If you're a jazz fan, you'll almost certainly have heard of Marciac
. But if it's the first time you're going there, and you don't know much about the place, you may well experience some confusion. If you've flown in, you're most likely driving over from Toulouse
, the nearest airport. You've prepared your GPS and entered in your destination (perhaps you know little more about it than the name and that of the jazz legend you bought tickets many months in advance to go see there). But as you drive along, and the roads get narrower and windier, as you find yourself crossing ever smaller villages with odd-sounding names, you may start to question whether you have the right directions. Is this really the road to one of Europe's largest, longest and most prestigious jazz festivals? Is it this dubious French GPS perhaps whose settings are taking you through the remotest parts of southwest France to avoid tolls?
Whatever your misgivings, you are indeed on the right track. Marciac is a tiny village in the Gers department, a forty-minute drive from the town of Auch, and there's no avoiding the narrow winding roads to get there. Barely 1200 people live there, yet over about three weeks in August, an average of nearly ten times that number come to visit every single day. As you enter the last kilometer of your drive, your doubts are definitively quelled. There's far more traffic here than you'd expect this far into the countryside, and the road is lined with posters from the festival's main media partner, France Musique. Once you're parked and you've made it to the main square, you can listen to the free jazz on the central stage while enjoying a glass of Armagnac, have a meal in one of the restaurants under the arcades, or explore the numerous artisanal stands. Another sure sign you've made it to Marciac: along the way you'll almost certainly cross several people with blue collars around their necks, in various states of sleep deprivation depending on the day you show up. They are just some of the many volunteers that join the team every year (nearly one thousand over the course of the entire event).
The geometry of Marciac is pretty straightforward: a central square with two perpendicular streets starting at every corner, and a circular ring-road. Yet despite this apparent simplicity, the village contains some hidden locations, small squares and courtyards, that could escape the eye on a first visit. It isn't uncommon to hear people who have been coming to the festival for years asking themselves "how come I've never been here before?." After that of the main church, Marciac's skyline boasts a second spire which stands on top of a porch separating two little squares. Many people don't know that in the larger of the two can be found a small cinema. It was inaugurated in the presence of the great Serbian filmmaker and musician Emir Kusturica (the cinema bears his name). It is open year-round, and during the festival offers a daily program of film screenings and conferences, showing some new releases but mostly features or documentaries about music.
Those, like the volunteers, who choose to make Marciac their home for a week a two, are confronted on a daily basis with the challenging question of how to make use of their leisure time before the evening concerts. Where will the next resting spot be? Will it be suited for a nap, and if so how long should the nap last? With which beverage and which flavor ice cream should I enjoy my afternoon jazz on the square? The cinema offers an interesting alternative for such architects of idle pastimes. Of particular interest in this year's program was the 1970 documentary Woodstock, directed by Michael Wadleigh, with editing work done by Martin Scorsese. Over three hours of footage from the 1969 festival, including extracts from some of the artists' sets, touching scenes of elated hippies engaging in all sorts of weird activities despite the mud and the mayhem, and amusing insights into the logistical chaos behind the organization.
In the early hours of the morning of Woodstock's second day, a young folk singer takes to the stage, alone with only her guitar. Her voice, to so many, is instantly recognizable, emblematic of the 1960s folk revival and deeply associated with the turbulent years of the civil rights movement (except, funnily enough, to the man sitting next to me who, despite having bought a ticket to see her in two days' time, asked me after the viewing who that wonderful singer with the crystalline voice was). Joan Baez
was twenty-eight years old when she performed at the legendary event. From the comfort of our movie theater armchairs, we could experience her half-a-century-old performance of two iconic songs, "Joe Hill" and "Swing Low Sweet Chariot." We would hear her reinterpret them on Marciac's main stage two days later.