Ted Jones - writer
Sonny Rollins Paris Africains

On the Riviera, from July to September, the hills are alive with the sound of Jazz

It’s that time of the year on the French Riviera when visitors spurn the beaches in favour of more cultural pursuits. And it’s not just the tourists: locals too are slipping out of shops and offices as they respond, like the children of Hamelin, to the call of a distant music. The entire coast, from Toulon in the west to Menton in the east, is a feast of jazz festivals.

The Riviera’s love affair with jazz is almost as old as jazz itself. While paddle steamers were carrying the new music up the Mississippi to the great cities of the eastern United States, American GIs joining in World War 1 were carrying in their knapsacks the first scratchy products of the infant recording industry. New French words were coined or adopted - rag-time became le temps de chiffon, and swinguer and le big band entered French dictionaries.

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

Black American jazz 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 streets, 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.

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 moonlit Mediterranean as its backdrop, the concerts in the Gould Pine Grove are a relatively sedate affair – certainly more so than in 1963, when the mayor, thinking that many of the audience looked like hippies, had them bussed out of town. (They walked back.)

This year the festival (July 14-24) celebrates its 45th birthday, and will welcome such veterans as tenor sax legend Sonny Rollins – here giving his only European performance - pianist McCoy Tyner and Antibes regular Keith Jarrett; in addition to relative newcomers like gospel convert Sharon Jones, French Duke Ellington exponent Laurent Mignard and Italian saxophonist Stefano di Battista.

Nice Jazz Festival
The Nice Jazz Festival has to be the longest-running: its Roman arena has echoed to excited crowds for 2,000 years. Its jazz festival is 57 years old this year, which may not sound much compared to the Romans, but makes the famous Newport Festival, which began only in 1954, seem something of a Johnny-come-lately. The numbers are impressive, too: on the eight evenings (July 20 to 27), around 50,000 people will watch 75 concerts by 500 artists on its three stages; close enough to be only a short stroll apart but distant enough not to impinge on each others’ sounds.

This year the accent in the Nice festival is on variety: there’s everything from Touareg folk music to Guinean kora. Veterans like the Irish rock and blues icon Van Morrison and the gospel-binding Blind Boys of Alabama will rub shoulders with new wave jazzmen like the totally unclassifiable New York group of Laurent de Wilde, (among whose band personnel is listed a DJ!), and Riviera-raised New York-based accordionist Richard Galliano.

Veteran fans of the Nice Jazz festival lament the diminution of both the jazz and the festiveness, but that may say more about them than the festival. The jazz is still there, hidden among the rap, the funk and the reggae - and if that’s what it takes for the festival to survive, we have to accept it. But it must mean it’s time to consider a name change: even the New Orleans event now calls itself a "Jazz and Heritage” festival. I will still miss the family picnics under the olive trees and the chance to meet the artists - my children and I used to enjoy chatting with Dizzy Gillespie and Lionel Hampton in the cafeteria. Today they are ‘artistes’, cloistered in a public-proof "Artistes' Village" – and cameras and picnic boxes are verboten.

Jazz around the Coast
These two main shindigs apart, there’s a plethora of jazz to be found along the coast this summer – so many that diaries can get confused: even the Juan-les-Pins and Nice festivals overlap by four days.

In La Seyne-sur-Mer, just south of Toulon, the 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 romantic setting for Jazz à Porquérolles (July 7-13), which will feature the multi-talented tenor-saxist Archie Shepp and the St. Germain piano legend René Urtreger – who once toured with Miles Davis - and his quartet.

The famed New York group Steps Ahead is one of the 20-plus groups in the Toulon Jazz Festival (July 15-24). With three sessions per evening: aperitifs, concerts and after-midnight jam sessions, it’s a festival for serious jazz fans – and it’s all free.

There’s something for the fans of tomorrow at Barcelonette in the Hautes-Alpes (July 16-24): Le Festival des Enfants du Jazz attracts stars of the calibre of the Marcus Miller band, blues guitar giant Lucky Peterson and pianist/composer Michel Legrand.

Jazz in August
There’s no let-up in August either: in Beaulieu, performers in Les Nuits Guitares, in the Jardin de l’Olivaie from August 4-6, will include Louis Bertignac and Gérald de Palmas. At Saint Tropez down in the Var, Jazz à Ramatuelles (August 16-20), is an international affair, led by such greats as soprano saxist Wayne Shorter and his quintet and the Brussels Jazz Orchestra.

Up in the back country, Draguignan’s Festival Sous le Soleil, in the Parc Haussmann, extends until August 10, showcasing an eclectic range of styles, from Reggae to Hip Hop.

But perhaps the most unusual festival is the one with which Hyères, in the western limits of the coast, celebrates 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, included Italian saxophonist Steffano di Battista, whose programme was a homage to Charlie Parker: they both used Rico reeds from Hyères.

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

Ted Jones

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

Barcelonette: www.enfantsdujazz.com 04 92 81 04 71
Beaulieu: www.ot-beaulieu-sur-mer.fr 04 93 01 02 21
La Ciotat: www.jazzconvergences.com 04 42 71 81 25
Draguignan: www.festival-souslesoleil.com
Juan-les-Pins: jazzajuan@antibes-juanlespins.com 04 92 90 53 00
Menton: www.villedementon.com 04 92 41 76 76
Nice: www.nicejazzfest.com 08 92 70 74 07
Porquerolles: www.jazzaporquerolles.org 06 15 21 09 04
Ramatuelle: www.jazzfestivalramatuelle.com 04 94 79 10 29
St.-Raphaël www.saint-raphael.fr 04 94 19 52 52
La Seyne: www.ot-la-seyne-sur-mer.fr 04 98 00 25 70
Toulon: www.citizenjazz.com 04 94 09 71 00

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