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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."

When it came to the blues Nobs certainly indulged his passion, for the roll call of American blues artists to appear at MJF is truly impressive. In addition to the previously mentioned blues musicians, others to appear at MJF included Jimmy Witherspoon, Taj Mahal, B.B. King—who played no fewer than nineteen times—John Lee Hooker, singer Etta James, Buddy Guy—twelve appearances and counting—Otis Rush, Robert Cray, Albert King, Freddie King, harp master James Cotton, Luther Allison and Little Milton.

The modern generation of blues players have also featured regularly at MJF, with the likes of Robert Cray, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Jeff Healey all leaving a lasting impression.

To see American blues artists, the progenitors of this worldly music, in Montreux was a thrill for Nobs and MJF audiences alike, and the musicians were, as Anderson relates, received royally. "Claude introduced many American artists to Europe and the way in which they were feted and idolized by the European audiences must have been a surprise and delight to all of them."

A passionate harmonica player, Nobs never wasted an opportunity to sit in with the musicians, inevitably on a blues number. "Even in his final couple of years," recalls Anderson, "Claude still hosted the festival and briefly appeared to blow his blues harp with artists, including me, as part of the celebration of music and life which is the Montreux Jazz Festival."

For Anderson, Nobs' charisma, allied to his professional credentials in both tourism and the recording industry, were the twin engines driving the success story that is MJF. "Claude's powers of persuasion and his many contacts in the record industry and management companies across the world resulted in the MJF becoming the premier festival to bring together jazz, rock, blues and other eclectic mixes of music, and artists who might otherwise never have been seen together."

It wasn't just the diversity of the MJF's program that enticed music fans of all stripes to Montreux each July, but the chance also to see collaborations between artists in the legendary jam sessions that Nobs organized—and often spontaneously on the main stages—that just didn't happen elsewhere. George Benson with Chaka Khan and Ray Charles, Jackson Browne with Stevie Ray Vaughan, to mention a couple.

In 1991 Nobs pulled off a major coup when he presented Quincy Jones and Miles Davis on stage for the very first time together. Not only that, but Nobs and Jones—who co-produced the festival from 1991 to 1993—persuaded Davis to go against his career-long instincts and revisit old material, namely Birth of the Cool, Porgy and Bess, Miles Ahead and Sketches of Spain, his classic recordings made with Gil Evans between 1949 and 1960.

With Davis in declining health, Wallace Roney was in place to step up as and when required, but on the night Davis was inspired to play far more than anyone expected. Afterwards, Davis was so thrilled with the performance and the reception it received that he gifted Roney his signature red trumpet, and declared a desire to take the music around the world. Alas, Davis passed away just months later, making Miles and Quincy Live at Montreux (Warner Bros, 1993) the last recording in his lifetime.

Though Quincy Jones had been the main instigator for the famous collaboration, Davis' respect and fondness for Nobs was more than likely a deciding factor too. Whenever Davis played MJF Nobs would provide him with a gleaming Ferrari to cruise around the Alpine roads. John McLaughlin remembers an incident that reveals something of the bond that Nobs had with Davis: "Claude liked clothes and always dressed well. One night, Miles was actually going on stage, and he saw the shirt that Claude was wearing, Miles said 'nice shirt Claude,' and Claude took the shirt off the next second and gave it to Miles, so Miles took off his own shirt and gave it to Claude!"

Would Davis would have bowed to the pressure to revisit his old Gil Evans-arranged music at any festival in the world other than MJF? Probably not. Nob's natural charm and sheer passion for the music, which enticed many an artist to MJF over the years, was likely a key factor. "Claude had an affection for musicians that I have only seen the equivalent of in India," says McLaughlin.

In 2010 McLaughlin was involved in one of the more unlikely reunions that Nobs instigated, when the late cancellation of Mellisa Auf der Maur due to a missed flight left a slot to be filled just before Roxy Music. McLaughlin was cycling by Lake Geneva with his wife when he received a phone call from Nobs asking him if he would consider joining forces with former Mahavishnu Orchestra colleague Billy Cobham—who lived in Bern—to fill the vacant slot in the evening.

It was perhaps an ambitious request given that the pair hadn't seen each other for twenty five years. Nobs' powers of persuasion, however, did the trick and, with just half an hour to discuss a plan, and with no rehearsal, the duo reignited a very old, powerful flame on stage, to the delight of Mahavishnu Orchestra fans around the world.

