The traditional opening day for French Quarter Fest finds entertainment director Greg Schatz dancing with a very fickle future.
by Nan Parati
Editor's update: This piece was published on April 17. On May 7, French Quarter Festival 2020 was officially canceled.
What we 'posed to be doing right now?
Uh huh – going to the French Quarter Festival!
But we ain’t!
So I’m telling you all about it, like a dream! Like you was really there, but you ain’t! On this stage, this imaginary one here by the river, what you’ll find out is, what goes on, who does it, how it came to be. This’ll be the new interview stage that was to debut right here, right now, and I’m interviewing Greg Schatz, the festival’s entertainment director. Except that the microphone’s down right now, so I’ll just tell you the story.
So, just imagine you help produce a festival that, according to the survey conducted by the University of New Orleans Hospitality Research Center in 2017, generates an economic impact of $190 million for this city, in addition to $15.8 million in tax revenue for state and local government. The festival that ignites the whole season every year.
Imagine it’s the beginning of March and a huge wave of something we don’t know much about yet, is looming over the city, threatening to shut down your festival that’s set to open just a little over a month away. You’re in your 37th uninterrupted year of the free event, you’ve booked the bands, you’ve secured the vendors, you’ve added venues and stages, you’ve advertised the heck out of it all and – what’s this you say? A bat virus might be headed this way?
I asked Greg what happened then.
Friday, March 6th was the French Quarter Festival’s annual gala, kicking off the season. Reports of the virus were still over there somewhere in the distance, not close enough to take the shine off the glorious evening – but the following Monday, New Orleans contracted its very own first confirmed case of Covid 19.
This is the kind of information that stands on the outside of your head, knocking on the door to your brain. The information you don’t want to let in. The information that changes history.
The festival’s staff and CEO went into talks with city and state government, with the Louisiana Department of Tourism and with the health department, trying to figure out what to do.
That’s 205 million, y’all!
It was decided, assumed, desired and prayed for that the festival, scheduled all the way over a month away, should be okay with extra measures taken to protect the public’s health.
Right? Shouldn’t that work?
But what are those measures? How do you know?
The daily meetings continued. By the end of the week everyone knew what they didn’t want to know: That April was too soon. They couldn’t take the risk. But they were committed to postponing, not cancelling.
October 1st through 4th was set as the new, official dates for the 2020 French Quarter Festival. But even with a simple postponement, how do you do this? How do you tell over 1700 musicians, who have held this weekend sacred all winter long, and 60 restaurants that have started ordering and hiring, and all of the local sound, sanitation, staging and security companies that depend on this weekend as a staple of their entire year’s budget, that, um, they might have to come back later?
And then, how do you get them to interrupt the other end of their schedules later in the year, to come back? What if they don’t? What if they can’t?
What about that far end of the year that had other stuff planned for itself – weddings in Jackson Square, conventions around town? French Quarter Festival partners with venues all over the Quarter to present this event: Jackson Square. Woldenberg Park. The US Mint. Jax Brewery. The Royal Sonesta. House of Blues. No, you can’t just have this venue any ol’ time you want it! We got stuff going on!
And it ain’t just you in this predicament!
There are the sponsors! Chevron. Hilton Hotels. Abita Beer. Ochsner. Chevrolet. GE. Jack Daniels. WWOZ. Zapp’s Potato Chips. WWL-TV. Hancock Whitney. Lord, the list goes on! Over 70 sponsors and community partners put their money together every year to make this happen just for you, for free. And, more than money, they put their excitement into it. This is a statement about who they are! You don’t want to let them down!
What you gonna do with this mess, this bat-orientated virus from some place most have never heard of before, that’s suddenly sitting on the largest free festival in Louisiana?
You start inventing wheels. Brand new ones. Slowly and with deliberation. At that time no other major festival had postponed – French Quarter Fest was the first. And Greg Schatz was at the entertainment helm. He and his fellow organizers called the musicians first, then they called the world.
A little French Quarter Fest history
Like the second movement of Beethoven’s 7th symphony, French Quarter Festival started off like a gig that never saw the explosive crescendo sneaking up further down in the score. It was 1984, the long-anticipated World’s Fair was finally finished, and the city had made extensive repairs to the streets and sidewalks in the Quarter. No locals were coming to the Quarter these days, it was just too crowded with the World’s Fair, too ripped up, too far away.
How do you lure people in New Orleans? You throw ‘em a festival, Mister! A quarter century later, in 2008, jazz pianist Ronnie Kole recalled that Mayor Dutch Morial’s office had engaged ten people, nine business owners and one musician – Ronnie himself, to put together a new festival for the city. Perennial and professional organizer/celebrator Sandra Dartus was recruited as the festival’s first executive director and they were off, launching the sweet little free festival, down in the Quarters, that it was.
Greg Schatz didn’t show up on the music scene here until 1995 when he came to town to play with Jeremy Lyons, just moments out of college and loving this wild-ass music town he’d first visited a few years earlier. Back then he was a musician, solely, playing accordion with Jeremy, playing electric bass, piano and writing songs for his own band that he started in 1999. He was just gigging then, never thought he’d be on the hiring end of one of the largest festivals in Louisiana.
