In an out-of-the-way corner of the Hotel InterContinental, Davis talks about the 2005 schedule, which has been the subject of a lot of scrutiny, partially because it's always the subject of scrutiny, but this year particularly to see how the turbulence that followed last year's Jazz Fest might manifest itself.
Thus far, response has been positive, with the original Meters reunion, the return of Jazz Fest veterans like Randy Newman, B.B. King and James Taylor, and overdue appearances by Brian Wilson, Elvis Costello and Wilco. Some have predictably groused online that the schedule -- which also includes rappers Nelly and the Roots and bluegrass act Saddle Creek -- marks the beginning of the mainstreaming of the festival, but Davis hasn't heard those complaints personally.
"The first thing I hear is that it's the most complete (Jazz Fest), then, depending on who they are, they have a different reference point for why they like it," he says.
Part of what excites people is the increase in the amount of headline-quality talent. Out-of-town acts still only constitute 14 percent of the talent performing at the New Orleans Fair Grounds, but this year's rejuvenation of the stage at the Gentilly end of the grounds adds seven more days of marquee names. Many festgoers assumed the decline in star power on that stage was a byproduct of Acura's sponsorship of the festival's largest stage, but Davis says that's not the case.
"It was the growth and evolution of Congo Square into Shaggy, Mystikal, Frankie Beverly, the O'Jays," he says. "As the African-American audience discovered and embraced the festival, Congo Square grew into a 20,000- to 25,000-person crowd." Since the budget didn't allow for three sets of international touring talent headliners, the Gentilly stage became a Louisiana stage. The new partnership of longtime Jazz Fest producers Festival Productions (FPI) with AEG Live gave Davis the talent budget to have performers such as Isaac Hayes and Anthony Hamilton on the Congo Square Stage while presenting groupings such as Los Lonely Boys and the Radiators; Allen Toussaint and Elvis Costello; and World Leader Pretend, Better Than Ezra and Widespread Panic at the Gentilly stage.
When Davis counts off artists performing, he talks about them in duos or trios, in each case emphasizing the local components of each bill. "We're in a golden age here," he says, "with Troy Andrews, Donald Harrison, Terence Blanchard, Nicholas Payton, the young zydeco bands, Ivan Neville with his funk group (Dumpsta Phunk), Bonerama. There's so much hot stuff going on everywhere in New Orleans that it's really important to me to maintain that New Orleans focus."
Developing the Gentilly stage has a practical purpose. "The Dave Matthews day (in 2001, when over 160,000 people attended Jazz Fest), you look at an aerial (photo) and you see what was the other main stage practically empty. Had 15,000 to 20,000 been down there, you'd have had a whole different distribution."
The other yearly criticism of Jazz Fest is what some consider a lack of jazz, a criticism Davis doesn't understand. With Economy Hall dedicated to traditional jazz, the Jazz Tent, and the new second-line stage featuring brass bands and Mardi Gras Indians, he counts over 100 jazz acts playing the festival. "We probably have more jazz than any festival around, but we also have more non-jazz," he says.
The second-line stage is obviously a source of excitement for Davis. Located on the site that previously hosted the Native American Stage, it will be the start and finish point for second-line parades through the Fair Grounds, and he envisions New Orleans funk and jazz musicians sitting in with the brass bands playing there.
"When [the Gospel Tent] was on the field, it was like a heartbeat," Davis says. "It was authentic, indigenous culture, not even commercial culture. I think the street culture is the same way. I think with this coming on the field and right in the middle, it's another one of those heartbeats."
Jazz Fest's celebration of "the heritage of jazz," as Davis calls it, sets New Orleans' festival apart from others like Bonnaroo and Austin City Limits.
"That African-European root that was the premise of the festival 36 years ago still gives us an identity that -- I won't mention other festivals' names -- no other festival has. To me, New Orleans is the people's festival. Sure, other festivals with their narrow demographic audience can put on some of the bands we have, but at Jazz Festival, the community comes out."
In this year's lineup, it's clear that booking Dave Bartholomew, and the Meters reunion, are dear to his heart.
"Talking about Dave and the Meters, here's two entities that affected the world's music," Davis says. "The original funky Meters were listened to in Jamaica on the radio. They affected ska and reggae, funk and rock. Dave, taking R&B and barrelhouse, and patching it up with Fats (Domino) into rock 'n' roll -- these two entities, generations apart, affected the music of the world. I think it's not overstating things."
Davis says he personally brokered the Meters by booking counting on his years of having relationships with Art Neville, George Porter Jr., Leo Nocentelli and Zigaboo Modeliste and treating them as individuals. "Zigaboo told me some great stuff," Davis recalls. "He said, 'Man, you're going to be opening Pandora's Box and Jurassic Park at the same time. You're going to be bringing the dinosaurs back to life.'"
Davis says the reunion "is kind of a metaphor for the festival itself." He acknowledges that during the late summer, it looked like Davis, Jazz Fest founder George Wein and FPI might not produce this year's festival as the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation solicited bids from other producers. In a sense, though, it sounds like FPI was going to remain involved no matter who was chosen. According to Davis, applicants were talking to them regularly. "The people who were in the final three realized, what if they won and had to put a festival on? And they started talking to us. They said, 'Hey, if we win, would you be interested in working with us?'" When negotiations between the foundation and FPI broke down over issues relating to assumption of risk and sharing of control, finalist AEG Live offered to partner with FPI, an offer it accepted. So far, Davis says, the relationship has been a good one. FPI was initially concerned that AEG Live would be calling regularly, looking over its shoulder, but that hasn't been the case. According to Davis, "AEG said, 'Look, the value that's in this festival is what you put there. You made this; that's why we're attracted to it. When we go into these things -- Voodoo, Coachella, you -- we're not looking to be the producer. We want a great festival with a great producer we can work with and help it grow.'"