Sunday, January 29, 2006

Blues in Miniature

This is not the French Riviera we know and love: it’s cold and rainy and the palm trees are doing frantic semaphores in the howling wind. So I’m indulging in a bit of summer therapy. I’m thinking sunshine; topless bodies frying like parallel sausages in a pan. It’s hot, and from Hyères in the west to the Italian border in the east, the coastal hills are alive with the sound of jazz festivals.
The Riviera’s love affair with jazz is as old as jazz itself. While paddle steamers were carrying the new music up the Mississippi to the great northern cities, GIs and gobs were bringing over the first fragile, scratchy products of the infant recording industry.
Between the wars, attracted by the favourable climate and exchange rates, more Americans followed, bringing their music with them. Jazz was a key factor in the Riviera’s metamorphosis from sedate winter retreat for posh Brits to summer playground.
Black American jazz musicians found a more tolerant society here: Sydney Bechet Square in Antibes is the town’s tribute to the New Orleans jazzman who lived, married and died there.
Incongruous though it may seem, the Riviera and jazz go together.
Like most oldies, I tend think to think that nothing is what it was in ‘my’ day. Fortunately, in most cases it’s better. I would not be doing this, for instance – not only because there wouldn’t have been the internet, but because I’d be dead.
But I must say that the Nice Jazz Festival is not what it was. There’s no money in jazz, so it’s a rap, rock, funk, gospel, reggae etc. festival – the jazz is hard to find.
I know it’s just nostalgia for passing - or passed - youth, but I miss the picnics under the olive trees and the chance to meet the people whose talent I envy most: jazz musicians. My kids and I used to chat with Dizzy Gillespie and Lionel Hampton in the cafeteria. (Why were jazzmen always such nice people?) Today the artists are ‘artistes’, cloistered in a public-proof "Village des Artistes", and picnic boxes are verboten - they adversely impact wine and food sales. My, then, early teen son and I met the French jazz pianist Michel Petruccianni there once.
Petrucciani died in New York aged only 36 – not of an overdose but from a rare bone disease - before he'd had time to enjoy the fame he deserved. He was less than three feet tall, (the change in font size is deliberate) and opened every gig with his composition 'Looking Up'. It was his metaphor - he looked up at the piano, at his fellow musicians, at the world. Son, shy - then at least - but never timid, hesitated over asking for his autograph, but eventually did. And what an autograph it was! Not a bored celebrity squiggle - it was a brilliant caricature of Petrucciani himself, cherub-faced, looking up, with a single word: 'Peace'.
Peace to you, Michel, for the joy you brought to a grateful few.

Looking up, I see it’s still raining outside, and the Mediterranean looks like the north Atlantic.

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