A change is as good as a rest, musically speaking (1)

Posted by Dick Playfair on Aug 27, 2019

An inspirational week at CoartJazz

The mediaeval village of Coaraze clings to the top of a rocky outcrop a 40 minute drive from Nice on the Cote d’Azur, playground of the rich and famous. But last week it was Coaraze that drew the discerning jazzerati like bees to a honey pot.

Set against the background of the 991 metre high Col Saint-Roch in Provence Alpes Maritimes, Coaraze has for the last 10 years or so been the venue for a jazz summer school. Tutored by some of the best jazz musicians and educators from France and the USA in late August the village once again hosted around 55 students all with one common interest, Le Jazz. They came from as far afield as South Korea and Madacascar. Modern hipsters and bopsters. So what does a week at Coart Jazz entail? So what. Pah-da ta-da dee-da tee-da duh, uuuh uh. Get it?

Coaraze in the Alpes Maritimes, 40 minutes from Nice

This was my first year and I loved every beat. After a breakfast of croissants, delicious home-made cake, figs and greengages I would emerge from my lodgings into the sunshine for another coffee at Au Fil des Saisons with new friends and then a hike to the highest point of the village, through narrow cobbled streets, stairs and alleys, beautiful flowers, cats (jazz cats lazing in the morning sun) to the Salle de Réunion adjoining the 17th century church of Saint Jean-Baptiste. There with the other intermediate souffleurs we would wait for the genial Missouri-born, New York-based tenor maestro Chris Cheek who would put us through 90 minutes of warm-ups, tuning, breathing, rhythm, jazz theory, encouragement, challenging routines and inner despair! Routines like “play a minor triad up and down in whole notes, half notes and quarter notes starting on concert B (that’s C# for us trumpet, tenor and soprano sax players). His metronome darns my dreams, and as for his tuner app …

Chat Baker

On the penultimate day he challenged us. “Tomorrow play happy birthday by ear in three keys of my choosing” which sounds simple enough but when my new chum from Amsterdam was asked to demonstrate on his soprano Chris couldn’t help but crack a smile and say wryly “I guess that’s great if you want all the kids to leave the party.” He never followed up his threat with Happy Birthday. Instead he chose Take The A Train. I know when I’m beaten!

Next daily lesson, 90 minutes of ‘formation musicale’ upstairs in the Mairie with David Brkljacic, reeds specialist and inspirational jazz educator based in the south of France. Even though conducted in French, David made his class of musical theory, modes, keys, chord extensions, rhythm possibilities, and scat singing fascinating, with the added challenge of having to simultaneously translate. A skill I didn’t think I had, and I don’t! For example:

Ronde = semibreve
Blanche = minim (also a type of beer)
Noir = crochet (and a genre of film)
Croche = quaver (not a crochet. how confusing is that?)
Demi croche = semi-quaver (nothing to do with sewing then)
Dièse = sharp # (you could have fooled me)
Bémol = flat (and so on …
Becarré = natural
Gamme = scale
Mode = mode. The same. Phew, thank God for that.

And in France they go Do, Re, Mi etc and not C, D, E just to confuse things further.

These were super sessions, testing coordination with slapping and flapping rhythms that became increasingly complex to the point that an eight-year old could do them, but not me. Stamp right foot, flap right hand, flap left hand, slap right hand, flap left hand.  Simple, just accentuating the third beat. Then lunch.

Au Fil became our hang during non-teaching hours, regional specialities, cold beer, local rosé, and a bill that bizarrely never came to more than 24 euros each, not even when we missed the evening concert by a local band for the sake of a third carafe. With new friends (Just Friends dah dah tee-daah) we would recount our experiences of the day thus far, our highs and lows, our newly acquired warm-up routines and unbending old habits, our views on Brexit and the occasional joke (2). We decided everything, yes everything, should be translated into French.  Billie Holiday became Billie Vacances, and Chet Baker Chet Boulanger, and then Chat Baker! All too soon it was back up to the Mairie for combos.

Combo, under the watchful eye of Olivier Hutman

Our group consisted of drums (Caspar, Netherlands), bass (Gilles, France), two guitars (Peter, Netherlands, and Axel, France), piano (Robert, Netherlands), tenor sax (Téo, France), vocal (Jolly, Netherlands), et moi (trumpet, Scotland). Guillaume also joined us on flute for the final session. Each day we stayed in the same room for three hours (which seemed like 20 minutes) and worked on tunes, but with a different tutor. So, we enjoyed the expertise and encouragement of Darryl Hall (bass, USA and Paris), Ferenc Nemeth (drums, NYC), Mike Moreno (guitar, NYC) and Olivier Hutman (piano, Paris).  And what a wealth of information these guys imparted. We transcribed Embraceable You into the Nat King Cole key, we learned the proper coda to Whisper Not, and we don’t believe any of the chords in the Real Book any more, and i-real pro is even worse.

Blowin’ hot and cool: Photo from Teresa Carleton

Then a quick wash and change, long trousers (pantalons de sauvetage, ha ha) to counter the mosquitos, dinner and more beer before the evening jam session – and this you cannot beat. Curated so everyone who wanted to play or sing was on the list, there was a big stage among olive trees, lit, and with a full PA, backline and engineer. Three hours of jam (which the French call boeuf, not confiture), loads of tunes, wonderful, sympa people to play with, and more memories.

The closing concert was the icing on the cake, the tutors putting on a world-class performance packed with emotion in a perfect setting. First class just doesn’t do it justice.

Then back home. Bed. Social media. The curse of the modern age!

If you love jazz and play jazz for fun it doesn’t get any better than this. Honestly, it doesn’t.


(1) I stole the headline from J-B for which thank you, but it was just too good.
(2) My bad French jazz joke. John Coltrane entre dans un bar et commence à jouer des ‘saucissons’ comme Bye, Bye Blackbird et Autumn Leaves. Madame dit qu’elle préfèrait qu’il jouait “out”. Alors, il va sur la terrasse et joue là-bas.

My French may possibly have improved a little also. A little.