NEW ORLEANS – The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival (search) is just now recovering from a tempest that was spawned by a storm.
During last year's event, rain pounded the city — "The guillotine of God," says festival co-founder Quint Davis. "It rained every day, it rained hard. One day was completely canceled. It was a disaster."
The steady downpour, combined with a drop in attendance following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the war in Iraq, caused the Jazz Fest to finish in the red for the first time since its beginnings 35 years ago.
Now, as this year's 10-day celebration prepares to start on Friday, Jazz Fest can finally move past the fallout that threatened to drastically change — if not end — the event.
"We've been through some very trying times," said Davis, who started the festival along with jazz impresario George Wein (search). "I'd say things looked pretty bleak for quite a while."
Last year's event lost between $800,000 and $1 million. Suddenly there was talk of downsizing or even canceling it.
Davis and Wein offered to cover the shortage, but were rejected. The board instead made a number of cuts, including the evening concerts that had been part of the festival for years, and a number of the programs the festival has run, ranging from seed programs for small entrepreneurs and artisans to programs for schools.
There was also a search for a new producer.
"For all intent and purpose, I was fired," Davis said. "I think that group felt that as long as George and I were here they couldn't have as much power as they wanted. Fortunately the sentiment of the true board emerged and they saw things a different way."
The full board voted to retain Davis' Festival Productions, which then established a partnership with California-based AEG, the nation's second-highest grossing concert promoter. The deal has provided deep pockets for the festival and access to a broad range of talent.
Now ticket sales are booming, according to David Oestreicher, president of the festival foundation. "I think you just have to look at the lineup to see why," he said.
The Dave Matthews Band (search), which drew 160,000 in the biggest one-day Jazz Fest crowd ever in 2001, is back. The Original Meters (search), a New Orleans group that has built a huge underground following, will play together for the first time in five years.
There will also be other nationally known musicians and the usual long lineup of Louisiana artists. And for the first time, high rollers will pay $550 to $850 to enjoy performances in shaded seats with private bathrooms.
"In the course of all the negatives," Davis said, "we've come out better than ever."