NEW ORLEANS (AP) — When the first French Quarter Festival launched in 1984, traditional jazz clarinetist Tim Laughlin recalls there was little interest and most of the streets in the 16-block area were largely empty.
“You could shoot a cannon down Bourbon Street and not hit anyone,” Laughlin said.
That’s not likely to be the case this weekend for what Laughlin calls the world’s greatest block party.
The free festival was conceived to draw local residents back to the historic district after the underwhelming world’s fair of 1984.
It now attracts hundreds of thousands annually to hear musicians representing genres from traditional and contemporary jazz to R&B, New Orleans funk, brass bands, Latin and zydeco.
This year’s four-day event opened Thursday. One highlight is Friday’s scheduled performance by Grammy Award-winning pianist Dr. John, who last played a French Quarter Fest stage in 1987.
Others scheduled to perform included Irma Thomas, Amanda Shaw and the Cute Guys, BeauSoleil avec Michael Doucet, George Porter Jr. & Runnin’ Pardners, Rebirth Brass Band, the Symphony Chorus of New Orleans, and 102-year-old jazz trumpeter Lionel Ferbos and the Louisiana Shakers.
The festival also will recognize the 50th anniversary of The Dixie Cups and the 40th anniversary of The Dukes of Dixieland.
“I call it the greatest block party in the world,” said Laughlin, who’s been a featured performer for two decades.
Laughlin said the festival offers music lovers a smorgasbord of options — for both food and entertainment — and gives local musicians a little bit of lagniappe: the chance to showcase their talent to the world. He said musicians also can sell their music without the festival taking a cut of the profit, which allows many to recoup their costs. His “Trio Collection Vol. 1″ will be available during his set Saturday.
Kim Emanuel, of Durango, Colo., danced in the crowd watching a performance by the Big Easy Playboys, who filled the air with the rhythms and sounds of zydeco music.
“We love this!” Emanuel said enthusiastically.
Emanuel and a group of friends were attending the festival for the second year after having attended the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.
“This is right up our alley,” she said. “It’s right outside our (hotel) door. It’s free. The food is amazing. It’s just a great experience.”
John and Robin Kuhn, of Nashville, were in New Orleans visiting family and decided to check out the festival for the first time.
“So far, I’m loving the music,” said John Kuhn, who stood along the fence line as the group performed.
“We don’t get that many free shows in Nashville,” added Robin Kuhn.
Organizers “keep it really local for the musicians who are embedded here,” said singer-songwriter Lynn Drury, who grew up in Mississippi but has called New Orleans home since the mid-1990s.
“This festival represents all the local flavors,” she said. “It’s not just the brass bands or tra jazz, what New Orleans is mainly known for. It’s a chance for me, too, to move my sound that I call ‘Mississippi grit, New Orleans groove,’ before a lot of people.”
Drury, a guitarist whose latest project “Come To My House” was produced by Grammy Award-winner John Porter, also plays the festival on Saturday.
French Quarter Fest offers a little bit of something for everybody — the fans and the talent, said jazzy-soul singer Michaela Harrison, a transplant to New Orleans via Washington, D.C., who said she’s inspired by the musical collaborations she often witnesses.
“We’re exposed to so many people, especially festival producers from other places who come here to scout talent,” said Harrison, whose repertoire includes threads of rock, traditional African and Brazilian influences.
Last year, the festival drew more than 560,000 people with an economic impact estimated by local officials at $246 million.
Kelly Schulz, spokeswoman for the New Orleans Convention and Tourism Bureau, said hotel occupancy percentages for the weekend were in the high 90s.
Helping those numbers, she said, was the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, which brought about 10,000 participants to its convention.
“It’s safe to say we will sell out the city,” she said.