environment in the world, and below he tells you how he believes this enclave of infamy has become the destination for music, and why it couldn’t happen anywhere else.
T: Do you think that a lot of the success of Jazz Fest is attributable to the fact that it is held in the city of New Orleans?
Q: The festival is a carnival, and it is a carnival in the only city in North America that is a carnival city. Since it is a festival of the heritage of jazz, it couldn’t happen in any other city because NO is the only city that holds the birthright to that combination of African and European culture that happened here to create jazz. No other city could have that. And then, so much of the music that we have here: traditional jazz, second line, Mardi Gras Indians, Cajun music, Zydeco music, doesn’t even exist anywhere else. Other places have gospel and blues, but those (aforementioned types of music) are only here in New Orleans and south Louisiana, so culturally the elements of the festival, you couldn’t do anywhere else. In the city of Mardi Gras, where people grow up all there lives hanging out in the streets in large numbers, getting together, happily interacting, we have a populace that carnival celebrations on a large scale is a natural thing to them; it is part of their lives.
T: So what were your intentions when you started the festival with George Wein and the late Alison Miner, over 30 years ago? Was there a conscious effort to attract a large audience from across the country, or was it conceived, on a lot smaller scale, to be a local event?
Q: When we started out, the idea was not to put on a show, to bring folk in. The whole idea was to have a self-celebration via culture, kind of a large backyard barbecue. The festival is really a microcosm of the city. At the festival we have 75 restaurants, in the city there are 175. At the festival we have 12 or 13 stages playing at once, outside of the festival there are probably 35 to 40 stages playing at once at all the clubs. So, the festival is really a reflection, although it is a concentration, [laughing] it is like if you took all of the food and music out of the city and put it in one place, without any of the other stuff. Actually we have other stuff, little hospitals and post offices; it is a city. It is a reflection of New Orleans, it is not a created thing, that is different. New Orleans has always had a unique rhythm and vibe to it. There is a thing that Jimmy Buffet said to me once, “You know New Orleans is not really the Southern most city in the United States; it is really the Northern most city of the Caribbean.” It is the birthplace of the beat and they say the heart of rock n’ roll is the beat and NO is the heartbeat I think in many ways New Orleans is the soul of America and Jazz Fest is the soul of NO.
T: To what extent have you recently, made a conscious effort of limiting bands, and even jambands, from outside of Louisiana, in order to keep the festival true to its roots as a reflection of New Orleans and Louisiana music?
Q: Yeah, that hasn’t changed. Well, it changed a little bit when we had guest groups/artists, at all. For the first, probably, ten years, 100% of the festival was local, and we were small, and that was what we were about. Then we started having what we call special guests’ in our musical categories. So once a weekend, and by now everyday, we would have one special guest (a national group) in blues, one gospel special guest,’ one R and B special guest,’ African Caribbean, a special guest.’ We would bring in the best people in the world, in our categories, but that is one a day. Our festival has 8,000 musicians at this point that comprise more than 700 groups, but out off that amount there is probably 30 or 40 groups, total, that are not from New Orleans or Louisiana.
T: Still, I Have read several articles about Jazz Fest, where the writers claim that the festival is getting away from its roots by bringing in these big-name national acts. How do you respond to this accusation?
Q: On one end of the scale, if there is one band somewhere in New Orleans that did not get on the festival, then that one band is like chicken little The sky is falling. The sky is falling. I didn’t get on the festival, so there are no local bands at the festival.’ Some people just are still back in the days where they want it to be 100% local, so if they see one large out of town group it totally blinds them. It is incredible that any one city would have this many great bands in it. If you go from stage to stage to see who is playing hour after hour, after hour, after hour, it is all these great bands from here. That is really the amazing strength of the festival. And even though it is called a heritage festival, which makes a lot of people think about looking back, trying to recapture, some past things, man, we are like in a golden era right now down here. I mean a lot of the older generations are still here, still strong, still playing and in every (genre of) music: in Jazz, Nicholas Payton; in trad (traditional jazz), Michael White, then you have Galactic, Cowboy Mouth, the Zydeco groups. There is great talent, and great young talent in every single genre. In some ways the festival has played a role in that, because of exposure that we have given to the music here, the opportunity, for what was a very isolated music community. To bring in the outside music business, and the press to focus on the music here, has helped move people into being nationally known. I think that the festival helped build the career of John Mooney in the same way that it helped to build the career of the Neville Brothers. The festival really not only has primarily local musicians, but it really serves to promote their cause.
T: What would say to people, who argue that the glory days of Jazz Fest are gone?
Q: That I am most excited about the things coming up. If you say that the Jazz Fest is not as great as it was, then what you are saying is that music itself in the world today is no longer as great as it was. That means that you have a hole in your soul, and you do not know what you are talking about. You are disconnected from present reality, because the festival is a reflection of two things: the state of music in New Orleans, which is in a golden era, and the state of music in the world. Jazz Fest is about feeling that joy in your soul, and being alive now, not saying that the spirit is dead, the spirit is bad.
T: Why the seven jambands, this year, more than ever before? Is the festival attempting to adopt this style of music?
