Q&A: Montreux Founder Claude Nobs (continued)

The Billboard interview with the founder of the Montreux Jazz Festival - page three.

The cost of booking artists has been rising in past years. How do you deal with this new environment?

In general, artists accept lower fees because it is Montreux. They also accept to be filmed and they get a high definition recording of their performance. That's something that no other festival can offer. We can produce a DVD of their performances and give it to them straight out from the stage. In the early days the filming was made by Swiss public television and I would have one copy for myself on low-end three-quarter inch tape.

I kept all of these and then I discovered that Swiss TV was erasing most of the tapes, some of them because they were in black and white, others because they did not have the broadcasting rights.

When I found about that I made a deal with Swiss TV to buy back all the archives. We started then to transfer the old formats into digital formats. Since 1981 I've got everything in proper broadcast quality. Altogether there's 3,500 hours of recordings.

Did any artist turn down an offer to play at Montreux?

Not for money reasons anyway. We had a few who turned us down because of production reasons. Now, artists like R.E.M. or Sting with huge production sets know our stage and can usually adapt to our requirements. Many artists of that caliber do their only indoor gig at Montreux. And all of them use our PA.

Any artist you wished you had but could never make it?

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. 'I'm unpacking.' And on and on. He never made it.

You met quite a few interesting musicians. Which are the ones that do stand out?

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.

Any act who missed the show?

In the 40 years I've been doing that, only one act who did not show up -- UB40. They were backstage and I was getting ready to walk on stage and announce them as I usually do, and they told me, 'No we don't play tonight.' 'But everything is ready!' 'No we are missing a black box.' 'A black box? Where is it?' 'We don't know. We don't play.' And they split. I went to their hotel trying to convince them but no way. I went back to the casino. In the meantime a local reggae band had been playing and I told the crowd that UB40 were not going to perform because of a technical problem.

And I said we were going to reimburse half of the ticket price, which I did not have to do. In order to do that I had to have a bank opening at one in the morning and get 2,000 ten Swiss franc notes and give them to the audience. I was of course very upset but I still booked them back two years ago. I went to see them and they asked me if I was still angry. I said, 'No, you are musicians, this happened to you, it could have been a headache or a broken leg, and I have to accept it. You are not like a pair of shoes I put on a shelve trying to sell it. You are human beings and I just hope you'll do a great show tonight.' Which they did!

Any great performances that stand out?

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 concert of all time. In 1969 the impromptu performance of [pianist] Les McCann and [saxophonist] Eddie Harris was incredible. They never played together and just went on stage and played for 45 minutes, just improvising.

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!

You seem to have a fondness for Brazilian music. Where does it come from?

It came from Andre Midani who in those days was head of WEA Brazil and also from Midem because that's where I saw my first Brazilian act. Then I went to Brazil and I found that there was not just the Brazilian music that we knew -- samba and bossa nova -- but that there was also music from the different regions, a huge variety of styles.

One of my highlights remains the year Ellis Regina and Hermeto Pascoal performed together. Hermeto is a weird musician, one of the very few musicians Miles Davis called a genius. At the end of Ellis's show, I told Hermeto, 'Why don't you do a duet together?' He played a mixture of avant-garde jazz and Brazilian music. They went on stage and did a few traditional bossa nova tracks, which was incredible.

You left Warner in 2001 after 29 years with the company. What do you make of the company today?

Well, they just changed the president of the international division [Paul-Rene Albertini]. One day he is at my birthday [party], the next day he is not there anymore [smiles].

I don't think I know anybody now because they are all gone. At my birthday party in L.A. I saw some of my old friends like Jac Holzman, who used to run Elektra. All those guys are gone. I know some of the new guys but the business has changed so much with the iPod, which I think is a good thing.

You had some serious heart problems a couple of years ago. How do you feel now?

I was lucky. I went through serious surgery. I was operated after a very exhausting trip to the Far East. The doctors said I could have collapsed. I am really lucky and I feel better than I have ever felt. It gave me more strength.

You feel ready to continue then?

Well, that's a question I have been asked since the 10th anniversary [laughs]. How long am I going to carry on? I think it is a matter of being sure that the day I leave, everything is in place to carry on. The problem is not the team I have -- they are fantastic -- but it is to get the kind of relationship that I have established with artists and managers over the years.

Do you still have the same fresh perspective that you had 40 years ago?

It is still a challenge. I am aware of the changes in the industry. When you se the program there's a lot of acts that I am not familiar with. These acts are programmed by people in my team. I trust them, they are into the new music, and this is the hardest part because you need to find an audience for these acts.

And have you ever regretted not becoming a professional chef?

Not one moment!

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