Jazz and food lovers unite in France

MARCIAC, France — It's a one-hotel town, in the middle of French corn country, but each summer its population swells with outsiders sharing two very specific, and complementary, interests.

Marciac, a village of 1,200, has become something of a mecca for jazz enthusiasts and lovers of fine French fare. Or, indeed, both.

This year, the Jazz in Marciac festival starred the American trumpet player Wynton Marsalis — a regular performer here who has his own bronze statue in the center of town — Brazilian legend Gilberto Gil, and newer talents, such as the Cuban pianist Roberto Fonseca.

On the food side, the stars were buttery foie gras, crispy duck magret and a local sweet white wine called Pacherenc.

This truly unique mix of jazz and delicacies won over Marsalis’ bass player Carlos Henriquez 15 years ago.

“This festival is really home-like,” Henriquez said. “It brings the elements of France, which are the small towns, the people, the food and the wine, but with a big crowd.”

Hanging out backstage before his show, Brazilian musician and former Minister of Culture Gilberto Gil was all smiles when asked about Marciac.

“It is always beautiful to play here,”said Gil, attending Marciac for the fourth time. “Marciac is a small village with an extraordinary culture ... with a great foie gras and the surrounding area is very rural. It is a very elegant village that prepares itself for the festival every year.”

Although the festival draws some of the biggest names in jazz, it retains the feel of a family-run event.

All day long, to the tune of small bands playing, visitors swing by the food stands and through the cobbled streets around the village’s main square — the Place de l’Hotel de Ville.

The event is run by volunteers. An armada of roughly 800 people helps run the show in exchange for free access to the concerts — tickets cost between $35 and $60, the more expensive entitling the bearer to seats nearer to the stage. 

Volunteer and amateur pianist Francois Guyard has been coming to the festival for almost 10 years and says the volunteers are the heart and soul of the festival.

“I remember a concert with Roberto Fonseca," Guyard said. At 1 in the morning, you had 600 volunteers dancing to his music and giving him a standing ovation. They did not want to let him go.”

Of course, you cannot attract A-list musicians with a tiny budget. Over the years, the festival has become more corporate — sponsors include an aeronautic group, banks, an insurance company and several news organizations.

Some old-timers fondly remember the festival’s early days.

“In the beginning, all the concerts took place on a truck platform on the main square,” said balding farmer Gerard Tete who sold his foie gras at the festival’s first edition, 33 years ago. “At the time, there were only two food stands here.”

Today, the main concerts are held under a tent built for 6,500 people, while the main square is the stage for an "off festival," which is free and generally features lesser known musicians.

“It feels great to play here,” said Canadian drummer Karl Jannuska, who played the off festival. “It is a great crowd, there are a lot of jazz fans, I don’t know where they all come from to be in this little village!”

Visitor Kim N’Guyen said: “The good thing about the off festival is that everyone can attend. Not everyone can afford tickets for the 'in' festival, and here the atmosphere is very festive.”

Marciac has also developed a jazz section at its junior high school — a rarity in France. During the two weeks of the festival, students from the College de Marciac and professionals attend master classes for around $750 dollars.

This year, Marsalis’ drummer Ali Jackson Jr. and bass player Henriquez lectured on the history of jazz.

“It is very important for us to reach out to students, and teach them about the essence of jazz,” said Jackson, who had earlier demonstrated a stunning drum shuffle to the class.

On the school bench, long-haired high school student Hugo Cesselin was still exhilarated by the encounter.

“It is amazing to hang out with the musicians we saw on stage yesterday,” Cesselin said. “Whenever these guys play,” he said, “you feel like they put all their heart in it. Truly, it makes you want to work and reach the same level.”

The French festival has also helped foreign musicians reach international fame.

Pianist Roberto Fonseca is among of them. He was only 8 when he began playing piano. But it was during his 2005 tour with the Buena Vista Social Club, and a concert with legendary Afro-Cuban singer Ibrahim Ferrer at Marciac, that Fonseca acquired world recognition.

“I was extraordinarily lucky to play with the Buena Vista Social Club,” Fonseca said. “I consider myself one of Ferrer’s and [pianist] Ruben Gonzalez’s last students. By playing with them, and by seeing how they behaved on tour, I learned more than I could have ever learned by listening to their records.”

When he is in Marciac, Fonseca is treated like family, receiving warm hugs from the staff. He speaks just enough French with a lovely Cuban twang to charm anyone he meets.

On stage, Fonseca’s sense of melody and Cuban rhythms, combined with his good looks — the pianist is sponsored by upscale clothing retailer Agnes B. — set the crowd on fire.

This time again, the crowd refused to let the Cuban sensation go. The entire audience, volunteers and $60 ticket buyers alike, danced and cheered to keep Fonseca around for an encore.

Those not lucky enough to be inside the tent were trying to catch a glimpse of the music right outside.

Farther away, another jazz band was entertaining a wound-up and cheerful crowd. From the cobblestone streets to the corn fields-turned-parking lots, it seemed like all of Marciac was dancing to the music.