Thousands of miles and an ocean separate the U.S. birthplace of jazz from the French Riviera. You’d never know it from the reception North American artists got earlier this month at the 65th annual Nice Jazz Festival.
Held just off the Mediterranean Sea in the sun-splashed South of France, the five-day fest featured some of the top names in music. From the timeless sounds of Earth, Wind & Fire that headlined the main stage on opening night to the super-smooth John Legend and guitar maestro George Benson, Nice’s festival maintained its status as a must-stop for international headliners.
It’s the third year Nice has sponsored this evening-only festival, moving it to the city center after years of staging performances inside an ancient Roman amphitheater in a ritzy hillside ’hood. Artistic director Sébastien Vidal reportedly wanted to attract more local residents while making the fest affordable. The main Scène Masséna stage was standing-room-only, as an estimated 6,500 packed the space for acts like EWF, Legend, Benson, and funk saxophonist Maceo Parker. The intimate Théâtre de Verdure held 3,000 for artists including the Esperanza Spalding Radio Music Society.
Vidal says the Nice Jazz Festival is about finding “the best new talent, but also the biggest names. It’s not 100 percent young or African-American, but also Armenian, Israeli and French musicians.” And why Earth, Wind & Fire? “It’s a jazz festival,” he says, “but if you want to go to the [foundations] of jazz, it’s African-American music, period. They’re the mythical funk group of the ’70s.”
Keeping music fresh across generations
Playing the Nice Jazz Festival as part of its month-long European tour, Earth, Wind & Fire rocked the mostly French crowd. Promoting Now, Then & Forever, its first new album in eight years, EWF delivered an energetic 90-minute set that blasted off with “Boogie Wonderland” and “Sing a Song,” then introduced “My Promise,” the first single off the CD that officially drops in September. Co-written with Siedah Garrett, the tune goes back to the 43-year-old band’s roots.
Says EWF bassist Verdine White: “[Our fans] know us. It sounds like EWF, and that was the intent.” The band reunited legendary Chicago horn arranger Ben Wright, and the album features tracks produced by EWF musical director and founding keyboardist Larry Dunn. But whether or not it also sounds different all these years later is “going to be for the audience to decide.”
White’s boundless energy, trademark flying mane and bass grooves were on full display as he performed classics like “Serpentine Fire,” “Devotion” and “Fantasy.” White says the band loves playing this festival, as it did a few years back. “They do love the culture of African-Americans,” he says. “They love our music, and of course, France culturally, they love jazz. Not only with us, but it started years and years ago with Miles Davis, John Coltrane and [people] like that. So we’re actually following a great tradition of playing these festivals, which is an honor for a group.”
Founders White, timeless singer Philip Bailey (whose still-soaring falsetto tore it up on “Reasons”) and vocalist/percussionist Ralph Johnson front the band, and they’re obviously having a ball. What keeps it real after all these years?
“First of all, you respect the music, respect the work,” says White. “And then you’re grateful that the work is still resonating. And in our case, we have a younger generation that comes to see us. We’re on our fifth generation of young people.” (Case in point: the same week as headlining in Nice, EWF played the Yahoo! Wireless Festival in London along with Jay Z, Justin Timberlake and Snoop Lion.) “I’m having a great time; I’m in a really good place.”
After wrapping Europe this month, EWF heads to Hawaii, Asia, then back to the U.S. mainland. Among the dates in the States: September 20 and 21 at the landmark Chicago Theatre in White’s Windy City hometown. And he can’t wait. “It’s got a lot of great bones in it, a lot of history,” he says. Just like Earth, Wind & Fire.
Translating musical genres across continents
Award-winning Toronto singer Kellylee Evans served up a delicious mélange of jazz, hip-hop, soul and groove in her Wednesday night set. Perched onstage—barefoot, as she prefers to perform—Evans shared tunes from her recently released CD I Remember When.
The bouncy, Caribbean soca-and-calypso sing-along “And So We Dance”—a tune Evans adapted in English from French artist Stromae—showed off the bilingual singer’s versatility. And the main stage crowd went wild during her jazzy-rap take on Eminem’s “Lose Yourself,” a song about owning the moment that could be Evans’ theme song.
