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Jazz Fever - Riviera Times
THE SOUNDS OF SUMMER

This summer’s Jazz Festivals offer something for everyone

It’s the time of the year on the Riviera when people are spurning the beaches in favour of more cultural pursuits. And it’s not just the tourists: locals too are slipping out of shops and offices, seduced, like the children of Hamelin, by a distant music. All along the coast, from Hyères to Menton, the hills are alive with the sound of – jazz festivals.

THE SOUNDS OF SUMMER
This summer’s Jazz Festivals offer something for everyone.

It’s the time of the year on the Riviera when people are spurning the beaches in favour of more cultural pursuits. And it’s not just the tourists: locals too are slipping out of shops and offices, seduced, like the children of Hamelin, by a distant music. All along the coast, from Hyères to Menton, the hills are alive with the sound of – jazz festivals.

The Riviera’s love affair with jazz is almost as old as jazz itself. When paddle steamers were carrying the new music up the Mississippi to the great cities of the eastern states, the first products of the infant recording industry were being carried here by American GIs joining in World War 1. New words were coined - rag-time became le temps de chiffon – and others adapted: swinguer and le big band entered French dictionaries.

Between the wars, attracted by the gentle climate and favourable exchange rate, more Americans followed, bringing their music with them. Jazz was a part of the Riviera’s metamorphosis from sedate winter retreat to summer playground: in 1926, Jean Cocteau, trying desperately to work, wailed: ‘In my hotel-brothel, sailors play jazz records and fight all night long. It’s killing me’.

Black musicians found a more tolerant society here: Sydney Bechet Square in Antibes is the town’s tribute to the New Orleans jazzman who lived, married and died there.

Jazz festivals were a natural progression - they brought jazz out of the smoky cellars into the open air, where it was born. France now holds more than 250 every year, mostly on the languid evenings of July and August - and the Riviera enjoys more than its share.

In addition to the well-established festivals like those of Juan-les-Pins and Nice, coastal resorts and arriere-pays villages are holding their own in the battle of the festivals.

Jazz at Juan-les-Pins
Jazz-à-Juan takes the prize for the most exotic setting. Sheltered by 100-year-old pine trees and with the – sometimes – moonlit Mediterranean as its backdrop, the concerts are a relatively sedate affair – certainly more so than in 1963, when the mayor, thinking that many of the audience looked like hippies, bussed them out of town. This year's festival (July 10-20) will feature, as well as veterans like the Count Basie orchestra – celebrating what would have been the great man’s 100th birthday - pianist Ahmad Jamal, tenor saxman Sonny Rollins and Antibes regular Keith Jarret, as well as young lions like West Coast tenorman Joshua Redman and pianist Brad Melhdau.

Nice Jazz Festival
The Nice Jazz Festival is certainly the longest-running: its Roman arena has echoed to excited crowds for 2,000 years. The festival celebrates its 56th birthday this year, making the famous Newport Festival, which started in 1954, seem a Johnny-come-lately. The figures are impressive: on the eight evenings (July 21 to 28), almost 60,000 people will watch 75 concerts on its three stages, only a short stroll apart but not so close that they impinge on each others’ sounds.

This year there's something for everyone: shows are themed, with each evening dedicated to one aspect of an eclectic range of music: "Funky", "Trendy", "Women's", "Boys'", "Devil's Music", and so on. Veterans like blues guitar icon Lucky Peterson will rub shoulders with new wave jazzmen like vibraphonist Roy Ayers and Wynton Marsalis's discovery, trumpeter Roy Hargrove.

Veteran fans - this is my 22nd year - of the Nice event complain that the jazz has become more scarce and the festival less festive. But the jazz is still there among the rappers and the ABBA-impersonators - and if that’s what it takes for the festival to survive, we’ll take it. But we miss the family picnics under the olive trees: now you can have any wine you like so long as it’s Chateau de l'Escarelle Rosé - and they make sure you don’t bring your own. A far cry from chatting with Dizzy Gillespie in the cafeteria: today, the stars are cloistered in an "artistes' village" – and cameras are verboten. Perhaps it's time to think of a change of name: even New Orleans now calls its event a "Jazz and Heritage” Festival.

Crowded calendars Bookings can get complicated: Beaulieu hosts a New Orleans Jazz Competition from July 2-4, showcasing bands from all over Europe, while St. Raphaël has a similar contest over the same week-end – conjuring images of giant tubas waving to each other on the A8.

In La Seyne-sur-Mer, just south of Toulon, Fort Napoleon becomes a jazz venue from July 23 -31, featuring French and imported musicians and late-night jam sessions. A nearby island is the setting for Jazz à Porquerolles (July 7-13), which will feature the multi-talented tenor-saxist Archie Shepp.

Famed French jazz violinist Didier Lockwood opens up the Toulon Jazz Festival (July 15-25). Boasting three sessions per evening – aperitifs, concerts and after-midnight jam sessions – it’s a festival for serious jazz fans.

Jazz in August
There’s no let-up in August either: on August 2-9, the appropriately-named Jazz en Aout at La Ciotat will include a band led by Philippe Petrucianni playing the music his late brother, Michel. Jazz à Ramatuelles (August 16-22), is an international affair, led by such greats as the Swiss Big Band and pianist Ahmad Jamal.

Also in August (21, 22 and 24), Menton celebrates its 55th annual music festival with - sandwiched between classical events - three jazz concerts, (two of which are free), topped by the exciting young American pianist Brad Melhdau. Draguignan’s event (August 9-13) ranges from the London Gospel Choir to bluesman Lucky Peterson.

There’s even something for the fans of tomorrow: at Barcelonette in the Hautes-Alpes (July 16-25), Le Festival des Enfants du Jazz is supported by the Philadelphia pianist, McCoy Tyner.

But perhaps the most unusual festival was the one with which Hyères celebrated the fact that the reeds produced from local canes – Rico - are prized by the world’s finest musicians. Its Festival de l’Anche (reed), held on June 4-6, offered – free - ‘Jazz in the Canefields’, featuring French and Italian jazzmen including Michel Portal and the "So What" orchestra.

Traditional or modern; hot or cool, there’s something for everyone on the jazz scene this summer – and you won’t have to travel far!

Ted Jones 1026 words

Ted Jones is the author of The French Riviera: A Literary Guide for Travellers, available from English language bookshops 1026