French jazz festival returns to its roots

New chief Gerard Drouot focuses on authenticity

The French Riviera isn’t famous only for its Cannes Film Festival and rose wine. It also hosts one of the world’s oldest jazz festivals in Nice — an event that dates to 1948.

Yank music impresario and Francophile George Wein took that fest to a new level when he created the so-called Grand Parade of Jazz in 1974. Under Wein, who was also founder and producer of the Newport Jazz Festival, the event rose to greater popularity, lining up icons like Ray Charles, Ella Fitzgerald and Miles Davis.

But later, from 1994 to 2007, many said it lost its jazz soul, turning to genres like world music and pop. It also lost attendence.

In 2008, new topper Gerard Drouot started to return the fest to its jazz roots. “(He) has succeeded in recentering the Nice Jazz Festival on jazz,” says Francois Lacharme, publisher of Jazzman Magazine and president of the French Jazz Academy. “He’s also kept the bottom line in mind by booking a few mainstream artists to ensure healthy ticket sales.”

This year’s edition will feature headliners such as Tracy Chapman, B.B King, Erykah Badu, Chick Corea, Gary Burton and Youssou N’dour.

“My mandate is to have more than half of the selection focused on jazz. Last year, we had 65% jazz, and people seem to have enjoyed it, as we registered a significant increase in attendance,” Drouot says.

Nevertheless, eyes are on the bottom line. “The recession is taking a toll on festivals that rely on public subsidies, French performing rights societies or local government,” Lacharme says. “These institutions are impacted by the economic crisis and festival budgets are shrinking.”

Lacharme adds that a major threat to Gallic jazz fests comes from agents of U.S artists who ask for too much money. “They’re stripping festival directors of their budgets.”

Despite these financial hurdles, Lacharme and Drouot agree that France nurtures a vibrant jazz culture. While the country’s many festivals don’t necessarly cater to jazz purists — some are simply summer music fairs designed to entertain wide audiences — the Nice event has managed to shed its nonjazz image. Fest runs July 18-25.

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