Juan-Les-Pins home to Europe’s oldest jazz festival

Juan-Les-Pins home to Europe's oldest jazz festival

ON a lip of beach, the intimate, open-air stadium of Jazz a Juan, France�s most celebrated jazz festival in Juan-Les-Pins in the commune of Antibes, stands like a relic from another age.

By
Robert Spellman

Juan-Les-Pins home to Europe's oldest jazz festival  GETTY

Juan-les-Pins beach, Antibes

There are no ads or commercial paraphernalia along its sides, only the encircling pine trees that the Antibes region is famous for, and the rows of seats on the white-shale ground beneath the surrounding stand are plastic moulded school chairs with numbers crudely written on bits of paper stuck to the back.

Beyond the figures on stage, the audience looks straight out to sea.

While the scruffy elegance of this world famous setting is almost certainly not without design, it is quite plainly a haven for music lovers; for people who come to listen then leave.

Refreshments are sold from two small cabins that appear to do meagre business. There is nothing else to buy.

And as early evening approaches the magic of Jazz a Juan really begins to stir.

The sun dips and that sharp, glinting daylight so fondly the subject of painters such as Claude Monet and Eugene Boudin takes on a curious blush, a martian glow of purple, yellow, pink and green, and objects appear to emanate light rather than reflect it.

To this enchanted garden the greatest names in jazz and blues (and in recent years soul and pop) have been drawn since 1960, when composer Sidney Bechet was the star attraction at this Europeâ??s first jazz festival.

This year pianist Herbie Hancock made his umpteenth appearance, this time accompanied his old spar Chic Corea.

Both men sat facing each other at grand pianos, and navigated a loosely structured set that included glorious re-drawings of Hancockâ??s Cantaloupe Island and Maiden Voyage.

On the opening Friday two nights before, Carlos Santana obliterated the perpetual click of the cicadas, or tree crickets, who inhabit the pines, with a run through of Latin-rock classics like Evil Ways and the Peter Green-penned Black Magic Woman, a tune he has made his own.

Anyone lucky enough to have seen Ella Fitzgerald here in 1968 wouldâ??ve witnessed a legendary Jazz a Juan â??momentâ?, when the singer performed a duet with a particularly gifted tree bug.

For those who missed such moments and understand that a jazz golden age is never going to return, the Cannes-style handprints that run along a perimeter path of the stadium will no doubt be a tease.

Dave Brubeck, Stephane Grappelli, Milt Jackson, Little Richard, Elvin Jones, Sonny Rollins, Ray Charles, BB King, Stevie Wonder and Grant Green have all played here.

Miles Davis recorded his 1969 concert as a live album with a quintet that featured a young Chic Corea (who replaced Herbie Hancock) and John Coltrane dedicated a show in 1965 to compositions from his latest and subsequently much-celebrated work A Love Supreme. Â

In high season, lazing in the sun is not made especially easy in Juan-Les-Pins if your hotel has no associated strip of private beach.

The Hotel Helios, my place of repose, is blessed with this luxury but the tight rows of sunbeds are less appealing than the more relaxed, if rockier, public Plage de Gallice beginning at the west end of the private beach restaurants.

Venture even further west for Juan-Le-Pinsâ?? prized Grande Plage; about a kilometre long, deeper than the private beaches and with showers and changing rooms.

But for the bustling family beach experience, one needs to head for the neighbouring Antibes.

On arrival at Port Vauban, donâ??t let the billionaire gin palaces that crowd the wharf put you off, for behind the adjacent Bastion Saint-Jaume, lies the horseshoe-shaped Plage de la Gravette, a family-friendly enclosure with waters unpolluted by the nearby boats.

This is the heart of old Antibes, founded by the Greeks in the fifth century BC before its Roman 500-year conquest.

It became a properly fortified town in the 10th century and the Admiral de Grasse promenade that runs along the fortified walls offers stunning coastal views as you approach two populous but charming public beaches; Plage de la Sallis and Plage du Ponteil.

Back in the old town, next to the opening to Admiral de Grasse promenade at Place Mariejol is the Picasso museum.

Artists and writers from Monet and Dufy to Maupassant and Jules Verne have all flocked to Antibes for inspiration and sanctuary and itâ??s a history spread throughout the region, but art hounds can get an instant fix at the museum, once the site of a Roman fort that was rebuilt in the 14th century and named Chateau Grimaldi.

Picasso stayed here for two months in 1946 when the fort was the Grimaldi Museum and housed archaeological artefacts, and the curator offered the artist the old guardsâ?? hall as a studio because he felt the vast space was too bare.

Between September and November Picasso produced an extraordinary 23 paintings and 44 drawings and insisted they must never leave the building.

Perhaps his best-known work form this time is La Joie De Vivre, a playful homage to Antibesâ?? Greco-Roman heritage.

As the day draws to a close, head for the buzzy cluster of narrow streets between Rue de la Republique and Rue de Fersen for a well-earned supper on the street.

The usual fare; fresh fish salads, the immortal chicken and chips, mussels, crepes and steak apply and can be had surprisingly cheaply and abundantly for such a fashionable place.

But most of all, be thankful for this well-trodden but still-comely part of the world.

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