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

France - - Contents -

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

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