You know the story – or perhaps not – but it has become a somewhat legendary tale: A young man in his teens was taken to New Orleans’ second-line parades by family friends (in this case, photographers Jules Cahn and Lee Friedlander) in the early 1960s. They were the only white people in the crowd, as it was – and still is – a uniquely black custom in the city. For this young man, Arthur Quentin Davis Jr., better known as Quint Davis, this ignited a passion for music that had already been stirring inside of him, probably ever since he took drum lessons when he was 10 or 12. (A fellow student was drummer Johnny Vidacovich.) Subsequent years saw Davis embracing music and native New Orleans culture as he continued to go to more second-line parades, watch Mardi Gras Indians, play in and manage bands and, in retrospect, entertain a somewhat preordained-to-doom stint at college. Music won out because Davis got an offer that he couldn’t – or wouldn’t – refuse. It was from George Wein, the founder of the Newport Jazz Festival. In 1970, Wein started the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and asked Davis to help find local talent.
One of those finds – a search spurred by a question about a Mardi Gras song that Wein had heard – was musician Professor Longhair, who was a janitor in a record store when he was rediscovered. He played Jazz Fest in ’71.
In addition to Jazz Fest, Davis started producing albums for Professor Longhair and the Wild Magnolias (one of which won a Grammy in 1989), and acting as a tour manager for several musicians, including Chuck Berry, with whom he was arrested in Spain.
Today, he’s seemingly pared down his responsibilities, focusing on Festival Productions and the special events it produces, such as Jazz Fest.
Even though he’s constantly immersed in music, he doesn’t tire of it, maintaining his passion, particularly of local musicians. The night before this interview he had spent a late night out at d.b.a to see John Cleary and at Blue Nile for Bill Summers.
“There’s a real golden age of music in New Orleans,” he says. “The experience of live music is like theater – it’s where artists and people are seeing art being simultaneously created. It isn’t like art in a museum, which could have been made more than 100 years ago.”
So whether you are a fan or not of Jazz Fest, which celebrates its 41st year, one thing can’t be denied: Davis, whether he’s got a natural instinct or is a quick study of music (or both), has changed how music – be it Cajun, blues, rock, gospel or other genres – is presented and perceived by a larger audience.
Not bad for a college dropout who says, “I am testament to what you can do if you don’t know any better.”
Profession: I have two titles: CEO of Festival Productions New Orleans; Producer/director of the Jazz & Heritage Fest Age: I’ve got to keep the mystery! Born and raised: New Orleans Family: Parents Arthur and Mary; sister Pam; his late brother James, two nephews and a niece. Education: Metairie Park Country Day School; attended Lake Forest College in Illinois; attended Tulane University, where I majored in drama and ethnomusicology [the study of social and cultural aspects of music and dance in local and global contexts]. A semester or two at Delgado (Community College). Favorite book: I’m really not a book person. Most all of my reading is work-related. I’ll read the New York Times and Times-Picayune – or nola.com on the Internet if I’m out of town. I get caught up when I’m traveling – when I get to the airport I buy a bunch of magazines, read a few, then go to sleep. Favorite movie: Right now, I am deeply into Avatar; it will completely rearrange your DNA. Hotel Rwanda. I like a lot of movies about music: Ray was good; the movie about Johnny Cash, Walk the Line; Cadillac Records, because Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf are (portrayed) in it. Favorite TV show: News – I watch a lot of channel 15 [the rebroadcast of the news on WWL-TV/Channel 4] and CNN – and sports. I got into the Winter Olympics and I really didn’t think I would. It’s a sports heaven. Favorite restaurant: It’s somewhat situational, because there are places I rely on because I don’t cook. Ye Old College Inn, the new menu is very different than the old one. It’s like “Cheers,” I go in, sit down at the bar and say hi to the regulars. Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse. I used to go to the one on Broad Street before the storm, but discovered the one on Veterans Boulevard. La Perla restaurant on Playa la Ropa in Zihuatanejo Ixtapa, Mexico, a town in Mexico just north of Acapulco. It’s not just the food, it’s everything – it faces the beach and you eat under a thatched roof porch. Favorite food: Actually, this is my favorite meal: To go to Kjean Seafood on Carrollton Avenue and get four of the biggest boiled crabs, six ears of corn, two turkey necks, two roasted garlic and four Barq’s root beers. I bring it all home, go outside and set it out on a newspaper. That’s New Orleans. Favorite musician: I can only answer this if I can have 300 choices. Favorite music: I like to listen to traditional American music – I enjoy gospel, bluegrass, everything at the festival. Mardi Gras Indians in the streets is my very favorite music, more than recorded. I produced a couple of albums [of this music]. But deep down I’m basically a blues guy.
