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Jazz at Juan-les-Pins Antibes France

Jazz festival Juan les Pins, southern France

I’ve been a regular at this jazz festival over the past few years and every year when the programme is published I cannot resist just one more visit! I duly pack my bags and set off for the French Riviera and head for Antibes/Juan-les-Pins…

juan-beach-antibesIf you’re of a certain age you may well remember Peter Sarstedt famously mentioning Juan in his 1969 No 1 hit: ‘Where Do You Go To My Lovely’. The lyrics tell of a portrait of a young girl who becomes a member of the Euro jet-set spending her summer holidays whiling away the time in Juan-les-Pins sipping Martini! Heaven on earth! And it really is… it’s a place to sit and watch the world go by, sipping Martini in one of the many street cafés and bars that favour this enticing place which is full of life with people of all ages partying to the early hours.

Another thing to enjoy here is listening to some of the world’s most iconic jazz performers in what must be one of the  most attractive settings in the world, la Pinède Gould, the Pine Grove, named after American businessman, Frank Jay Gould, a good friend of Charlie Chaplin.

The Pinède is set in an enviable position gracefully overlooking the Mediterranean with the backdrop of Cannes adding greatly to the overall flavour and atmosphere of the environment. And in contrast to the hubbub of 24-hour living in Juan you’ll find the old town of Antibes – neatly divided by Cap d’Antibes – provides a peaceful and serene alternative. The longest-running of all the European jazz festivals, Jazz à Juan (as it’s now billed) has established itself over the decades as a legendary event where jazz memories are born but above all where jazz thrives and still lives on!

Such has been its success that it has spawned a number of other similar festivals throughout Europe. The late Claude Nobs, creator of the Montreux Festival, affectionately said: ‘If I hadn’t stopped by Antibes, Montreux would never have happened!’ Praise, indeed!

The festival embraces every jazz style you can possibly think of from swing through soul to rock.

Such revolutionary and revered figures as Charlie Mingus came in the early years armed with the baptismal foundations of free jazz while that genius named Ray Charles made his European début here and John Coltrane hit the jackpot with his mythical interpretation of ‘Love Supreme’ in 1965. And when Miles Davis graced the Pinède it created an ‘event’ in itself while Satchmo was the ‘event’!

And the show goes on with a host of leading contemporary players now setting the pace and the Pinède alight. The 2016 programme is packed with a host of top acts and features two of America’s leading saxophonists, Archie Shepp (champion of free jazz) and Charles Lloyd (the most hip of all tenor sax players).

One of America’s iconic blues guitarists – revered by Eric Clapton who said that he is the ‘best guitarist of all time’,  is also back on the agenda to show off his earthy, roaring and driving Louisiana blues-style sound which he dispenses with clarity and ease. Born in 1936, Buddy Guy is a living legend and has enjoyed a career spanning more than half a century, selling millions of albums and collecting honours galore along the way.

juan-jazz-streetOne group to look out for this year is French-based outfit, Maryline and the Family Company. They look set to rock the Pinède to the wee small hours offering their audience a feast of rock ‘n’ roll and country-rock classics as a tribute to American music. In fact, it was at a country-rock gig at the South by Southwest Festival in Austin, Texas, that they first met. Returning to France, they took the plunge and started their own ‘family’ business based upon their shared enthusiasm for the music and the great songwriters they most admire.

France (and Paris, in particular) has been so important in nurturing and developing jazz since the Roaring Twenties. Antibes/Juan-les-Pins became a second home to many jazz-loving Parisian vaudeville stars such as Maurice Chevalier and Mistinguett, and has surely carved its name with pride in the history of jazz.

Turn the clock back and you’ll touch base with the immortal songbird, Ella, who’s still fondly remembered for famously improvising a duet with a chirping cicada, which, if you don’t know, is a stout-bodied insect with large membranous wings. The male of the species has drum-like organs and produces a high-pitched drone. Just the right note for Ella it seems!

One man who’s indelibly linked to Antibes/Juan-les-Pins and a famous party-goer was American soprano sax player, Sidney Bechet. A pathfinder of the New Orleans revival style, Bechet tied the knot in Antibes in 1951 and the nuptials were followed by one of the biggest street parties ever to be seen on the French Riviera. After Bechet’s death in 1959 the festival was founded in his honour.

The festival runs every year for 11 days in sunny July, there’s always a lot going so check out the programme – and get ready to pack your bags!

Details: Jazz a Juan 

Tony Cooper has been working across the field of publishing for a great number of years and worked for Eastern Counties Newspapers/Archant, based in his home city of Norwich, writing on travel, cultural matters and motor sport. He’s now a regular contributor to various regional newspapers and lifestyle magazines.

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