The History of the French Quarter Festival

Street performers at French Quarter Festival

It's dubbed "the largest free festival in the United States," characterized by stages and stages of jazz, blues, and zydeco music. Yes, we're talking about French Quarter Festival, or FQF, an annual event that consists of about 1,400 musicians performing throughout the French Quarter neighborhood on more than 20 stages.

However, while FQF is soon to commemorate its annual event, which will occur in a few days (April 6-9, 2017), the free music festival's humble beginnings were far from the extraordinary affair that it is today. Here's a brief look at the history of this now popular festival.

How French Quarter Festival Got Started

The idea for the FQF was born in 1983, although the first French Quarter Festival did not take place until the spring of 1984.

It was actually then-New Orleans mayor Dutch Moral that proclaimed the first FQF would take place in April of 1984, but the initial reasoning behind this festival wasn't to indulge in music and good times - the festival was actually designed to commemorate some $7.2 million worth of repairs on French Quarter roads that had long been under construction. The first FQF was a way to celebrate the end of 14 weeks worth of construction.

The first FQF only lasted three days and consisted of live music and entertainment on a handful of stages throughout the area. This inaugural festival also only drew several hundred people into the area, despite celebrities such as Ed McMahon guest hosting a battle of the bands on one of the stages.

French Quarter Festival Today

Things have since grown at a rapid pace, with more than 20 stages of music and live entertainment. In 2016, the festival hosted a record-setting 760,000-plus person crowd, and attendance continues to grow year after year. Locals and tourists alike flock to this event for the live music, food and special events, including free dance lessons.

swing dancers at French Quarter Festival

However, some traditions from the first FQF still remain. For instance, a battle of the bands continues to this day. The Dukes of Dixieland, a band that performed at the very first FQF, is still around and performing and will appear at the upcoming festival. Other traditions, however, have died out over time. For instance, the 1984 FQF featured a breakdancing and flashdancing contest, with several thousand dollars worth of prizes up for grabs for the winners.

Food vendors also still line the French Quarter to offer their respective delicacies to festival-goers. Exploring the culinary delights available at FQF is one of the best parts of this event. Springtime in New Orleans means one thing, and that's crawfish season. There are plenty of crawfish dishes to choose from throughout the fest, including annual favorites like crawfish pies, crawfish bread, and Muriel’s crawfish and goat cheese crepes.

crawfish boil at French Quarter Festival

If it's traditional hot boiled crawfish you're after, the Louisiana State Museum’s Old U.S. Mint stage area has your answer. There you'll find the Rouse's Crawfish Boil, which has been a part of the festival since 2008. If you're looking for the perfect outfit to wear (or if you get a little messy while eating and want to pick up a clean and stylish crawfish shirt afterwards), stop by our French Quarter location at 600 Decatur Street, inside of Jax Brewery.

As you can see, things have escalated regarding the FQF over the past 30-plus years. And while it's obvious that a large part of this growth is likely attributed to the fact that the festival is free, one can't deny the growth that the festival has experienced - all in terms of length of the event, number of musical acts and, last but not least, the number of attendees that come to celebrate each year. Not too shabby for something that was started all to celebrate the end of construction on some French Quarter streets.

Images courtesy of Derek Bridges