Jazz: A Lingua Franca with Body & Soul

By Mary Kay Seales

“The cool thing is that jazz is really a wonderful example of the great characteristics of Buddhism and great characteristics of the human spirit. Because in jazz we share, we listen to each other, we respect each other, we are creating in the moment. At our best, we’re non-judgmental.”  Herbie Hancock

Herbie Hancock, one of the world’s finest jazz pianists, will be headlining the Nice Jazz Festival in July in the sophisticated jewel of a city on the French Riviera, Nice.

Nice has been home to this festival for over 40 years since 1971 when Herbie Hancock shared the stage with Ella Fitzgerald and Dizzy Gillespie. It is THE coolest, hippest place  to sit, sip French wine and listen to world-class jazz (Except Paris maybe, where there is another great jazz festival going on right now).

L'Eden View
The view from my favorite cafe in Nice, L’Eden

As Herbie reminds us, jazz is, and always has been, an arena of diversity and equanimity in a world of racial and class inequalities. A uniquely American art form, jazz rose out of the ashes of oppression, and has become a world language for musicians.

Like hip hop and other African American musical forms, jazz has spread and developed more dialects. European Jazz, for examle, has its own words and phrases. It’s the same language, but with a different accent.

© Roberto Cifarelli
Johnny O’Neal Trio in the lineup for the Nice Jazz Festival July 2017

I wasn’t always a jazz aficionado.

My love affair with this music began when I walked into Parnell’s Jazz Club in downtown Seattle in September of 1980, and asked for a job as a waitress. I had just returned from traveling in Europe, and needed a flexible gig for my graduate school studies. I didn’t know anything about jazz other than hearing it in movies and knowing it existed.

Marv Thomas, owner of the club, and father to one of Seattle’s great jazz artists, Jay Thomas, hired me on the spot. A fortuitous moment for me. A moment that would change everything.

As one of only three jazz waitresses, (Vicki, Vera and me), I was “at work” every weekend, listening to jazz giants – Sonny Rollins, Houston Person & Etta Jones, Ornette Coleman, Chet Baker –  among so many others, including the growing community of young Seattle jazz artists. It was an education and I was a hungry student.

Parnell’s Jazz Club is also where I fell in love with my future husband, a talented Seattle jazz pianist. I fell hard. Not only for him, but the world he represented, so different from my own. My education in the art of jazz continued, and I stepped into a life in the jazz world. What a treasure this has been to me!

And here I am 30 years later covering the Nice Jazz Festival with my own press pass for France Today. 

Life takes such dramatic, unplanned turns, doesn’t it?

France Today Herbie

And in 30 years what I’ve learned most about jazz is this:

Jazz bridges cultures.

Jazz requires careful listening.

Jazz depends on cooperation and acceptance.

It is not only Buddhist at heart, as Herbie says, but any religious practice at its best.

The headline for the Nice Jazz Festival this year, Passion & Lumiere, is perfect, then.  “Passion and Light,” two words that aptly describe this playfully serious and intensely soulful music. Jazz, an international language with body and soul. 


Stay tuned for updates from the French Riviera, where I’ll be headed next week for a stay at an intensive French language school, an interview at the Grand Hotel du Cap, and a week at the Nice Jazz Festival. If you’re headed there yourself, check out my guide to the area, The Beginner’s Guide to the French Riviera: Stop Dreaming & Start Packing.


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