Just a year later Nobs and MJF achieved another unexpected reunion when McLaughlin and Carlos Santana co-led a concert for the first time since their 1973 tour to promote the collaborative effort Love, Devotion and Surrender (Columbia). Nobs was in his element when he joined the two guitarists on stage for a blues jam late in the concert.

One-off reunions and gloriously eclectic jam sessions were one thing, but Nobs' instinct and joyful spontaneity also resulted in some magical moments that caught just about everybody by surprise.

Swiss percussionist Reto Weber, a session musician at the Biel recording studio in the late 1960s, where many of the early recordings from the MJF were produced, recounts a remarkable tale that throws further light on Nobs and the spirit of MJF.

In 2010 Weber was touring with the Ayekoo drummers of Ghana—six young drummers from the National Ballet of Accra. Their tour took them through, Austria, Italy, France, Germany and Switzerland. One day the Ghanaian musicians asked Weber if they could visit Montreux and the famous jazz festival. Weber duly lent them his car. Weber picks up the story: "At five o'clock in the evening I got a call from the boss of the band. 'Hey Reto, can you come to Montreux? We will play tonight at the Montreux Jazz Festival.' I said, 'No, it's not true. It's impossible. You are not on the program.'"

Thirty minutes later, Weber recounts, he answered his phone once more. The Ayekoo musicians urged him to make his way to Montreux as they were, they insisted, playing that evening. It transpired that the six musicians had been walking through the town in their traditional African dress when they met, as they described it to Weber, 'an old guy man walking two dogs.' The man, needless to say, was Claude Nobs, and, after a short conversation, he invited Ayekoo to play at the MJF that evening.

Nobs allotted the astonished Ayekoo percussionists an hour at the Jazz Café. Meanwhile, thinking there must be some misunderstanding, Weber drove to Montreux. When he arrived, Weber asked Nobs what was going on. "Claude said: 'Oh, I have the feeling they are very good,'" Weber relates. "Claude had a very good nose for good musicians."

The Ayekoo concert in the Jazz Café was a hit. "Claude was blown away by their concert," says Weber. "The people came and it was a big success. Claude was like, 'Wow! Absolutely fantastic! Tonight you will play as surpise guests in the Stravinski Hall after Joan Baez at eleven o'clock.' "The organizing committee thought Claude was crazy but he said 'Don't worry, this is a great band,'" Weber relates.

When Joan Baez finished her set Nobs took the microphone and invited the audience to stay for a special, unscheduled performance. Baez stayed too. "She, was like, 'Wow!' Weber recalls. "She came onto the stage and danced for the whole set in the middle of the band—one hour. It was amazing; from the street direct to the Stravinski Hall," laughs Weber. "That was Claude Nobs."

Jazz remained the dominant face of MJF until the mid-1970s, though the likes of John Martyn, Bert Jansch, Ben E. King, The Chieftains, Leonard Cohen, Paco De Lucia, Randy Newman and Peter Tosh all added spice to the mix.

Nobs was not without his critics for the diluted jazz element in the program as the years went by but he was honest enough to admit that the name of the festival was a brand and one that was simply too strong to relinquish. For Nobs, like Duke Ellington, there were only two kinds of music—good and bad. Nevertheless, in forty seven years as Festival Director, Nobs hosted just about every major name in jazz, with every branch of jazz from every era celebrated by the MJF.

Despite the enormous success of MJF, its very location, in a town of fewer than thirty thousand inhabitants and with limited seating capacity, meant that the festival's growth was inherently limited. The solution was to promote the brand name and the MJF formula abroad, with its combination of paying and free gigs, workshops, competitions, archival commitment and community involvement.

Montreux Jazz Café, with its jazz-themed food, MJF music and Claude Nob's festival memorabilia, would gradually spread its wings to Atlanta, Detroit, Tokyo, Sapporo and Sao Paolo.

In 2005, MJF teamed up with Singapore's Mosaic Music Festival in the city's state-of-the art, multi-theatre Esplanade, which had opened in 2002. In an interview with the New York Times, Benson Puah, the Espalande's Chief Executive, described the association with MJF as a means of "planting the seeds for this festival to grow hopefully into something iconic for this part of the world."

