Ever since it began in 1948, the Nice Jazz Festival has been the biggest and most highly regarded of its kind in Europe. At that first Nice Festival, the headline act was none other than Louis Armstrong and, since then, some of the genre’s most influential and popular performers have appeared. Names known outside the boundaries of jazz such as Count Basie, Cab Calloway, Ray Charles, Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, Lionel Hampton and Charlie Mingus have all made at least one appearance in Nice.
In 1994, the emphasis of the Nice Festival turned more towards modern popular and ‘world’ music but it has now turned back to its roots a little more, whilst retaining some modern influences. This means that names such as Leonard Cohen, Lou Reed, Joss Stone, Katie Melua, Tracy Chapman and BB King – artists with clear jazz influences – can now be found performing here.
The Nice International Jazz Festival takes place over eight days towards the end of July each year, in the vast and picturesque Cimiez Arenas and Gardens. Starting at around 7.30 pm each evening, the Festival takes place on two different stages (three when the refurbishment is completed), with the audience being able to wander freely between them. The gardens, in the grounds of a 15th century convent, and with their olive trees, holm oaks, cypresses and Roman ruins, have to be one of the world’s most beautiful settings to listen to great music. Because of the spaciousness of the gardens, even though 50,000 people will go to listen to the jazz, there is never a feeling of being overcrowded.
Another recent development of the festival at Nice has been that many of the musicians who travel to Nice to listen to their idols perform can often be heard performing themselves all around the city until well into the night. This makes the atmosphere in Nice even more enticingly special.
The area around Nice abounds with music festivals during the summer months – more than 2000 events ranging from classical to contemporary and Latin rhythms to sacred music; there is something for the most individual tastes. Nice, as a city, is a classic Mediterranean combination of wide, white beaches, broad promenades and then the cobbled medieval streets of the beautiful Old Town. The most popular destination for tourists in France outside of Paris, Nice has to have some of the very best squares in the country – those at Rossetti (especially at night), Saleya (with its flower market), Garibaldi and Masséna stand comparison with any in the world.
Nice has the nearby Côte d’Azur airport – France’s third busiest passenger terminal – making access to the city very straightforward. It also has excellent rail connections.
As in all of southern France, the accommodation choices are as varied as one could hope for – luxury hotels, chain hotels, hostels, guest houses and gites in the surrounding hills. Voted France’s best hostel, a former Carmelite monastery in a stunning setting, the Villa Saint Exupéry, is, understandably, enormously popular with visitors. Bear in mind, though, that the south coast of France is one of Europe’s most crowded holiday destinations in July and any accommodation needs to be reserved as far in advance as possible.
With a programme of music each year that is broad, international and always impressive, the Nice Jazz Festival rightly enjoys its reputation as being Europe’s most prestigious jazz week. Certainly there could be few better places to be to listen to music on a warm summer’s evening than in the Jardins de Cimiez listening to world-class perfomers. The official website provides further details and information about how to order tickets.