Neil Portnow eyes Quint Davis for post
RECORDING ACADEMY president-CEO Neil Portnow made a wise and reasoned recommendation for the creation of a secretary of the arts Cabinet position on the Grammy Awards telecast Sunday. Naturally he would like to see the proposed seat filled by a member of the music community; Quincy Jones has already broached the idea.
After spending Grammy week bouncing from one musical event to the next, it appears the perfect applicant is indeed working in music, Quint Davis, who has produced the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival since it started in 1970.
What Davis brings to the table is an understanding of working from the ground up, positioning music as the voices that spring from communities. He understands the power of celebrity, how to attract the masses and how to sell the concept of culture — and do it all with integrity. JazzFest, two spring weekends of celebration that expose the various strains of America’s strongest culture, has no peer in the intertwining of lifestyle, cuisine, cultural values and art.
Davis was in L.A. over the weekend, introducing Louisiana acts in a ballroom at the Millennium Biltmore downtown at a catch-all program selling Louisiana to the entertainment industry. The program ranged from the solo fiddle and vocals of Beausoleil leader Michael Doucet to Irma Thomas singing gospel to Cajun band performances. The versatility of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band — and their driving, funky sound — was driven home in two roof-raising perfs over the weekend: Saturday they backed the Blind Boys of Alabama, Sunday they were joined by rapper Lil Wayne at the Grammy telecast. Both collaborations were artistically sound and viscerally enticing.
Such is the nature of Louisiana music. It was only in the mid to late 1980s that Cajun or zydeco was heard outside of the South. Today, the sound of accordions and fiddles are cemented as the bedrock of Louisiana; so-called Dixieland jazz even sounds outdated on Bourbon Street.
CULTURE MINISTERS need specific geographical rooting. When they have a sense of what make a music community tick, they have a standard in front of them. The Cabinet position would need to be one that would celebrate cultural heritage, the music that has shaped America and is forgotten until people like Lance Ledbetter create record labels to compile and annotate music that was created for music’s sake and without commercial ambition. Ledbetter, whose Dust-to-Digital label has issued bluegrass, gospel and blues compilations plus a fine set devoted to the string bass, and Art Rosenbaum won the historical album Grammy for “The Art of Field Recording Vol. 1,” a set that Rosenbaum referred to “music of the American vernacular.”
Ledbetter and the people he works with are in a boat sailing alongside the one being piloted by this year’s top Grammy winners, Robert Plant, Alison Krauss and T Bone Burnett. The trio reached into the songbook people such as Ledbetter preserve to create a new document that reinforces the relevance of America’s musical styles that pre-date rock ‘n’ roll. Krauss has been doing that her entire career, connecting the traditions of early country and bluegrass with the melodic ease of pop music. It resonates with her peers: She has 26 Grammys; only two people have won more.
BLUEGRASS, though, does not have cultural cache of Louisiana nor the galvanized effort that the state’s tourism, film and music businesses have created. That Saturday concert was just as much about Louisiana as a film location as it was about the food and music. There is not another state or city using music and culture as a core selling point — that experience should be embraced should this arts position become a reality. Look at New York: Jazz is beautifully presented at Jazz at Lincoln Center, but the city seemingly works overtime to ensure that no musical creative community blossoms organically.
Louisiana is secure in the knowledge of what it is. Doucet, who won the Cajun Grammy for a Beausoleil live album — their studio effort “Alligator Purse” was released a few weeks ago — said backstage at the Grammys “our music is all about celebration,” and by “our” he meant the entire state. The state has become a closer knit community since Katrina, he said. “That’s what’s wonderful about JazzFest — it brings everything together.”
And ultimately, that’s all we could ask from a secretary of the arts, an individual who knows how to bring people from all different walks of life to a single table. Sounds like a job for a JazzFest producer.