Slide guitar is a personal favorite – all kind of slide: Robert Johnson, ZZ Top and Hound Dog Taylor (but only with a bottle of tequila). Hobby: I like to travel. I’ve never been to, and want to visit, India and mainland China.
In the spirit of BBC’s Desert Island Discs, choose eight albums that you would bring to a desert island. Bob Marley and the Wailers Live!; Ry Cooder, Talking Timbuktu; a Howlin’ Wolf compilation; anything by Robert Johnson; Allman Brothers Live at the Fillmore East; Cream’s Disreali Gears Live; Santana, almost anything – early music is good through to Supernatural; and Van Morrison, Best of Van Morrison. [Davis continues his list]: Rolling Stones, Let it Bleed; Muddy Waters, but not sure what to pick, Chicago or Mississippi; Little Walter; and Bo Diddley.
Have you gone to other music festivals? Yes, and doing what I do, you really should go, as you learn from them. A few years ago we set out to see the big festivals. I sent some people to the Glastonbury Festival (I still haven’t gone to it). I’ve been to the big festivals: Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza and Coachella.
What goes into the process of choosing musicians for Jazz Fest? The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival Foundation Board has a talent committee who gives us a list of their preferences, and then we get suggestions from a producer/coordinator in each category, and other staff. We then look at who has played for the past couple of years, who hasn’t. Who to rotate, who’s hot. Who was good, who was bad. In each category we have one national act a day, and at least 88 to 92 percent of the schedule is local musicians.
Are there any musicians that haven’t played Jazz Fest? Eric Clapton, Tina Turner, Elton John, Prince, Paul McCartney, to name a few. It has a lot to do with scheduling. I finally got Neil Young last year. This year, I got a band that doesn’t tour – Pearl Jam – and one that doesn’t exist, Simon & Garfunkel.
What’s your biggest problem with Jazz Fest? People calling me the week before Jazz Fest asking for free tickets.
What’s the worst thing that can happen for Jazz Fest? When it rains. It’s an outdoor festival that we work on all year long on with the greatest allocation of talent. And, even though people say they’ve had a great time when it rains, nothing is better than seeing music with the sun shining. No one can do a better job than us holding an [outdoor] festival in horrible weather. We’ve gotten good at it, but we don’t like it.
What’s your favorite part of Jazz Fest? Initially, when the gates open. A festival is a living, breathing thing, and it is what it is based on the people who come. The people give it life, they give the music life – and the festival takes on a life of it’s own. The next best thing is running from stage to stage.
In addition to Jazz Fest, you and Festival Productions have produced a number of other events, including two presidential inaugurations (for former president Bill Clinton in 1993 and 1997.) The inauguration was the coldest outdoor festival – for 1 million people. It was the greatest experience, and the hardest and most draining. We had about three weeks to produce it.
And you have started a new festival this year. The Bayou Country Superfest in Baton Rouge over Memorial Day Weekend. It will be the first true concert in “Death Valley” [Louisiana State University Tiger Stadium]. Taylor Swift, Keith Urban, Kenny Chesney and Brooks & Dunn, which will probably be the last time you can see them in concert.
True Confession: I like to take adventurous and exotic trips. Manihi Atoll in the Tuamotus (the only place on earth the black pearl is organically grown) in the South Pacific, where we speared big fish that bled and thrashed around.
Interesting enough, but we did it in the middle of a pool of sharks, which is nuts. It didn’t bother him [the guide], but very much had my attention. Hiking in the waterfalls in Hawaii. Safaris in South Africa. I’ve been to different Carnivals in Brazil (but nothing compares to New Orleans Mardi Gras).