Clare Doyle writes about all that jazz
The programme for the Marciac Jazz festival arrived today, and despite the unseasonably wintry temperatures, and the steady rain falling outside my window, a sudden shaft of sunlight lit up my life.
We live about six kilometres from Marciac, and although this was not a deciding reason for living where we do (or even any kind of influence), the festival is now a significant element in our lives.
Marciac is a small bastide town in the Gers, in the South West of France. These pretty medieval villages are a feature of the rolling countryside of the Gers, offering calm and shade in their galleried squares for obligatory long lunches in the height of the summer.
The central square in Marciac is not as intimate as in many of the neighbouring towns; on cold Wednesdays in the winter, the market huddles miserably in the empty space. However, during the jazz festival, this large area becomes an advantage, for in those two weeks this town of 1,331 souls welcomes upwards of 120,000 visitors. Marciac has no less than five nearby international airports: Toulouse, Carcassone, Pau, Biarritz and Bordeaux.
This year is the 33rd jazz festival, and as ever, the line-up of internationally known performers is truly impressive. There is something special about seeing world performers such as Wynton Marsalis or Herbie Hancock playing in a marquee in a place that generally could qualify as being the middle of nowhere, and for two weeks becomes the capital of jazz.
From the stage in the main square all day long there are free concerts, animated by a wide range of musicians, from the students at the local college, to professionals who come from all over the world. You can sit at one of the many bars, read your papers and enjoy your beer or coffee, you can take a seat closer to the stage and bring your own sandwiches, or you can eat at one of the restaurants that flank the square and drink in the atmosphere and the music.
Further away from the centre you make your way though the little alleyways lined with market stalls, selling everything from the ubiquitous African masks through jewellery, Russian dolls, interesting clothes, local patès and honey, music cds, books, hammocks, pottery, carvings, and, more puzzlingly, oiled tablecloths, double glazing and Peruvian jumpers! Shops and galleries open up in barns and empty stores selling paintings and sculptures, you can have a massage or take part in yoga sessions, small stalls offer hair plaiting or henna body decoration.
An avenue of temporary restaurants leads to the chapiteau, the huge marquee erected on the local rugby pitch that houses the main concerts. For those of us who live here year round, this is one of the real treats of the festival, for suddenly one is able to eat Chinese, Thai, Spanish, and even Indian food. Marciac becomes a gastronomic world tour offering a range of cuisines close to that found in any large city.
Prices of seats in the chapiteau reflect the quality of the line-up, varying from 26 to 56 euros, depending on the concert, and there are reductions for buying a number of tickets. Or you could join the band of enthusiasts who sit outside the marquee under the clear star-filled skies of South West France, and listen to the concerts for free!
The surrounding area offers a number of options for accommodation, there are campsites, a vast array of gites, as well as a choice of hotels and bed and breakfasts in the neighbouring towns. What is guaranteed is that you will be able to escape from the crowds in Marciac within minutes and discover a tranquil landscape, rich in sunflowers and vines.
When I wax lyrical to friends about the jazz festival, which I do monotonously summer after summer, I am often met with the response that jazz itself is somehow ‘difficult’, some even say they don’t like jazz. I don’t get it, jazz takes in such a range of styles and rhythms through New Orleans to Blues to Funk to Latino, (and that’s only part of it), how can you dismiss it so carelessly? My more intellectual friends can become disparaging about types of jazz, seeing Dixieland as unchallenging, easy, as though one can only appreciate music if it is thought provoking and hard to grasp. Both reactions are in stark contrast to some of the musicians I have met and interviewed in Marciac.
‘Music is passion’ the Cuban pianist, Roberto Fonseca told me. His challenge is to express honest emotions without words. For him, struggling with definitions is not really of any great interest, and later, watching him perform, I was swept away with his enthusiasm, his joy. Was it jazz? Who cares? What is important are the feelings and the sharing of pleasure, and over time I have seen many musicians play at Marciac who did indeed seem to be infected with the magic of this little town.
Jazz isn’t difficult, nor is it undemanding; as Duke Ellington remarked when he was challenged as to whether his jazz was staying faithful to its roots, ‘It’s all music isn’t it?’
©Clare Doyle, 2010
The 33rd Marciac Jazz Festival took place 30 July – 15th August 2010