Jazz: American invention, European passion


PARIS, France — Since the inter-war years, when the likes of Josephine Baker fled American prejudice into the willing arms of Paris' artistic establishment, jazz has held a special place in European cultural life.

To this day, jazz remains a vital and expanding part of the summer festival season in Europe. Jazz recordings may account for a small percentage of sales in the hit-driven music industry but when it comes to fans turning out to hear the music in warm weather in beautiful settings, the numbers grow every year.

Testament to its popularity, Jazz a Juan, the oldest festival in Europe, celebrates its 50th anniversary this year in Antibes Juan-les-Pins from July 14-25, not too far ahead of the 44-year-old festivals of Jazzaldia in San Sebastian, Spain, and Montreux in Switzerland.

Started in 1960 as a tribute to the saxophonist Sidney Bechet, who adopted Antibes as his home in the 1940s, Jazz a Juan sparked the establishment of other festivals all over Europe — so many, in fact, that some of the more popular musicians simply spend their summers there and even buy houses, like Wynton Marsalis, who both bought a home and vineyard in Marciac.

“Europe, and France, in particular,” said Jean Rene Palacio, the artistic director, “fell in love with jazz after World War II, when American jazz musicians suffering from segregation at home, escaped here and found a welcome. For us, jazz music came to symbolize freedom.”

Festival dates:

Montreux Jazz Festival: July 2-17

North Sea Festival, Rotterdam: July 9-11

Umbria Jazz Festival, Perugia: July 9-18

Jazz a Juan, Antibes-Juan les Pins: July 14-25

Jazzaldia, San Sebastian: July 21-25

Jazz in Marciac, Marciac: July 30-August 15

Though ignited decades ago, Europeans’ passion for jazz remains undiminished, strengthened by musicians talented enough to replace the performers who fueled it, giants like Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Ella Fitzgerald.

Wynton Marsalis, Roy Hargrove, Kenny Garrett, Christian McBride, Brad Mehldau and Jacky Terrasson swing as hard as their predecessors, and have secured a place in the hearts of new generations.

Pioneers still perform at the European festivals, including Ahmad Jamal, Roy Haynes, Sonny Rollins and Dave Brubeck, who are in their 80s, as did Hank Jones, until his death in May at 91.

Festivals offer special enticements, among them breathtaking surroundings. The Umbria Festival takes place in the Italian Renaissance village of Perugia while Jazzaldia in San Sebastian, Spain, overlooks the sea, the Montreux Festival is ringed by the Alps, Juan-les-Pins nestles in the pines and Marciac fills a rustic French farm town with music. They also give audiences a chance to see artists in intimate settings, which has always been one of the humanizing aspects of jazz.

Palacio pointed out that no matter how major the jazz headliners, they don’t arrive in limousines with off-putting security, as do rock and pop stars, and they usually mingle with their audiences. “Like jazz,” he said, “the musicians foster human relationships. They connect with their fans. There’s that warmth in jazz that you find in no other performing art.”

Time does not stand still, however, and directors of successful festivals program accordingly, no matter how much they might want to stay within the confines of what is considered traditional jazz.

Like most of them, Jazz a Juan, which attracted 23,000 visitors last year over nine days, features a few musicians more associated with other genres, such as George Benson, who falls into a pop or R&B category. This year, it schedules famous flamenco guitarist Paco de Lucia as well as jazz bassist Marcus Miller performing with the Monte Carlo Philharmonic.

“I like matching seemingly incongruous bands and performers,” Palacio said. “It helps expand people’s understanding of the music.”

Jan Willem Luyken, director of the North Sea Festival in Rotterdam agrees. He regularly brings in artists from the worlds of hip hop and world beat, and this summer invited pop star Stevie Wonder, classical pianist Lang Lang and jazz icon Ornette Coleman. Last year, 70,000 people attended the festival.

“Historically, jazz mixes with other forms of music,” he said. “I think the European jazz scene is more adventurous that way. We’re pretty open to any cross over collaboration. As soon as you start segregating in music, you lose potential fans. Jazz stays strong by being open.”

Unlike many other performing arts, younger does not mean more popular in jazz. In fact, the older artists draw more audiences than their juniors. “They’ve had a chance to establish an audience,” said Claude Nobs, director of the Montreux Festival. “As the music scene has changed, younger musicians have had to find new ways to gain a following. It’s pretty hard these days, but I’m optimistic that they will find their way.”

Festival directors are always on the look out for ways to satisfy fans. Palacio decided that Jazz a Juan should hold concerts on the beach with an open bar. Jazzaldia director Miguel Martin opened new outdoor venues, and devotes a couple of stages only to Indie music. His innovations added up to 105,000 visitors in 2009, a considerable increase over the previous year. Jean-Louis Guilhaumon, the director of the Marciac Festival, boasts of the town’s comprehensive museum of jazz, Les Territoires du Jazz, which documents its history with videos and displays, and he also extols the region’s excellent food.

To develop future generations of jazz lovers, almost every festival now holds classes, workshops and lectures to educate the local population and visitors. Some like Jazz a Juan and Marciac maintain them year round. “Our students can now follow a special jazz curriculum,” Guilhaumon said, “and they have the opportunity to attend master classes with great musicians like Wynton Marsalis who give concerts here.”

Palacio added, “I believe that jazz will once again become our popular music. When it does, the world will be far better for it.”