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Jazz in Focus at Jazz Fest in New Orleans

Gregory Davis talks about programming jazz at the famous New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival

Donald Harrison, Big Chief
Dancer with Guitar Slim, performing in Blues Tent
Irvin Mayfield
Jim James with the Preservation Hall band at New Orleans JazzFest 2010. (Terence Blanchard is sitting in on trumpet at far left.)
Gregory Davis

Founded in 1970, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival is an event unlike any other in the world. The festival presents over 500 bands on a dozen stages over the course of two very full weekends. And nearly 90 percent of the bands are from Louisiana. The last few years the festival has drawn approximately 400,000 people. There are many festivals out there with multiple stages presenting lots of artists and with large audiences, but there is something in the air (and sometimes in the mud) at Jazz Fest-as it’s called by the locals-that makes it such a unique experience. The rich and spicy food, the various indigenous musical styles, the intergenerational groups, the cultural diversity and communal vibe add up to a singular atmosphere in late April and early May of every year.

The jazz programming is handled by Gregory Davis, trumpeter and longtime leader of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. Davis took a few minutes to talk with JT by phone about how jazz fits into the musical gumbo that is Jazz Fest.


Is jazz more or less a part of Jazz Fest now than it was back in the day?

I’ve been there in the capacity of being responsible for booking the contemporary jazz since September 1998, so my first official Jazz Fest was in 1999. Since I’ve been there, I’ve made an effort to present more jazz, both on a local level and on a national/international level. I think it’s improving. Obviously the masses of the people come to see the pop, rock and R&B stuff, because that’s just how it is. But as far as jazz goes, it’s growing.

How much of the festival do you program? Do you book certain tents?

In the past, I used to be responsible for the contemporary jazz tent and I booked the jazz and heritage stage, which has a mix of different styles. I was responsible for the Mardi Gras Indians, the social aid and pleasure clubs, the brass bands, the parades, the night jazz concerts and the educational programs. At one point I was doing about 250 of the 600-700 contracts. Lately, I’ve gone back to performing so I have to back out of some of the programming. Now I’m responsible for the contemporary jazz and I consult on all sorts of other things.

You must get a lot of solicitations from artists, managers and agents.

In reality there are a finite number of spots available. By the time we start putting things together in September and October, I do receive several hundred CDs, EPKs, videos and all kinds of stuff and lots and lots of phone calls. People don’t understand that it’s virtually impossible to have a 30-minute conversation with everybody.

What are you looking for? I would assume that your first priority goes to artists based in New Orleans.

I always know that we’re going to have seven national or international headliners. My main priority is to accommodate the local players, because the festival originated in order to highlight and showcase the talent that was already here. And there is a lot of it [great talent] here. After I decide on those headliners, I make a great effort to make sure that we include as many of the local artists as possible. And there is a lot of competition for those slots.

Lots of the acts come back year after year-like Terence Blanchard, Donald Harrison, Irvin Mayfield, Nicholas Payton and Ellis Marsalis. Do you have any sort of quota or limit on artists doing the festival year after year?

I feel that you have to have our locally-based national artists in the festival. These are national artists in their own right who happen to live in New Orleans. That’s a luxury for us to have them every year. Someone like Donald Harrison, who plays with everybody and does everything, he does Jazz Fest, the Indian festivals. I can’t not have Donald Harrison. I can’t not have Nicholas Payton. Same with Terence Blanchard. And these artists are doing different projects all the time.

I didn’t want it to be a matter of rubber-stamping the booking each year and having the same people in the same spots year after year. That’s not fair to the craft and that’s not fair to the patrons. To make sure there is variety, I try to make sure I know what artists are doing. I try to go out and see what’s new. I want the music to be fresh for the people buying tickets to the festival. People come to the festival to have a good time, so I feel responsible to make sure that what they’re coming to hear is fresh and new for them.

What shows within the jazz genre stick out in your memory as magical moments?

A few years ago I was in New York and I heard Dave Holland and his group and I thought we just had to have him come to Jazz Fest. He put on an exceptional show. To me it was reminiscent of some of the Art Blakey or Horace Silver groups from back in the day.

A couple years back, when Poncho Sanchez came out with that salsa and soul album, there were some people saying that it wasn’t this or it wasn’t that. I told them, “Just trust me, it’s going to go over great.” And the tent was packed beyond capacity and it brought a lot of Latino and Hispanic fans into the festival. People were dancing. There was salsa everywhere. To me that was reminiscent of what I had experienced with Dizzy Gillespie and how he wanted to add that Latin flavor to his music. People then didn’t necessarily think it was a good mix. But, man, if you could have been there that day, it was unbelievable the number of people that showed up and had a great time.

We had Ornette Coleman a few years ago and that’s way way leftfield. He put on such a good show that day. I remember, as a kid growing up, I was not necessarily into jazz. I was into what was played on the radio in New Orleans which at that time was a lot of R&B. We always had New Orleans traditional music being played around the city. As I begin to get exposed to the music, I really got into contemporary jazz. As my education grew, it was just like opening a box and the light was pouring out of it. Looking down at the box, you’re wondering where the light is coming from. I felt like that.

Each year when we talk about who we were going to get next year, it’s always an exciting time for me. I think I get more excited planning and booking the festival than going to the actual shows at the festival!

People still talk about the show that Sonny Rollins put on in the gospel tent many years ago.

