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Normandy, France: Jazz under the apple trees

By Roger St Pierre

Pleasant exercise, great music – it was a brilliant concept, with two groups of around 60 each, leisurely cycling through the verdant countryside of Normandy between venues of the 30th annual Jazz Sous Les Pommiers (‘Jazz Under The Apple Trees’) festival.

An ancient barn in the yard of the historic Manoir de Coutainville, an oyster farm on the unspoilt coast at Blainville – each echoed in turn to an eclectic mix of jazz, a multi-faceted music form that’s long enjoyed massive popularity among the French.

Yes, there were seasoned jazz buffs aplenty thronging the little mediaeval market town of Coutances and its rural surroundings for the festival but this is a celebration aimed just as much at the mass public, for whom the overall let the good times roll ambience of a fun family day out matters far more than the proficiency or otherwise of the performers – who range from local amateur players to seasoned international stars. And the French certainly know how to throw a party!

Punching way above its weight, the eight-day festival spills out of marquees, social halls, bars and church buildings on to streets thronged with over 50,000 ticket holders for the programme of more than 50 concerts, presenting a kaleidoscope of jazz styles, from Dixieland and boogie-woogie to avant-garde,

English smooth jazz star JamIe Cullum and Fred Wesley & The New JBs, led by James Brown’s long-time trombone player, were counterpointed by the tango flavoured piano styllngs of Argentina’s Juan Carlos Caceres, Ebo Taylor’s Afrobeat, and the harmonica blues of America’s Charlie Musselwhite, plus lots more.

Getting to Normandy is easy, thanks to Eurostar and the high-speed TGV network. On arrival, we were met by Gérard Collet, a volunteer at the festival since the very first edition, three decades ago. Despite its high levels of professionalism, the festival relies extensively on community effort and goodwill. It’s an organisational tour de force:

“The whole town embraces the event,” enthused Gérard, “This is normally a quiet little place but each June it becomes not just a major cultural and gastronomic event but a massive street party.”

Our accommodation was at the comfortable Hotel Cositel (0033 2 33 19 15 00;, set in a peaceful location on the outskirts of town, a haven that also hosted many of the artists, including the bill-topping American jazz great Ron Carter and his Golden Striker Trio.

As a dyed in the wall cyclist, for me the week’s gem was the fun-time Baby Brass Band – swinging its way from New Orleans and Gainsbourg to Cuba with three instruments set above the smooth bass line of a massive baritone sax, while we quaffed Champagne and slurped fresh local oysters before pedalling off into the evening.

Other highlights included a free tasting of local cheeses and feasts on seafood, sausages, crépes, cider, Calvados and other local specialities, for this is a gastronomic as well as musical celebration

Then there was the colourful spectacle of 10 perfectly honed marching bands from as far afield as Brazil, Macedonia and Finland, parading carnival style in a noisy street procession through the town’s squares and along its crowd-thronged boulevards.

Averting the danger of overdosing on all that music, we took time out to explore some local attractions. Set on the sweeping Bay of Mont Saint-Michel, the lively seaside resort and fishing port of Granville is a fortified town whose massive granite walls pay testament to its strategic importance during the Hundred Years War and its role as a base for fearsome corsairs making raids across the Channel.

Amid a beautiful clifftop garden in the town’s gracious suburbs stands Christian Dior’s childhood home, which now serves as a fascinating museum (, dedicated to the designer and his iconic fashion house.

Villa Les Rhumbs is today a treasure trove of memories, restored to its original 1920’s style and full of artefacts of the great couturier.

Formerly capital of the Cotentin Peninsula, Coutances itself has historic attractions, including a cathedral with 8th Century origins.

2011 was a special year for Normandy, marking the 1,100th year since the signing of the Saint-Clair-sur-Epte treaty, which established the Dukedom of which Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II is today the official Duke – at least, according to us Brits!

Some 200 commemorative events were held throughout the anniversary year. It was indeed a very special time but, if you didn’t make it, don’t worry. You have not entirely missed out because Normandy has a richly endowed programme of historical, cultural, gastronomic and arts events each and every year, with Jazz Sous Les Pommiers just one of many highlights.

This year’s Jazz Sous Les Pommiers ( jazzsouslespommiers) celebration will straddle the last week in May and first week in June,

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