Q: You have to go back to the nature of the movement, itself. As different waves of music came by: heavy metal, grunge, or whatever, we did not pick up on it, because it was not what we were about. The first time that I saw Dave Matthews Band on TV, I was like holy mackerel what the hell is this.’ Here is a band that has a lead violin and a baritone saxophone. There started to be groups, kind of like, the movement that happened in San Francisco (the sixties), that were about jam, instrumental stretching out and really playing some music. They are groups that have blues roots: Bonnie Raitt, Santana, The Dead. When there started to be a new generation of these folks, we said this is about what we are about. This is about blues; this is about instrumental improvisation. This is in the rock field quote unquote, but that is what jazz is. The first time that we had Blues Traveler, we had Widespread Panic, we had Phish and Dave Matthews, some people didn’t get it, but a lot of people did. But, for younger musicians to get into jazz and blues influences, improvisatory music, that for us is a great cycle coming back. So, it was natural thing, and we have involved it from the beginning. Different opportunities happen at different times, but for us to have Phil Lesh and Bob Weir, for the first time; and actually, we are going to have them on same day, along with the Neville Brothers and the Mardi Gras Indians, on the same stage.
T: That is going to be a huge day
Q: Yeah I like it. There again, that is not the young kids, that is not a new thing, that is back to the roots, so two of your seven groups are groups, who aren’t a part of the new movement, but actually the groups that inspired the movement.
T: The grandfathers of the movement.
Q: Yeah, [laughing] grandfathers by now. So we started having a couple of groups a year, some of it was wanting them, but they wanted to play the festival and have contacted us every year. Some of it was synergy with House of Blues, or with Superfly Productions, because they were looking to bring them in and we were looking to have them. Now Blues Traveler (who is playing this year’s festival),if Lesh and Dog are the grandfathers, is a little more the father. They are not the older generation, but we have had them for years. They are returning members of family. Warren Haynes, we’ve had with the Allman Brothers from day one. Warren’s been a part of the festival family for years and now this is the first time having him and Mule here, and of course he plays with Phil Lesh. So it is all a part of the new festival family, if you will. Our festival has been around for 34 years: Muddy Waters was part of our family, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Charlie Mingus and Santana. So, it goes through generations in 34 years, and that is what heritage is all about. (weird circus music interlude that seems to emanate from his computer on the other end of the phone .) When you have Phil Lesh, Rat Dog, Blues Traveler, Gov’t Mule, it is almost like you are going through the heritage of jamming.
T: What is Jazz Fest’s relationship to the live music clubs of New Orleans, and in particular, upstart, Superfly Productions, who all seem to be having tremendous success, not unduly related to Jazz Fest’s success?
Q: Our Relationship with Superfly is excellent. Actually, the whole scene that goes on in New Orleans, whether it’s Tipitina’s, House of Blues, what Superfly is doing, all the clubs around town, it is a great symbiotic relationship. It just makes the Jazz Fest a bigger umbrella dimension, if you will, throughout the whole city. This whole club scene that has grown-up around town, where it takes people until dawn to crawl back to the fairgrounds, has added another dimension. The club scene has always been there, because New Orleans at heart is a live music city. It has always had a phenomenal and far reaching live music club industry as a city. As the festival grew, that scene grew, and then when folks like Superfly came along they kicked it up another level.
T: Are there any possible changes in the future?
Q: We’ve always dealt with whatever was happening. Right now we’ve got room for expansion, and we are expanding the festival this year. We are creating a new blues environment, and a new blues tent, spreading some things out. In the future we are going to do some expansion of the site itself, so that would have to be further, further, down the line if this turned into a phenomenon (it clearly could currently be called a phenomenon.)
T: Are you concerned with it getting too big?
Q: What am I supposed to do, make it suck? It is an outdoor festival, and the main thing is the weather. I guarantee, god forbid, if it rains this year, it won’t be too big and people won’t be saying anything about that. When the sun shines, we try to make the festival better every year. The problem is that it is really a lot of fun. It’s about something. That vibe out there, that feeling that you get with all the other people, when all 13 of those stages start to rock and the whole house starts to rock, that feeling, people come back (for it.) New people come, and then they come back. It’s basic elements are exactly the same as they were the first year. We have the same food booth stands and the same craft booth stands, but we have more of them. We don’t have big fancy stages per se. Obviously the organizational infrastructure under the surface is very complex, but on the surface it is still a homey/folky/unpolished feel. I think that is important.
T: Is there a favorite memory?
Q: One time we had Sun Ra for a piano solo, and by the time he showed there was 11 people. Asking me for one memory, I would have to give you 23 first memories, and they would come in groupings.
There was a Jam session with BB King, Roosevelt Sykes, Bukka White, Professor Longhair, with the original Meters rhythm section. There was another Jam session with Stevie Wonder, playing as the drummer with the original Meters. He sat down on organ, played a couple of songs there, then got behind the drums and kicked holly living ass. There are so many: Stevie Ray Vaughan, Ernie K-Doe, and James Brown.T: What is the one thing that you would say to anybody that has never been to Jazz Fest?
Q: Zachary Richard, who is a musician here, once said, “In Louisiana, music is not the entertainment, it is the medium to feel something in your soul.” That is really true for us here. You just don’t sit back, cross your legs, and watch somebody perform for you. It is a medium to something in your soul and that is going on at Jazz Fest, big time. Spread the word far and wide for us.