For Puah, Mosaic Music Festival's collaboration with Montreux with MJF was a "meeting of minds rather than a financial or contractual relationship." For Nobs, it was as much about supporting up-and coming-festivals as it was about promoting Montreux and Switzerland, and true to form, he was there in Singapore's Esplanade, blues harp in tow, jamming with the musicians and talking amiably and animatedly with all-comers. MJF has also exported Montreux Jazz Cafes to London, Paris and Abu Dhabi, and in early 2016 to Singapore. The mixture of good cuisine, live music and videos of classic performances from the MJF archives are common to all the Montreux Jazz Cafes. In effect, the Montreux Jazz Cafes serve as embassies of the MJF-ambassadorial outpost that promote the MJF.

The MJF's archives are without parallel among music festivals, as Nobs made the astute decision to record every single concert from the first edition of the festival in 1967, and with the best technology available. Thousands of hours of audio-visual material exist in the MJF's vaults. The monumental archiving process and digitalisation of the music comes under the banner of The Montreux Jazz Festival Claude Nobs Legacy. In June 2013 it was inscribed on UNESCO's Memory of the World Register, in recognition of its cultural importance.

Hundreds of classic concerts have been released on vinyl, CD and DVD over the years, although these still represent only about ten per cent of all archived material. The MJF archive, however, is just part of Nob's enormous legacy.

In 1999, MJF launched the first of its competitions for up-and-coming jazz musicians. The piano, guitar and vocal competitions are amongst the most prestigious in the world, and for past winners such as Tigran Hamasyan, Gilad Hekselman, Harold Lopez-Nussa Torres, Marialy Pacheco, Jake Hertzog and Kristin Berardi, the recognition has proved to be an important springboard in advancing their respective careers.

In 2015, fifteen-year old Chinese pianist A Bu (Dai Liang) became the youngest ever winner of the Parmigiani Montreux Jazz Solo Piano competition. For the young virtuoso winning was an unexpected bonus to what was an unforgettable experience. "I would really encourage young musicians to participate in Montreux Jazz Competitions," says A Bu, "because it is not only a stage for players to compete with each other, it is also a home for musicians to make friends, listen to others and play together."

A home for musicians, somewhere to listen and somewhere to play—it pretty much sums up the ethos of the MJF as envisaged by Nobs.

"Claude's greatest legacy is the festival itself," says John McLaughlin. "It was Claude's personality and profound love of music that characterized the festival. Montreux is unique in the world; unique in its physical beauty, and unique in that the festival reflected Claude's love of all kinds of good music," McLaughlin continues. "From the beginning he integrated all genres of music, and in this sense I think it's safe to say that Claude instituted the first 'fusion' festival."

Today, many jazz festivals around the world mirror the 'fusion' approach of MJF. Big hitters like Rotterdam's North Sea Jazz Festival, the Montreal Jazz Festival and the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival—to name just a few—have all tailored their jazz programs, to a greater or lesser extent, to include more popular, mainstream music. In most cases it's a simple matter of economics.

With jazz audiences ageing, jazz festivals have had to attract fresh blood, and acts like Prince, Pharrell Williams, Simply Red, Huey Lewis, Steely Dan, Lady Gaga, The Red Hot Chilli Peppers—all of whom have appeared at one or more of the above-mentioned jazz festivals in recent years—are big draws.

And if jazz and pop fans alike are converted both ways across the divide it can only be healthy for such festivals going forward. Nobs and the current MJF team have shown that an eclectic, inclusive approach to programming is popular with fans, musicians and sponsors alike.

MJF has survived Nobs and moved on under astute stewardship, but in truth, in his final years Nobs had already relinquished to his team a lot of the responsibilities he had once shouldered due to serious health issues, not least of which was a quadruple by-pass. It might have slowed him down, but it didn't stop him.

As MJF gears up for its 50th birthday bash, it's inevitable that thoughts will turn to Claude Nobs, the man who made Montreux a byword for musical excellence. For music lovers everywhere it's impossible to think of Montreux without thinking of Nobs. "Claude's personality permeated every aspect of the festival," says McLaughlin. "The festival was and is Claude, and is still today. That said though, he is sorely missed by all of us."

Photo Credit: Lionel Fulsin

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