I didn’t see that one. That was before I started booking the jazz at the festival. Since I’ve been here, I’ve been trying to get Sonny Rollins to perform at Jazz Fest, but he’s getting to the point where he only does so many shows per year, so we hadn’t been able to get him. Touring Europe sometimes with my group, I’d see him and of course I’d ask him, “Hey, you coming to New Orleans this year?” He’d say, “I’d love to do it,” but it didn’t happen. But this year we do have Sonny Rollins, so I feel good that I had a hand in making that happen.

Some jazz aficionados complain about the use of the word “jazz” for a festival with headliners like Kid Rock, Pearl Jam and Bon Jovi. What’s your take on that issue?

The truth of the matter is that to be able to afford to bring in a Sonny Rollins or Ahmad Jamal or Mingus Big Band, you have to have acts that are going to draw more than just jazz fans. If you go around the country, there are fewer and fewer jazz clubs and venues out there. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the music is not vital; it’s just that there are more patrons of the popular music forms. That’s just the way it is, for real. As a festival, we can still put on as much jazz as we like, but we have to have these other acts because that’s who most people want to see. But we don’t say, “This year we’re going to have Sting and we’re not going to have the Mingus Big Band.” We can have both. And those that want to see Sting and those who want to see jazz can come to the festival and get a little experience with both.

And we see a lot of these pop artists who come to play at the festival go over to the gospel tent or other tents themselves, because often the roots of their music are very different than what they perform for the large audiences. That is one of the great things about the festival. Even with the big stars, when they come here, they get to experience the little guys and the downhome feeling that you can get in New Orleans.

I’ve seen that firsthand. When I was at Jazz Fest last year, Paul Simon spent a lot of time at the gospel tent, the day before his big show with Art Garfunkel.

I can speak from personal experience. A couple of years ago, we [Dirty Dozen Brass Band] did some work with Elvis Costello. That was by his choice. Over the years, a group like the Dirty Dozen has had the opportunity to work with Dizzy Gillespie, B.B. King, Manhattan Transfer, Widespread Panic and Sting. There must be something in the music that attracts the people from the upper crust of pop music.

I’ve always felt that a jazz fan could easily go to Jazz Fest and go to the jazz, blues, gospel, heritage and traditional tents and experience a great jazz festival, and not see one act like Bon Jovi or Kid Rock.

You’re exactly right. You can come to New Orleans and experience all of the above and not experience some of the stuff that you don’t ever want to hear in your life. But no matter how you look at it, it is a business and you need to be successful. I’ve been all over the world and I’ve played just about every festival out there. There is no other festival in the world like Jazz Fest. I don’t say that because I’m a New Orleanian and I don’t say that because I work with the festival. I’m saying it because I believe it to be true.

No argument from me on that. Tell us what happens to the money raised from the festival. Many people don’t know that there is a foundation at the heart of the event. What sort of community programs does the foundation sponsor?

The main thing that is funded by the festival is the radio station, WWOZ. That’s a station that is on every day playing music 24/7, and they play all kinds of music. Many years back, Tom Dent from the foundation started doing street festivals. There’s a blues fest, gumbo fest and several others that the foundation puts on that are free to the public. And there are education programs that they do in the schools. And the foundation provides funding to local musicians who are struggling with economic and health problems.

Do you still play with your group at the festival and elsewhere?

I still tour with the Dirty Dozen. I took some time off that for a while. There were some things that I wanted to do. I wanted to finish my education. I promoted some shows in New Orleans. About ten years ago, I got back on the road with the Dirty Dozen. I wanted to get back to what got me to the dance.

I remember when you were one of the young guys who were bringing the brass-band tradition to the whole country. Now there is another generation of players doing that.

My daughter just turned 30 last week. She was born in 1981. The band was just getting started then. I was in my 20s when I started to do shows all over. And the old guys back then were Dizzy Gillespie, Arnett Cobb and Freddie Hubbard, and I looked up to all of them. Now, I’m the old guy. I’m still here and kicking.

I really do appreciate being where I am and seeing all the younger talent out there, like Trombone Shorty. I knew Trombone Shorty since he was 4 or 5 years old. His arms weren’t long enough to hold the trombone. The trombone was longer than he was! Now he’s out playing. I can appreciate seeing Christian Scott out there. I remember when he was a young kid in high school. I remember Marlon Jordan as a young guy. Now these guys are getting an opportunity to show their wares. I always believe that there is room out there for everybody. I don’t look at it as a threat. I remember when we were coming, the older players extended a hand to us. And people like George Wein accepted us young guys into the fold. I get a great joy now to be able to make room for these younger guys, because people made room for me.

New Orleans has always had that inter-generational approach to music-making, unlike other areas and genres which are much more segregated by age.

I really believe that a group like the Dirty Dozen could not have existed in any other city but New Orleans, because we had a chance to play gigs, and I’m not talking Carnegie Hall or Lincoln Center. In New Orleans, we played on the streets, at churches, at picnics, tons of places. That’s where you really develop your skills-not sitting in a practice room. You get to learn the methods, the fingering and the notes all by playing live here in New Orleans.

The HBO show Treme must have had some effect on the response to New Orleans music.

We’ve only done one episode in the new season, but just the fact that it’s out there, there’s some shine that rubs off on all of us. Unfortunately, it took a tragedy for the show to even come into existence. But out of every tragedy like that, there’s some good.

Having a musician like yourself booking the jazz artists at Jazz Fest is a good thing, given that you’ve been on the other side and you know the community so well.

That was the thinking behind it when I was offered the opportunity. I did want to get off the road for a while because my kids were getting older and I wanted to do other things. Part of the thinking was that, “Maybe if we bring in somebody that has had some experience as a performer and experience with putting shows on, maybe that will be a plus.” I think it’s worked out.

Originally Published