QUINT DAVIS was disgusted with the gaudy image of New Orleans jazz, an irreverent memorial of neon strips and tourist packed nightclubs making a feeble attempt to acknowledge a rich cultural heritage.

The city needed a tribute to itself. A native's Marde Gras. So, Davis and a group of then-amateur producers of the first New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Restival.

After a 10-year struggle for credibility, acceptance and profits, Davis 'brainchild has grown from a financial ailing week-end jam session to a three-week spring rite.

"At the first festival in 1970, we had 300 musicians on the stages and 150 people in the audience," grins Davis, producer of the music and food symposium.

The 10th anniversary edition, which closes today, has attracted 5,000 musicians and 400,000 patrons that support a $1-million budget. For New Orleans, the festival is now second in size only to Mardi Gras.

Despite its ballooning success, the festival's primary focus remains on the crowds that sway and jiggle beneath the striped tents on the city fairgrounds. The performers who appear on the festival's 11 stages are merely conducts of the heritage Davis and Festival Productions Inc. hope to preserve.

"Jazz has become concert music, but that's not the way it started," says Davis. "Louis Armstrong didn't play for concert sitters. It's dance music and the purpose of the festival is to bring the music back to life - not stage it for folklorists."

And that, according to Davis, is what separates the New Orleans jazz celebration from the other major jazz festivals around the world.

The Jazz and Heritage Festival serves up a jambalaya of music forms, many of which are relegated to back-porch family jam sessions and small neighborhood playhouse stages the remainder of the year.

The festival incorporates jazz with a taste of the many other music forms upon which the culture of the city was built: from Cajun to African, from Jamaican reggae to rhythm and blues.

The performers include the famous and the faceless.

A cajun accordion player from the backwoods bayous of Mamou, La., belts out a French love ballad. For one performance, the Cajun and hundreds of other obscure musicians emerge from anonymity to enjoy a flirt with populas recognition. The names and faces won't be remembered, but the music contributes to an indelible recording of a vibrant culture.

Although 90 percent of the talent offered to the audiences is gleaned from various Louisiana locales, the festival also attracts national names: Eubie Blake, Ella Fitzgerald, Allen Toussaint. On week nights, the festivities leave the general admission New Orleans fairgrounds and are transported to the city's traditional jazz clubs and moonlight riverboat cruises.

The producers have branched their searches to remote villages and foreign countries, attempting to capture samples of the cultures which migrated to the Delta Country centuries ago. At festival time, for example, organizers were still scurrying to clear the visa of a Bahaman musician.

Despite the professional effort to coordinate the gargantuan musical concoction, "audience participation is the key to this entire festival," observes Anna Zimmerman, an assistant producer who, with Davis, also aids in the organization of New York's Newport Jazz Festival.

"It is by far the most unique festival I work with," adds George Wein, a leader in the production of 25 musical festivals from Nice to New York. "Everybody in New Orleans relates to the festival, both young and old. It's not like that at the other festivals, where only jazz and music fans are present. I use this as an example of the way a festival should be anywhere."

Although New Orleanians were hesitant to accept Davis' musical fiesta 10 years ago, they now arrive in droves, equipped with ice coolers of brew and bottles of suntan oil. They stroll from tent to tent, sampling the 100 varieties of native cuisine as voraciously as they test the gumbo of musical talent.

First stop, the tent boasting spicy Cajun sausage jambalaya. Second stop, the Jazz Stage where the Louisiana Dandies (from - where else - Geneva, Switzerland) have created an aura of the 1920s. They speak only German and French, but their musical sound is international. They color the traditional trumpet and saxophone with a unique montage of washboards, overturned saucepans and cowbells.

"We come here every year,' said one band member through an interpreter. He tugged at his wing-tipped collar and ran his fingers through a thatch of carefully parted and slicked F. Scott Fitzgerald styled hair. "It is our contribution to the state that gives us our popularity back home."

At the next stage, New Orleans' selfproclaimed boy wonder, 11-year-old Harry Connick Jr., bangs out a Dixieland tune on the piano that puts the crowd on its feet in the "second-lining" dance indigenous to New Orleans.

"This is better than Mardi Gras - no doubt about it," declares a bearded participant, bouncing to the beat while balancing a beer and oyster poor-boy in one hand.

From Ironing Board Sam to the Barroom Buzzards, the offering seem endless as groups of gray-haired senior citizens saunter from stage to stage alongside long-haired youths yearning for a glimpse of the Woodstock era they missed a decade ago.

"This festival says something to the rest of the world - that New Orleans is different," Davis says. "It can bring together fragments of the black community, the Uptown whites and the people who like country and western. It is one city's fight against disco."

Despite its label, the jazz festival commemorates almost every form of music "except disco and punk rock," quips Zimmerman.

Producers of the Jazz and Heritage Festival like to claim at least partial credit for the musical renaissance that seems to have hit New Orleans in the last several years. Jazz clubs and music clubs without French Quarter commercialization have mushroomed throughout the Crescent City.

The price of fame and inflation is costing the patrons of the fair, however. A plate of red beans and rice has soared from 75 cents to $2.50 in the past few years.

Individual entrepreneurs and charity organizations peddle Creole cuisine from more than 50 booths. Inmates at the Orleans Parish Prison barbecued hundreds of pounds of shrimp and pork to raise funds for the police department's Elderly Victims Assistance Program.

Last year, for the first time, the festival earned profits, and the jazz festival corporation funneled $75,000 into grants for community arts and music groups.

Today the bands, well-known and little-known, pack their instruments and amplifiers, and return to Geneva and Mamou, New York and Lafayette. But the culture itself will not disintegrate with the conclusion of a three-week tribute. It does not even go into hiding; it merely fragments and disperses to its native settings.

It reforms from a phenomenon to a way of life. CAPTION: Picture 1, "Everybody relates to the music, both young and old." By Burt Steel; Picture 2, no capitan, By Burt Steel