In early June, Evans (who’s been on a whirlwind tour through Canada and France) was struck by lightning, initially leaving her with stroke-like symptoms on her left side. During her shows, “I’m always standing and dancing; sometimes I go into the audience,” says Evans, the daughter of West Indian parents. “I couldn’t even hold my microphone. But I could still sing.” In Nice, she moved to her feet a few times, but engaged the audience with her soulful chair-dancing moves and urban-jazz sounds.
A hip-hop fan whose musical influences range from Nina Simone to A Tribe Called Quest to Kanye West, Evans melds them all seamlessly in her songs. “It’s just this desire I have to show people, if you’re out there creating music, it all has merit. I’m not looking at boundaries and genres. We’re at Jazz Festival and there’s Ben Harper and Earth, Wind & Fire. We all just need to chill out and enjoy the music.”
For artists like Evans, Nice’s festival is one stop among others in France. The week earlier, she and her top-notch band played the Django Reinhardt Jazz Festival in Samois-sur-Seine, a scenic village an hour south of Paris whose 34th annual fest paid homage to Reinhardt, the late gypsy jazz guitarist.
Living it up during the Nice Jazz Festival
Naturally, much of what makes the Nice Jazz Festival incredible is the setting: the postcard-perfect stretch of beach-hugging Mediterranean coastline that surrounds it. Whether you choose to lay your head in gorgeous Nice, nearby in the lazily charming seaside town of Villefranche-sur-Mer—or a bit farther east in opulent Monaco—you can’t lose.
Of course, if you visit during the Jazz Festival, you’ll pay high-season dollar for lodging. But July and August aside, there’s never a dull moment on the Riviera (known as the Côte d’Azur en français) with year-round festivals keeping tourists and locals entertained. (Travel tip: consider coming here during the “off-season” in the fall, spring, and after New Year’s. The weather’s moderate, the sun still shines, crowds are thin, and prices less steep.)
Looking for luxury? Nice’s grande dame hotel, the Belle Epoque-era landmark Le Negresco is the place to stay, and its just blocks from the Jazz Festival’s main stages. Dominating the city’s famed Promenade des Anglais—a miles-long stretch alongside pebbly beaches and the Mediterranean—it features uniquely decorated rooms and suites, a sea-facing outdoors Champagne bar, and a world-class art collection inside.
In Monaco (less than a 30-minute train ride away from Nice), there’s the legendary five-star Hôtel de Paris Monte-Carlo, which stands next to the renowned Casino de Monte-Carlo and is home to a three-star Michelin Alain Ducasse restaurant and other culinary standouts. The stunningly chic Hôtel Métropole Monte-Carlo features a brand new pool, terrace, gardens, fresco-style installation and the third Jöel Robuchon restaurant designed by fashion legend Karl Lagerfeld.
Prefer a more laid-back, artistic vibe (but also with stunning sea views from your own balcony)? Consider the 35-room Hotel Welcome in next-door Villefranche-sur-Mer, just seven minutes away from Nice by train or 20 minutes away on a scenic 1.50-euro bus ride. This boutique hotel is mere steps away from incredible al fresco dining along the Bay of Villefranche.
Want to live like the locals? Rent a gorgeously furnished apartment from the English-speaking Riviera Experience, which offers personalized service and every home comfort you might need. Or stay a few minutes’ walk from the Nice Jazz Festival’s stages in a flat from Parler Nice Apartments, which offers two stunning, sunny apartments, including one inspired by French Riviera artist Henri Matisse.
No matter how you arrive on the Côte d’Azur, you’ll enjoy world-class views. Fly into or out of Nice—one of France’s three busiest airports—and drool at the scenery you’ll see from the air. Take the high-speed TGV to or from Paris and gaze at mile after gorgeous mile of Mediterranean beaches. And depending where you’re staying, seasonal April-October ferries between Nice and Monaco, Cannes and St-Tropez offer amazing sights from the sea.
Chicago-based freelance Travel writer Maureen Jenkins blogs at UrbanTravelGirl (about “living globally through international travel.” A Windy City native, she recently spent one year living in a village outside Paris.