A Jazz Lover's Guide to Nice, France

Louis Armstrong played at the very first international jazz festival in Nice | © jokoPix/Pixabay
Louis Armstrong played at the very first international jazz festival in Nice | © jokoPix/Pixabay
Photo of Alex Ledsom
27 January 2017

Nice is a wonderful place for jazz lovers. Ever since the 1920s, when American artists arrived on the Riviera to play out their hedonistic lifestyles to the soundtrack of jazz, the music has become synonymous with the region. Here’s a look at the key places and events in the Nice area for every jazz aficionado to discover.

If your budget can stretch to it, visit the nearby five-star Hotel Belles Rives, where F Scott Fitzgerald hosted wild jazz parties for his friends or visit the hotel which was the inspiration for his writing during the jazz era. Both are well worth a visit for a cocktail at any rate; the views over the sea are sublime. Visit in July and you can party at the Nice International Jazz Festival (in the heart of the city) and then follow it up with Jazz à Juan, the smaller, more bohemian jazz festival which continues after the Nice one finishes. A whole month of jazz in a place where jazz truly came to life; what more could a jazz lover ask for?

Jazz in the roaring 1920s

The region’s love affair with jazz began in the 1920s. France first became acquainted with jazz during World War I, when African-American soldiers introduced it to the locals when stationed in France, but it was in the ’20s when the sound took hold in local culture. Wealthy American socialites and artists arrived on the Riviera, holding lavish parties for their wide social set and encouraged jazz legends from the United States to play. One such person was the author of The Great Gatsby, F Scott Fitzgerald – king of the “jazz age” – who made the Riviera his home for much of the ’20s and early ’30s.

Have lunch at the Hotel du Cap

Visit the Hotel du Cap, which was Fitzgerald’s setting for the 1930s classic, Tender is the Night (the hotel was the inspiration for the Hotel des Etrangers in the book). It is still a stylish place, firmly proud of its artistic and cultural legacy and a great place to watch the world go by.

The Hotel du Cap in Nice played host to many key players of the 1920s jazz age | © Public Domain/WikiCommons

Visit Fitzgerald’s villa, the Hotel Belles Rives

F Scott Fitzgerald took a villa in Juan-les-Pins in 1926, down the road from Nice, and invited the jazz greats to play for his friends. Today, you can visit the very same villa that Fitzgerald rented (Villa St Louis) which is now the five-star Hotel Belles Rives. Fitzgerald’s quotations about how it was his favourite place to be, are engraved in marble at the entrance to the villa. It was here that he wrote his classic, Tender in the Night, published in the 1930s.

Visit the villa rented by F Scott Fitzgerald where he held his famous jazz parties - now the Hotel Belles Rives | © Bex Walton/flickr

Walk around Cimiez, home of The Grande Parade du Jazz

During World War II, jazz musicians (among other artists) ran from occupied areas in northern France to set up home on the Riviera and the place became synonymous with jazz once more. At the end of World War II, Louis Armstrong played with his All Stars at the first jazz festival in Nice, and the festival was born. It is the oldest international jazz festival in the world.

It was 23 years before the next jazz festival occurred in 1972 under the name, Grande Parade du Jazz, and from 1974, the festival became an annual affair. Visit the Cimiez arena, where the jazz festival was held until 2011. The arena dates back to Roman times, when the town of Cemenelum (Cimiez in French) sat above the port of Nice. It’s high in the hills, among the beautiful architecture of old villas and the Chagall and Matisse museums (who both lived locally).

The Cimiez arena in Nice dates back to the 1st century AD and was the original home of the annual Nice Jazz Festival | © ermell/WikiCommons

Party in Place Masséna at The Nice Jazz Festival

In 2011, due to its ever-increasing popularity (30,000 people descend on the centre of Nice for the festival each July), the festival moved to Nice’s New Town, to the more central and larger, Place Masséna. It’s a beautiful square with or without the festivals (Nice’s carnival uses this square for all its parades every February) and it isn’t a long walk to the Musée Masséna, which houses ornate 19th-century carvings, murals and paintings.

The festival has evolved over the years – jazz bands now play a variety of jazz on different stages over a four-day period and in 1994, the name was changed to the more internationally sounding Nice Jazz Festival. It’s the place to be for jazz lovers and has run every year (the only exception was in 2016, when it was cancelled after the terror attacks on the Promenade des Anglais). Over the years, famous jazz greats have headlined the festival from Dizzy Gillespie to Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Charles, Herbie Hancock and Miles Davis. In recent years, the festival has begun to feature more world music, such as Erykah Badu, Gregory Porter and the Jimi Brown Experience.

Nice Jazz Festival is in July (see the official website for annual dates).

Miles Davis played at the Nice Jazz Festival in 1989 | © ohjaygee/flickr

Party at Jazz à Juan

In the 1960s, a more unconventional jazz festival sprang up in nearby Juan-les-Pins. It’s worth a visit for jazz lovers who like their jazz a little more bohemian and independent. Set near the house that Fitzgerald rented all those years ago, it’s a two-week festival that kicks off after Nice’s has finished.

Dance the night away in jazz clubs

Finally, a visit to Nice wouldn’t be complete with a night out listening to jazz in one of Nice’s clubs. There are two which are dedicated entirely to jazz and open most nights of the week. Shapko is open every night until 2.30am and B Spot, which is more intimate, is open until midnight, although it sometimes has jam sessions that run later. Check Shapko’s Facebook and B Spot’s Facebook pages for up-to-date info.

Shapko, 5 Rue Rossetti, Nice +33 (0)6 15 10 02 52

Opening hours: Every night, 6pm to 2.30am

B SPOT, 24 Avenue du Marechal Foch, Nice +33 (0)4 93 92 00 90

Opening hours: Wed – Sun, 7pm – late. Closed Mon – Tues.

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