The 2012 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival drew more than half-a-million patrons, up 30,000 from 2011.
Even by Jazz Fest standards, last year’s lineup was exceptional. The acts included Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, the Eagles, the Beach Boys on their 50th anniversary tour, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, the Foo Fighters, Bonnie Raitt, Preservation Hall’s 50th anniversary jam and what may be the Neville Brothers’ final Jazz Fest appearance.
“The feeling was that we’d overdone it,” Quint Davis, Jazz Fest’s longtime producer-director, said as the 2013 Jazz Fest was quickly approaching. “It was great but now the festival inevitably could only go down, because we had too many good things all in one year.”
The possibility that Jazz Fest could never top 2012 troubled Davis through the summer and into the fall.
“I felt more pressure about that this year than any other year I can remember,” he said.
Davis compares his pursuit of performers for Jazz Fest to pulling a slot machine arm. He doesn’t get the act unless everything lines up. His anxiety about equaling the 2012 festival lightened after talent he’d wanted to book for years finally became available for 2013.
“A lot of things fell into place,” he said. “We have icons of almost every kind of music. The Gipsy Kings. B.B. King in the Blues Tent. Wayne Shorter in the Jazz Tent. Jill Scott at Congo Square. We have Fleetwood Mac.”
Classic rock band Fleetwood Mac will play its only festival date on a 34-city U.S. tour Saturday, May 4, in New Orleans. The band, whose 1977 album, “Rumors,” has sold more than 40 million copies, has been on Davis’ wish list for a decade.
To help smooth the way for Fleetwood Mac, Davis attended the band’s April 8 concert at Madison Square Garden.
“We went up there to meet with them because festivals are not what they normally do,” he said. “We wanted to plan everything out, which we did, and they couldn’t have been nicer.”
Punk-rock poet Patti Smith, who recorded a re-imagined take on classic New Orleans rhythm-and-blues artist Chris Kenner’s “Land of 1000 Dances” for her 1975 album debut, “Horses,” is another of Davis’ long-sought artists.
“Same thing with Patti,” he said. “It just didn’t work out with her schedule. The local groups, too, because now they tour. Trombone Shorty, he’s all over the world. And most of our artists, at every level, are all over the world.
“So you have to get every single one of these acts to route their tours to New Orleans on the same day. That’s not something that naturally occurs in nature.”
The 2013 Jazz Fest lineup also features the Black Keys, Maroon 5, French rock band Phoenix, rising blues star Gary Clark Jr. and more classic acts in Hall & Oates and Billy Joel.
“If the lineup was just as good as last year I’d be happy,” Davis said. “But even people in the industry have called to say it’s a crazy-good lineup.”
Davis is especially pleased about booking Joel for his second Jazz Fest appearance. At the 2008 Jazz Fest, a tremendous, chilling rainstorm struck Joel’s set, forcing it to an early end.
Seeing Joel backstage at Madison Square Garden during the “12-12-12” fundraising concert for victims of Hurricane Sandy in December, Davis invited him to return.
“I introduced myself and said, ‘Last time you played our festival it was the worst rain ever. Your fans thought it was Billy Joel Woodstock. But come back on a sunny day and see that crowd out there and those flags flying, when everybody can open up their hearts, embrace your music. That’s what I want to see.’ And he decided to.”
Jazz Fest has prepared for challenging weather by installing its own radar-equipped weather station in the Fair Grounds Race Course grandstand, operating a customized pump system and draining two infield ponds.
“I’ve yet to see rain that we didn’t run in when the festival is open,” Davis said. “Some stages do go down because of the direction of the wind and rain (onto the performers), but in general the stages keep playing and the food and beverage vendors keep going.”
Davis has been a principal in the production of Jazz Fest since the first festival in 1970 at Congo Square. Jazz Fest remained essentially a local event through its first decade.
After its move to the Fair Grounds Race Course in 1972, the festival grew from drawing hundreds of patrons to the half-a-million it attracts now.
“We used to be like the ‘Field of Dreams,’ ” Davis said. “ ‘If you build it they will come.’ Now we say, ‘We better build it, because they’re coming.’ ”
John Wirt is The Advocate’s staff music writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.