Greg had played French Quarter Festival a few times, usually sitting in with other bands, but he and Jeremy Irons’ Deltabilly Boys closed out the festival in 2003 in a set that was, he says, magical. The kind of thing to change a life, five years down the road, and make a musician want to get a steady job.
As Greg matured in the local music world, his organizational brain moved in cahoots with his creative brain, and in 2008, while the festival was still setting itself back to rights in the just-post Katrina years, he was hired by French Quarter Festivals to be its Entertainment Manager, bringing to the role a musician/performer’s sensibility that he hoped might add to the relationship between the festival and the performers. In 2019 he moved into the role of Entertainment Director, just in time to do some serious re-directing.
By the time Greg joined the festival the event was up to 18 stages and was still helping (just helping; in the words of the late, great Ernie K-Doe, maybe they ain’t brung the pumpkin to town, but they helped carve it) to introduce the world to the likes of Tank and the Bangas, Sweet Crude, and even, Shorty!
The festival is indeed, the world’s largest festival showcasing Louisiana music – and again! How you gonna shut all that down for this month when the whole world is depending on you?
These are the things you don’t think about when you’re dancing with a mouth full of shrimp po-boy.
The Here and Now
But what to do next? Within a week or so, all the spring festivals were pushed back, even the ones that still seemed far enough away to be okay. Nothing was okay. Nothing was certain, nobody was making any money, least of all the musicians who depended on those crowd-packed gigs to survive.
And those restaurants, with all that food in store, needing those happy crowds to serve. What do you do about alla dat? This isn’t just commerce, this is our people!
We gotta help ‘em. Quick.
The French Quarter Festival launched its Virtual Village where, in its own words:
“We want to share the efforts of our amazing food vendors, sponsors, and partners who are extending special services to help provide comfort and necessities to our community at this time.
"We also want to provide a space to showcase our festival artists, many of whom are hosting virtual concerts or video of past performances that can help fill our hearts with the music and joy we need right now. These are challenging times, but we are in this together. From all of us at French Quarter Festivals, Inc. – we love you and can’t wait to celebrate our music, food, and culture with you this fall.”
You can go to the site and see performances from previous FQFs. Learn how to support your music. Get yourself some education at the lectures. Find out how to still eat with your favorite restaurants, and what the supporting businesses are thinking about. It was a good start in this new world of new promotion.
And then, on April 4th French Quarter Festivals, in conjunction with the New Orleans Business Alliance and WWL-TV launched “Live from The Porch” where folks sheltered at home could make up a batch of beans and rice, and groove to the live-streamed concerts of Shamarr Allen, Walter “Wolfman” Washington, DJ Raj Smoove, Robin Barnes and Pat Casey, and more. It was a success with over a million visitors. Other plans and projects are in the works, coming in as they are developed. Five hundred years of financial innovation, squashed into a few fast weeks of innovative thought.
And here we are today, thinking about tomorrow: French Quarter Festivals also presents Satchmo SummerFest in late July, Holidays New Orleans Style in December, and thirteen individual concerts throughout the year.
What’s gonna happen with those?
Who knows? Who knows anything about anything on this day, the day we’re ‘posed to be eating cochon de lait down by the river, the day you’re reading this? Just yesterday, seconds after I turned this in, The New Orleans Jazz Festival, winding up for its 51st uninterrupted year, announced that 51 will be interrupted. Fifty-one won’t be celebrated until actual year 52, and 2020 is gonna be dark and hungry.
I, of course called Greg to ask him what they were thinking about, here the day after that, and two days after Mayor LaToya Cantrell had recommended that no festivals at all light up the dancing streets of New Orleans until next year. After Jazz Fest had decided to cancel.
Greg didn’t know yet. A decision hadn’t been made.
How do you make that kind of a decision? Do we stay or do we go?
It’s six months from now. We need this. How do you do it?
By the time you read this, you’ll know the answer. But children, the festival is right now, and this is all you got of it, the interview stage with Greg! I gotta turn this in!
For this moment, Greg and everyone at French Quarter Festivals is still meeting in their suspended states of animation; working from home, maintaining relationships, organizing as well as they can for what the world might be like this fall, all those months away.
As of this very moment, the Satchmo SummerFest is still poised and ready to blossom like usual in July, and right now, Greg, presently the longest-running worker at the event company is quietly working away.
He had sent out requests to many of the musicians scheduled, asking them if they might be able to re-set themselves on specific stages at specific times come this October. And he has a voicemail from Ellis Marsalis, himself, saying that he imagines he can – he certainly isn’t planning to go anywhere before then.
None of us are. None of us were.
And none of us will never be the same again.
Read other pieces by Nan or return to French Quarter Journal home.
As the sign writer for the Jazz Fest, Nan Parati may be the most collected artist in the world, but nobody knows who she is. Other than that, she’s lived in the French Quarter and the Treme, was the sign writer at Whole Food Company (before Whole Foods Market,) worked for Jimmy Buffet for a while, has made a life’s work out of festival design all over the country, has won awards for her plays, has a film script revving up for production and just sold a restaurant she opened in Massachusetts after Katrina took out her house and sent her out of her mind. Now she’s back in her right mind and having a real good time.
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