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Jazz: American invention, European passion

US artists join crowds flocking to Europe's summer jazz festivals.

Jazz a Juan
Ahmad Jamal performs at Jazz a Juan, the oldest festival in Europe, which this year celebrates its 50th anniversary in Antibes, France, July 14-25. (Courtesy French Government Tourist Office)

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.