12 May 2015


The French Quarter Festival in New Orleans is held annually in April. I attended the 2015 Festival and here's what I can report.
One of the best:
The Smoking Time Jazz Club Band.
The Festival runs for four full days. Twenty-three stages are erected, some by the River, some near the French Market, some on Jackson Square, some in Royal Street and Bourbon Street ......  and so on. Typically, there are six performances a day on each stage, the first starting at 11am and the last at about 7pm. The performers range from solo artists to big bands. So the total number of musicians taking part is huge. There are many 'big name' artists and a few bands that have travelled from as far away as Canada, Japan, Australia, Sweden and Germany.

Jackson Square during the Festival.

The entire Festival is free to attend. It is the largest free music event in the United States. You mark your card and spend the day hopping from venue to venue to hear the performers of your choice.

If - like me - you are most keen on the 'purer' kind of traditional jazz, you will find that about 15% of the performances are for you. There is also plenty of other music - rock, gospel, funk, classical, rhythm and blues, cajun, zydeco, klezmer and so on. A wide range of musical cultures is represented. There are about 300 concerts in total over the four days (though in 2015 a few of them had to be cancelled because of heavy rain).

The Festival begins with a Parade to Jackson Square. There are marching bands in the Parade and hundreds of enthusiastic 'second-liners' with their colourful umbrellas and bannerettes.

The City does an amazing job in putting on such a Festival at no cost to the audiences. Yes, there are over 100 sponsors, mainly businesses; but goodness knows what it costs to set up (and later dismantle) all the stages, barriers, portaloos, and to provide publicity and so on, and employ dozens of technicians and marshalls (and presumably give some payment to the musicians). The Festival is run by French Quarter Festivals Inc. - a non-profit organisation with a staff of just seven people and nearly 2000 volunteers.

The stages are equipped with powerful PA systems and well-tuned pianos.

Thousands of tourists come from all over the world for this special event, so hotel rooms are at a premium. There are large audiences for the most popular concerts.

I personally picked out concerts by the traditional jazz bands and these were very good indeed. But on just a few occasions, especially when the sun was blazing, it was uncomfortable being wedged in a large crowd, barely able to see the band. Old hands - you discover - get there early and bring collapsible chairs.

Many of the jazz musicians performed in more than one band, so you would see them (Aurora Nealand and Charlie Halloran, for example) dashing from stage to stage, sometimes playing in strikingly contrasting styles with various bands.

Throughout the Festival, the regular evening gigs by trad jazz bands (not officially part of the Festival) at such places as The Spotted CatThe Maison, Preservation Hall and DBA went on as usual, so it was possible to attend these as well, at the end of a day spent at Festival events. Here, you could appreciate the music in a more intimate setting where the bands mostly played acoustically and all instruments could be seen and heard. And of course, the many regular street performers, ranging from solo artists to bands, are always available to entertain, even though they too are not part of the official Festival. Believe me, the musical standards of those street musicians in New Orleans are extremely high.

What is quite certain is that the Festival gave thousands of people a huge amount of pleasure and fun.

Future dates for the Festival are:
2018 : April 12 - 15
2019 : April 11 - 14
Finally, a look back at New Orleans in 1923: