JAZZ IN JUAN-LES-PINS
The Riviera coast provides a stunning backdrop to the Jazz à Juan festival, which has been attracting the big names in music for nearly 60 years. Rachel Johnston – and her mum – get into the groove
Experience cool sounds on the Riviera at a festival that attracts the music greats.
My mother was up on her feet, jiving to a bass guitar riff, whooping at the stage and joining the crowd in a raucous plea for just one more encore: it was a scene that I never expected to witness, especially at one in the morning on the French Riviera.
Despite her musicianship, my mother is a self-confessed gig novice all too quick to brand jazz as ‘noise’, so I had been approaching my inaugural experience of Jazz à Juan with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. But her reaction on our second evening at last summer’s event, while watching American bass guitarist Marcus Miller against the backdrop of the Mediterranean, was proof that the right atmosphere can convert anyone. It is as much about the location and sense of community as it is about the music – a combination that makes a festival so special.
Jazz à Juan is Europe’s longestestablished jazz festival, holding its own against neighbouring Nice’s version, which is held at roughly the same time every summer. It all began in 1960 as a tribute to the American saxophone and clarinet player Sidney Bechet, who loved loved the area and who had died the previous year. Its success quickly led to the creation of similar festivals across Europe.
For the first time, the general public could get up close and personal with the phenomenon that jazz had become. Legendary bandleader and bassist Charles Mingus caused a sensation at the inaugural event, and he was followed by pianist Ray Charles, trumpeter Miles Davis and singer Ella Fitzgerald.
Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Getz and Sonny Rollins all became regulars, but organisers were not afraid to embrace other genres, with rock guitarist Carlos Santana and opera singer Jessye Norman both headlining. As well as attracting international stars for decades, the festival has also nurtured the next generation through the Jazz à Juan Révélations, a series of concerts on the main stage promoting young talent.
As someone who appreciates jazz, without being an expert, I was left wide-eyed at the variety that a single musical genre can produce: New Orleans, gospel, blues, swing, be-bop, Latin, cool, hard-bop, modern and electro have all featured over the years. Many cultures are represented, with African, Indian and Latin American rhythms permeating the programme.
While staying true to jazz traditions, the festival sees itself as a ‘laboratory’ that proves jazz is a living, evolving musical style – best demonstrated by the improvised Jazz Off performances on the fringe. In addition to the main line-up, both Juan-les-pins and neighbouring Antibes reverberate with music throughout the festival, as marching bands parade through the streets, hotels host concerts with fans streaming out on to terraces, and late-night sets fill local venues. These performances are free, extending Juan’s atmosphere to those
It is as much about the location and sense of community as it is about the music – a combination that makes a festival so special
without stage tickets, and showcasing a kaleidoscope of talent.
Performances take place in the evening, so daytimes are free for you to explore the breathtakingly beautiful surroundings. Juan-les-pins itself is almost a suburb of Antibes – looking at a map, it is hard to know where one ends and the other begins. Brochures often group these Riviera neighbours together, giving the impression that it is all one big cohesive sprawl along the Côte d’azur between Cannes and Nice. However, there are clear differences: ancient Antibes with its Greek origins and 16th-century ramparts, contrasts with the art-deco elegance of beach-lined Juan-les-pins.
The influence of jazz on Juan is visible everywhere: a ‘Rue Miles Davis’ here, a saxophone symbol there. From as early as the 1920s it was the meeting place for the literary and intellectual elite, when wealthy American expatriate Gerald Murphy invited F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and friends from Paris to their home in Cap d’antibes and brought American jazz to the casino.
The pace can be frenetic and the prices astronomical in the area around the casino, while the public beach along the Promenade du Soleil is a mass of sun worshippers on summer weekends. But you can get away from the crowds by strolling around the residential area of Parc Saramartel, a lovely, secluded part of town full of stunning houses with lush gardens. Or you can spend a day at the beaches of Cap d’antibes for the price of lunch or a few drinks.
For shoppers, the town is a paradise (as is Antibes) – and the famous Pam Pam cocktail bar is the place to sip rum punch and watch the world go by. The little tourist train is all that is needed to get to Antibes, and it is my favourite way to soak up the surroundings. Once there, make for the covered market with its heady aromas of olives, charcuterie and spices, and buy a straw hat to fend off the midday heat. Art lovers should make for the Musée Picasso in the Château Grimaldi (worth it for the views as well as the art) – and then pause at one of the palm-shaded restaurant terraces for ice-cold gazpacho and grilled gambas as big as fists.
Back in Juan-les-pins, it is in the Pinède Gould, an ancient, fragrant pine grove situated just a few hundred yards from our hotel, where the jazz magic happens. The grove separates Juan’s glitzy, crowded seafront from the quieter residential area, and at sunset, becomes an almost intimate haven for 3,000 all-seated music-lovers.
Clad in light linen and sandals – this isn’t a dressy affair – we arrived at the gates with our tickets, where the gathering crowds were swiftly and expertly funnelled through by a team of organisers. You can smell the pines at this point, but nothing quite prepares you for the view as you climb the stand’s steps to find your seat. The stage is an unexceptional metal framework, with a neon roundel bearing the festival name, but it is open-backed, with nothing behind it but the rippling shallows of the sea and the sinuous curve of the coast.
The sun was setting and the waters had taken on an ethereal lavender-gold hue as we took our seats. A few yachts rode at anchor while speedboats trailed
You can smell the pines at this point, but nothing quite prepares you for the view as you climb the stand’s steps to your seat
skiers in their foamy wake. There was just the hum of the gathering audience and the occasional guitar sound check. It was the most romantic and memorable concert venue I had experienced.
If Marcus Miller was the performer to get my mother up on her feet on the second night (and order another glass of rosé from the pop-up bar below), Diana Krall, headlining on our first evening, was the one to cast a spell on us all. Her deliciously husky voice and silky stroking of the piano keys held everyone in a trance, as she graciously acknowledged her accompanists at every turn and delivered a pitch-perfect performance. It was a thrill to get so close to this Canadian singer-songwriter, whose humility and humanity were palpable; so engaged did she make us feel, that it was like being in her home, were it not for the occasional rustle of the breeze and blinking lights on the now-inky sea.
Krall had been preceded by the young British singer Hugh Coltman, who got us all in the mood with his bluesy offerings – but perhaps the most electrifying performance came from Selah Sue, a Belgian singer-songwriter with a beehive of brown hair and an inexhaustible energy and stage presence. Her popularity in France is sky-high – 320,000 of her 720,000 album copies have been sold there – and she brought more of a pop vibe to the festival, embodying its musical diversity.
If Jazz à Juan fluctuates between styles, it remains consistent in terms of quality. Stars appearing in 2017 include Tom Jones and Sting; Jamie Cullum is in the final Saturday night line-up, having first performed in Juan-les-pins in 2006 and gone on to establish himself as a key figure in international jazz. Macy Gray, who weaves a soulful vibe into her jazz and whose voice is even huskier than Krall’s, is taking to the stage, too. Fellow American singer Gregory Porter, whose sources of inspiration include Nat ‘King’ Cole, duetted with Stevie Wonder – a festival favourite – in 2014 and now returns to give a solo concert.
On our second night, my ears were ringing with Marcus Miller’s last riff as we filed out of the stands, on a total high. It was well into the early hours but the party was only just heating up in town, with bars abuzz and waiters trawling the pavements with trays of exotic cocktails. My mother declared it was time for bed – but I couldn’t resist soaking up more of the festival atmosphere with an alfresco nightcap.
Rubbing shoulders with other revellers, it was hard to believe they weren’t here to stay and that within a few days the Pinède Gould would blend back in with the other pine groves along this picturesque coastline. But jazz has left an indelible mark here, and each Jazz à Juan is the culmination of a continuous year of hard work – for lovers of music and the Med, there is nothing I would more heartily recommend.
MAIN PICTURE: The main stage at Jazz à Juan looks over the Mediterranean; LEFT: Marcus Miller in concert at last summer’s festival
ABOVE: Juan-les-pins enjoys a spectacular location on the Côte d’azur; BELOW: Canadian singer Diana Krall is a festival regular