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Sampling Umbria Jazz

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The Algiers Brass Band from New Orleans is marching down Corso Vannucci, the main street of Perugia in Italy, led by a grand marshall with purple feathers.

They're marching and blowing trumpets. A drum beats and diners look up from their seats in the street still munching on plates of pasta and sipping wine.

They're marching and a woman starts dancing beside them. Others clap and the street crowds with people.

They're marching and singing, "Oh when the saints come marching in." The guy on the trombone puffs up his cheeks to bellow a sonorous note.

This is Umbria Jazz. The Italian version of the New Orleans festival, so no doubt the Algiers Brass Band feels right at home.

For thirty years jazz has blown, wafted, blanched, crooned and caroused through the historic town of Perugia for a week every July featuring such famous names as Stan Getz, Miles Davis and BB King.

When there are no concerts or street bands every cafe, bar, shop, museum and public space oozes out jazz, soul, R&B, blues, gospel, pop or salsa. There's Louis Armstrong's "What a Wonderful World" or Italian numbers like "O Sole Mio." It's a veritable feast of music that has you bopping down the street or humming while you buy a cappuccino.

The Algiers Brass Band stops by the cathedral and against a background of 12th and 13th century buildings and fountains they grab members from the crowd to dance. One of the children picks up the grand marshall's decorative feather and dances with it.

There are prams, backpacks, cameras and briefcases amongst the crowd as business men make their way to lunch, travellers arrive and depart, and families and pedestrians stop to watch, listen and join in.

It's a festival that leaves no one out, from the attentive music fan to those wanting a quiet holiday or locals going about a daily routine. It's a free for all.

You can spot performers from the previous group in the crowd for the next concert and band members wander about with guitars strapped to their backs.The pastry shops make cakes in the shape of saxophones and guitars, the museums feature jazz paintings and photography... everywhere you turn you sample jazz. For the aficionados it's a form of heaven.

There are plenty of free concerts and options for those on a budget in Piazza IV Novembre and Giardini Santa Giuliana with daily music starting from midday and finishing late into the night.

For the bigger name performers, lunch or dinner time affairs, small theatres and the big arenas tickets are required but prices start from as little as 10 euro, making it affordable for everyone. The afternoon and evening concerts in the theatres concentrate very much on jazz, while the free open-air concerts are more popular types of music with immediate appeal.

The 8 - 17 July festival this year featured Elton John, Oscar Peterson, Tony Bennet, Diana Ross and George Benson and Italian greats like Enrico Rava and up and coming Sicilian saxophonist Francesco Cafiso.

But the lesser known groups were just as popular with the crowds including Miss Dee from Louisiana with the Johnny Nocturne R&B Band, Tuscany's famed street band Funk Off and Emiglia Romana's Good Fella's.

Combined with some healthy meals, good wine and the atmospheric medieval backdrop jazz Italian style is hard to beat.

BUYING TICKETS
Tickets for the feature performance in Arena Santa Giuliana should be bought well in advance and tickets cost 120 Euro. For other concerts prices start from 13.50 Euro for unnumbered seats, 20-30 Euro for numbered seats in the latter sectors and 30-45 Euro for sector A. There are usually tickets available up until the night of the concert. Programs are available online or in town when you arrive. See www.umbriajazz.com for details or phone 800 462311 in Italy or +39 075 5721400 from outside. The box office opens in May before the festival.

OTHER THINGS TO DO
The great news for jazz fans is that there's a winter version of the festival held in Orvieto 28 December 2005 and 1 January 2006. Umbria Jazz Melbourne 05 also debuted in Australia in May this year. In 2006 Umbria Jazz presents Top Italian Jazz from 27 March - 2 April in New York. Next year's Umbria Jazz is 7-16 July.

Perugia also hosts an annual chocolate festival. This year it will be held from October 15-23. See www.eurochocolate.com for more details. Bacio chocolate actually originates from Perugia and you can try it and much more during the festival or at any time of year in Corso Vannucci at Perugina where there is a wide selection of chocolate.

HOW TO GET THERE
Aeroporto Sant'Egidio is 15km east of Perugia and has some international services and domestic connections to Milan and Palermo.

Perugia has connections from all major cities by bus or train. Sulga (tel.075 5009641) buses go to Rome and Florence. Other buses depart for Siena and other Umbrian destinations like Assisi, Gubbio, Orvieto and Spoleto. See the tourist office for information (tel. +39 075 5723327).

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