I landed in this lovely hillside town of Vence, France on the famed Cote d’Azur uncertain on what I’d find in terms of musical offerings. I’ve happily discovered that these lovely hillside towns are alive with the sound of music. It ranges from pop to classical to jazz and local genres, such as chanson, French accordion and religious chant.
Every week, Vence’s billboards, cafes and tourist office are covered with ever-changing posters and flyers promoting upcoming concerts, These events can be local fare–such as Vence’s month-long pop festival, “Les Nuits de Sud” (Southern Nights)–or in neighboring villages between 5 and 25 miles away.
Music is very much a vital part of French cultural life. July featured two internationally-recognized jazz festivals, one at nearby Juan-les-Pins (over 50 years old) and at neighboring Nice. I attended closing night of the Nice Festival and enormously enjoyed a concert that lasted over four hours and featured brilliant trumpeter Roy Hargrove’s Quintet, the ageless Ahmad Jamal and Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra in fine form.
I had wanted to catch one of the performances at the 4-day Festival of French Accordion but failed to make it. This coming weekend, however, I am looking forward to a concert by an a cappella group from Corsica singing Gregorian and other chant music at a Trappist abbey on an island off the coast of Cannes.
I’ve discovered that, for the French, music is a necessary ingredient for having a good time and stoking one’s joie de vivre. Since my arrival in June, there have been three occasions in Vence that brought out the local population (all ages, not just teenagers) for socializing and dancing.
On June 21, France celebrated “Fete de Musique,” a national celebration now 30 years old where every village decorates its town square and bands of every description (provincial French, rock, blues) entertain all evening while folks mingled, sat at sidewalk cafes and danced. Pauline and I had a great time reveling in the party atmosphere.
Then, of course, on July 14th, all France celebrated Bastille Day, the French Independence Day. And, just last weekend, this town’s medieval square (dating from the 14th Century), erupted with revelers dining and dancing for the centennial feast of St. Elizabeth. I’m not sure why that produced such revelry but why let a good saint’s feast day go to waste.
Besides a full calendar of summer concerts and feast days, I’ve also enjoyed getting my music fix via French radio. While I’m at a loss when it comes to fast-talking hosts on television or seeing “House” or “Gray’s Anatomy” dubbed in French, music serves as the universal language.
I roam the dial and land on either of two classical or jazz stations. While neither classical station approaches WFMT’s excellence, they are quite good AND commercial-free. As for jazz, having two 24-hour stations puts Chicago to shame though WDCB and WHPK do their best to fill the crater-size void.
One of the classical stations programs mainly opera and song, befitting France’s vast “chanson” repertoire. I usually favor the other station which plays more instrumental and orchestral performances. My only quibble is that, unlike America, where announcers announce performers, selection and recording date before and after each selection religiously, the stations here play back-to-back cuts that can last nearly an hour without any artist identification.
And both jazz stations exhibit a very French take on American jazz. You never hear modern groups. No jarring free jazz or hard-bop selections. I have yet to hear Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk or other modern masters. Rather, the selections favor Ella, Ellington and a lot of Louie (Armstrong)! And a pre-1950s songlist. Not exactly American “Smooth Jazz” but a close cousin.
Let me close with two sidenotes. None of the summer concerts, usually out-of-doors, start before 9 or 9:30 p.m. You may wonder why. Well, I learned that’s because the noisy cicadas don’t stop their infernal chirping until that time.
Finally, at “Fete de Musique”, the closing ensemble was a blues band who had the audience rocking. As their final number at close to midnight, they played a polished version of the blues anthem, “Sweet Home Chicago”. Amen, I say!