4th July 2022
Few music festivals can have had such a profound impact on their host town as the Marciac Jazz Festival.
Travel through the deeply rural Gers department of France this summer and you are sure of a big surprise.
In the village of Marciac, the sights and sounds of the countryside are swept aside by those of brass and percussion, as one culture gives way to another.
Welcome to the Marciac Jazz Festival, one of the largest and most successful jazz events in Europe, that has had a hugely transformative effect on this quiet corner of south-west France.
After being cancelled in 2020 due to the pandemic and with only a truncated version possible in 2021, this year the festival is back in full swing.
Started in 1978, the brainchild of local teacher and jazz enthusiast Jean-Louis Guilhaumon, it now has global status, taking place over 15 days and attracting around 200,000 visitors from all over the planet each year. The young teacher who started it remains at its head, and since 1995 has also been the local mayor.
The list of artists who have performed at the festival in the past is a roll call of jazz legends - Art Blakey, Lionel Hampton, Stéphane Grappelli, Pat Metheny, Wayne Shorter, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Sonny Rollins, Oscar Peterson, Roberto Fonseca, Stan Getz, Chick Corea, Carlos Santana, Keith Jarrett, Wynton Marsalis, Ray Charles, Nina Simone and Dianne Reeves - to name only a few!
This year is no exception, with a prestigious and eclectic range of top artists, including Diana Krall, Chilly Gonzales, Asaf Avidan, Imelda May, Herbie Hancock and Gregory Porter.
If you do not quite share the French passion for jazz, included in the programme are artists with more generic appeal, and amongst them this year are James Blunt, Nile Rodgers and Jeff Beck.
The concerts take place each evening in a 6,000 seat 'Chapiteau' installed on the rugby stadium, but during the day you can also sit in the central square and enjoy free music delivered by a varied and talented range of musicians. Alternatively, eat at one of the many restaurants or bistrot that pop up during the festival and enjoy the live music that many put on. There is music and animation everywhere!
The budget for the festival is off the scale for a village of 1,300 inhabitants, around €5 million a year, and with a wider economic impact that has been estimated to be €20 million a year. The permanent road signs from miles around that point the way to Marciac testify to the economic importance of the village. The area is a popular with international property buyers, and there is a strong contingent of UK nationals who have put down roots there.
In 2003, Pierre et Vacances, a developer of leisure based residences, built a holiday village around the local lake, the lovely square in the village has seen a major, sympathetic facelift and a new health centre has been built, all on the back of the success of the festival. When the local school was threatened with closure due to a lack of pupils, Jean Louis started jazz classes for the children and the numbers coming to the school shot up. The village now has its own jazz school, as well as a jazz museum and a concert hall (l’Astrada) holding year-round events, and is one of only 25 listed 'Grand Sites' for tourism in the Occitanie region.
Most of the income for the festival comes from ticket sales, together with sponsorship from the local wine cooperative, Plaimont, but around 10% is provided by the national government and regional and departmental councils, all of whom are eager to be associated with such a successful venture.
As a result, there is a fulsome presence each year of the French political elite, which generally includes an appearance by the incumbent President of France and the Minister of Culture.
To help balance the books, the festival is fortunate enough to be able to call on around 1,000 volunteers each year who do anything from serving behind a bar to seating spectators. The festival normally gets more volunteer requests than they need, and all those who are successful are given a free pass to the concerts.
The festival has also become an occasion to celebrate the best traditions of Gascony, with dozens of stalls of local artists and artisan producers of food and wine, all of which gives the festival a clear identity and contributes to its success.
Indeed, turn up and you will find few concessions to tourism other than a warm welcome. The character and authenticity of this medieval bastide remains in tact, just like its inhabitants.
Marciac Jazz Festival takes place this year between 22nd July and 6th August. The programme and tickets can be found at JazzinMarciac.