One of the Crescent City’s most iconic events is reaching a historic milestone this spring. The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival is celebrating its hallowed golden anniversary, commemorating 50 years of music, culture, and this beloved city’s tradition.
More than just a music festival, Jazz Fest has become a cultural institution, showcasing the best attributes New Orleans has to offer: music, food, fun, and resiliency. Founded in 1970 under the guidance of George Wein, Jazz Fest was born in Congo Square as a two-day event with an audience of about 350 people. In the subsequent 49 years, Jazz Fest has blossomed into a juggernaut, attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors each year—over two weekends—who come to immerse themselves in the birthplace of jazz.
Quint Davis, the producer and director of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, has been there since the beginning. Born and raised in New Orleans, Davis was hired by Wein to work on the inaugural Jazz Fest, dropping out of Tulane to pursue his passion of music. “For me, at that point, it was either a geology exam or go do Jazz Fest,” Davis says. “The rest, you can say, is history.”
Although Davis knew little about the music business or booking talent, his enthusiasm and knowledge for music made him a perfect contributor to the inaugural Jazz Fest venture.
Davis grew up going to every gospel concert in New Orleans and hanging around blues and jazz clubs. “Music was everything to me; it’s what really powered me,” Davis says.
Jazz Fest quickly outgrew Congo Square, and by its third year, it had moved to the infield of the Fair Grounds Race Course, eventually expanding to two full weekends by the mid-1970s.
During this time, Davis was cutting his teeth with every new role Wein assigned him. Davis learned managing, stage production, and touring, until he gradually became the producer of Jazz Fest. Davis recalls Wein’s description of what it meant to be a producer: “Anything that messes up is your fault.”
But Wein also imparted the lesson of mastering the economics of creativity to Davis.
“If you don’t do that, you’ll do something once. It’ll be great, it’ll be big, you’ll lose a lot of money, and you won’t do it again,” Wein told Davis. “Greatness only comes from longevity.”
Under the leadership of Davis and his team, Jazz Fest has achieved greatness over the past half-century, spawning countless imitators, weathering numerous storms (literally), and serving as a beacon for one of the most fantastically unique cities in the world. “The festival has shone a spotlight on New Orleans to the world for all 50 years, and I think that’s something great to be proud of,” Davis says.
Featuring Katy Perry and Widespread Panic, this year’s festival will include 7,000 musicians, comprising over 680 groups, performing across 13 stages over eight days.
More importantly for Davis is the sheer volume of local talent on display during Jazz Fest. Davis points out that over 80 percent of the acts are from New Orleans and Louisiana. “There’s no music culture anywhere like that,” Davis says. “That’s incredible.”
The festival has evolved from the early days of visitors enjoying, but not necessarily recognizing, talented local musicians, to fans clamoring for more homegrown talent at the festival. From Fats Domino to Trombone Shorty, New Orleans-bred musicians are the heart and soul of Jazz Fest. It’s the DNA that comprises the very being of the festival, the essence of what has allowed Jazz Fest to stand the test of time. “To arrive at 50 years and still be relevant and popular, having gone through all the decades and generations, that’s meaningful, rare, and amazing,” Davis says.
One of Davis’s goals for the 50th anniversary lineup was to weave together musicians who have been an integral part of the festival’s growth over the last half-century, while seamlessly incorporating new acts into the program. With a star-studded lineup in place, featuring Santana, Dave Matthews Band, Diana Ross, Chris Stapleton, Jimmy Buffett, and many, many more, Davis has deemed the festival a success since the talent announcement, based on the fan reaction. “For people to say ‘yes’ and endorse it is the gauge of success,” Davis says.
Special features of this year’s Jazz Fest include the return of several acts from throughout the years that have been featured in the Cultural Exchange Pavilion World Journey, along with nearly 20 tributes, celebrating the event’s ancestors. These are the specific touches that help distinguish Jazz Fest from the multitude of music festivals across the country.
Any festival can slap together a few popular headliners and sell cold beer, but Jazz Fest—it’s more. It’s culture combined with history, soul, and grit. It’s a hot Louisiana spring day, filled with promise. It’s blasting brass horns, tickling ivories, and wailing away on a six-string. It’s regret, hope, loss, love, and joy. It’s New Orleans. And it’s golden.
Quint Davis photos by Douglas Mason