Montreux jazz fest founder looks back on 40 years
By Emmanuel Legrand
LONDON (Billboard) – The Montreux Jazz Festival, which
celebrates its 40th anniversary this summer, has a remarkable
history of presenting global superstars from throughout, and
beyond, the world of traditional jazz.
But for the scores of performers, music executives and jazz
fans who have gathered on the shores of Switzerland’s Lake
Leman through the decades, Montreux is personified by one man
– festival founder Claude Nobs.
Nobs, who turned 70 earlier this year, shows no sign of
retiring. On the eve of the 40th annual festival, taking place
June 30-July 15, Nobs already is working on projects for next
year. He enthusiastically talks, for example, about the special
evening he is planning with R.E.M. for 2007.
Before that, he will preside once more over the festival he
founded four decades ago while working for the Montreux tourist
office, although he had trained to become a professional chef.
When Atlantic Records co-founder Nesuhi Ertegun founded WEA
International in 1973, he hired Nobs as one of his first
executives in Europe with an unusual agreement. “The last line
was that I would cook for (visiting) executives,” Nobs once
But instead of cooking for a living, Nobs chose to indulge
his passion for music.
Nobs is now president of the nonprofit Montreux Jazz
Festival Foundation. In 2001, he retired from Warner Music
after 29 years with the company, and he now concentrates
full-time on his festival. A couple of years ago he was
diagnosed with a serious heart condition that required surgery.
Today, he says he is perfectly fit and ready to go on for many
His first attempt as a promoter came in 1964, during the TV
festival Rose D’Or during which he organized the shooting of TV
show “Ready Steady Go” with British pop star Petula Clark,
Belgian crooner Adamo and an unknown rock band named the
Nobs likes to recall that he was standing in front of the
venue offering free tickets for the gigs and people were
looking at him with a total lack of interest when he mentioned
the lineup. “‘Rolling who?’ was the usual response,” Nobs
Q: Would you be able to book the Stones today?
A: I wish they would do one of their small gigs in
Montreux. I went to see them in Boston two years ago when they
were touring. I spoke with them and they all said yes, except
Mick Jagger, who said, “Claude, I cannot do a jazz festival.”
“Mick, this is not a jazz festival; after the first year I had
Ten Years After and Santana,” I replied. Actually he was
joking. It’s just that they are very busy, but wouldn’t it be
great to have them back at the Casino more than 40 years after
they first played there? They could do a blues-only set. That
would be fantastic.
Q: What do you think of the evolution of jazz as a genre?
A: In a way it’s a bit sad because the true innovators are
all gone, except maybe Oscar Peterson, Sonny Rollins and
Ornette Coleman. A lot of the new musicians have a lot of
technique, but there is no real vibe in it. I’ll probably put
(sax player) Michael Brecker as an exception, but unfortunately
he is very ill. (Brecker has been diagnosed with
myelodysplastic syndrome and requires a bone marrow
transplant.) It’s getting so cleaned up and so perfect, and I
listen to many of those records and I find something is
Q: Montreux is a quiet city, quite an odd place for a
A: After all these years I still have to make my point with
the authorities. The early years were even more difficult. When
I was doing the concerts with the Stones or Led Zeppelin, even
though we were not doing any promotion, people were coming from
all over Europe. And they all had long hair, backpacks, and
they’d sleep in the park, smoke whatever they were smoking, and
the people in Montreux were in shock. “What are these people?”
They tried to stop me organizing shows after the fire at
the Casino in 1971, which luckily had no casualties.
Q: You are closing the festival this year with Deep Purple,
whose classic “Smoke on the Water” was inspired by the Casino
A: It is going to be a special evening. I don’t know who
they are going to invite. I hope (guitarist and founding
member) Ritchie Blackmore will join them. I know they are
Q: This year you have quite a few artists who will be
performing who have been regulars at Montreux. It’s becoming
something like Claude Nobs & friends.
A: Exactly. Carlos Santana, for example, will be playing
for three nights. Carlos told me that what he likes about me is
that he can come to me with ideas and I will fulfill his
dreams. It’s not just a matter of money because we don’t have
that much of a big budget, but it’s a fact that being a
nonprofit organization, I can afford to spend money without
having to calculate a direct return on ticket sales.
I like to do those things because the musicians who are
touring basically play the same show every night. So when they
come to Montreux I tell them that a) we have no unions, b) we
have no curfew, so what do you want to do? Lucky enough, we can
go on as long as musicians and the audience want. And people
have a fantastic time.
We love to have artists staying for three nights, such as
B.B. King, who always stays for three evenings. This year he’s
going to play the blues on a boat cruising the lake. Where else
could he do that?
Q: What do you think Montreux brought to the world of
festivals and what do you think is its trademark?
A: I think the trademark was to be the forerunner in many
different directions. First of all I wanted the festival to be
recorded from the beginning. When we started, you just had
black-and-white TV sets, no VHS nor digital recording. But
since it is a small hall my argument was that it was necessary
to keep a trace of what happened for future generations.
I remember Miles Davis coming the first time and telling
me: (impersonates Davis’ raspy voice) “I don’t give a s—
about television!” To which I replied, “What about your
grandchildren? They will never be able to see how great you
Any artist has the right after the show to watch it and
tell me if I can have three numbers or more or none.
Q: How can you sustain your position?
A: Even if we do charge more than most festivals, it has to
do with the quality of the presentation. We have one of the
best sound systems. There are big screens that allow the
audience to look at the performances. And still it is a small
festival. The capacity of the main hall, the Stravinsky Hall,
is just about 4,000 people, the Miles Davis (Hall) is 1,500 and
the Casino is 1,000. It does not compare with festivals with a
50,000-plus audience capacity.
Q: Any artist you wished you had but could never make it?
A: Monk! I am a big fan of Thelonious Monk. I was in touch
with his wife. I called her asking if he had a tour scheduled.
“Yes, I’m packing,” she said. I called back. (And she said),
“I’m unpacking.” And on and on. He never made it.
Q: You met quite a few interesting musicians. Which are the
ones that stand out?
A: They are all interesting. They all have their
personalities and I have a very, very deep respect for all of
them, starting with Van Morrison, who is known to be incredibly
difficult. B.B. King is one of a kind. Each time he comes he
says, “Claude, after the show, there will be a jam session,
bring whoever you want.” It’s amazing! And Miles was supposed
to be the difficult one. He had odd requests, such as wanting a
black Ferrari, or Nina Simone, who requested in her contract a
Piaget watch with diamonds … For me it’s fine.
Q: Any great performances that stand out?
A: There are so many. If you go back in time, the 1968
performance of Bill Evans, which ended up being a Grammy
Award-winning album, was one of Bill Evans’ greatest concerts
of all time. In 1969, the impromptu performance of (pianist)
Les McCann and (saxophonist) Eddie Harris was incredible.
Basically there’s highlights every year and even every night.
The thing is that I do not always see what’s going on because I
am backstage working on the next act or welcoming people. All I
see is what happens on the big screen. In 39 years, I never sat
in the audience!