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Claude Nobs: We All Came Out To Montreux...

Ian Patterson By

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Claude and his passion eventually changed the economy of the town of Montreux, and even affected the entire Swiss economy, only by virtue of his passion and love of music. —John McLaughlin
Montreux Jazz Festival is fifty. It's a significant milestone and cause for celebration. No doubt there will be an added festive element to this year's edition of the festival, founded by Claude Nobs—along with pianist Géo Voumard and writer René Langel—in 1967. Yet for many, the celebrations will be tinged with sadness due to the absence of Nobs, who died in a skiing accident in 2013. Nobs may have passed, but his legend, his spirit, lives on, in the festival and in those who knew him.

Nobs, who would have turned eighty in February, did more than the Romans or the region's wine to put Montreux on the international map, by bringing the world's greatest musicians—and huge crowds—to the picturesque Swiss town. It's impossible to overestimate Nob's contribution to both the town and the country, after all, how many other town or city names are synonymous with a festival?

"Claude and his passion eventually changed the economy of the town of Montreux, and even affected the entire Swiss economy," notes John McLaughlin, who first played MJF in 1972 and was a friend to Nobs for forty years, "only by virtue of his passion and love of music. What a guy!"

With Lake Geneva before it and the mighty Alps at its shoulder, Nobs' vision of a jazz festival in this idyllic setting could hardly have failed to attract musicians and audiences alike. With over 230,000 music lovers descending on Montreux during the festival's annual two-week run, Montreux Jazz Festival today ranks among the largest jazz festivals in the world.

A jazz festival? Well, that's certainly how it started out. The very first Montreux Jazz Festival hosted fifteen bands, ranging from washboard and cornet-driven New Orleans fare and straight-ahead small ensembles to big-band jazz. Topping the bill was Charles Lloyd, leading a quartet featuring Keith Jarrett, Jack DeJohnette and Ron McClure. Already by the second year of MJF the inclusion of soul queen Aretha Franklin signalled a widening of the musical parameters.

In 1969, blues-rock made its mark, with John Mayall's Bluesbreakers, Rory Gallagher's Taste and Ten Years After all appearing on a jazz-dominated program, along with progressive jazz-rockers Colosseum. The jazz police were already squirming in their seats.

Roberta Flack and Aretha Franklin both graced a still jazz-centric line-up in 1970, though Nobs was clearly already thinking outside the box. After attending the Isle of Wight festival in 1970 Nobs had in mind to bring Jimi Hendrix and The Doors to MJF, but both Hendrix and Jim Morrison, The Doors' lead singer, would be dead within a year.

Despite missing out on two of rock's most celebrated figures, Nobs' changing vision of the direction he wanted MJF to take was apparent by 1971. That year, blues legends Muddy Waters, T-Bone Walker and Lightnin' Slim lit up MJF's stages, along with Bo Diddley, rock 'n' roll pioneer Chuck Berry, gospel singer Bessie Griffin and the folk duo of Richie Havens and Odetta.

Such programing moves perhaps shouldn't have come as a total surprise, for Nobs, who had been working for the local tourist board, first began promoting concerts in Montreux in the early 1960s, claiming later that he had to give away tickets for a concert by the little-known The Rolling Stones in 1964.

Another English band steeped in the blues that Nobs promoted in Montreux, outside the parameters of the festival, was Jethro Tull, who played at the old Casino in 1969. "Of course, that was before it burned down, sending song-inspiring cloud of smoke across the water," recalls Jethro Tull founder and flute-player extraordinaire, Ian Anderson, alluding to the fire in 1971 that would inspire Deep Purple's "Smoke on the Water."

"Claude seemed like a nice guy and was very helpful in finding us accommodation in 1972 when we visited in the summer to work on a new album," says Anderson. Jethro Tull's Montreux rehearsals engendered A Passion Play (Chrysalis, 1973) and the band would return in 1975 for sessions that would lead to Too Old To Rock 'n' Roll: Too Young to Die! (Chrysalis, 1976). Although Jethro Tull didn't play at the MJF until 2003—and then again in 2012—Anderson and his wife had been smitten by Montreux and bought an apartment in the town centre.

Inevitably perhaps, Anderson got to know Nobs well over the years. "Claude had become a longstanding friend and we visited him many times in his famous chalet high on the mountain above the town where he hosted parties for the good and great of rock and jazz," Anderson relates. "Claude's childlike enthusiasm for music of all sorts, especially blues, was the driving force for his team of organizers."


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