Q&A: Montreux Jazz Festival Founder Claude Nobs

The Billboard interview with the founder of the Montreux Jazz Festival.

The Montreux Jazz Festival, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this summer, may well be one of the world's best-known live music events. Montreux 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 through July 15, Nobs already is working on projects for the following 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. Life for Nobs could have been so different if he had followed the path for which he was destined, as a trained chef.

When Atlantic Records co-founder Neshui Ertegun founded WEA International in 1973, he hired Nobs as one of his first executives in Europe with an unusual agreement. "It was a hand written contract mentioning that I should be involved in new technologies and that I would be involved with artists," Nobs once recalled. "The last line was that I would cook for executives."

But instead of cooking for a living, Nobs chose to indulge into his passion for music.

Nobs is now president of the Montreux Jazz Festival Foundation, which is a non-profit organization. Through the years, he has turned his quiet hometown into a creative heaven for artists. It is that rapport with artists built over 4 decades that puts Nobs and his festival in a league of their own.

Details on this year's festival can be found at montreuxjazz.com, while montreuxsounds.com gives access to the festival's database of concerts).

In 2001 Nobs retired from Warner Music after 29 years with the company, and he now fully concentrates on his festival. A couple of years ago he was diagnosed with serious heart condition, which required surgery. Today, he says he is perfectly fit and ready to go on for many more years.

During an interview with Billboard in London earlier this spring, Nobs was charming, funny, curious and always eager to prove his point with anecdotes. He is a master storyteller. He revels in re-creating the dialogues he's had with the rich and famous.

One could easily label him an uncanny name-dropper, but the fact of the matter is that the artists or the executives he talks about are part of his daily diet. He breathes music, loves artists and he is definitely the soul of Montreux Jazz Festival.

When told that this interview was going to be recorded on the same tape used for a previous interview with Pink Floyd's guitarist David Gilmour, he sounds flattered and remarks, "I did the first Pink Floyd gig in Switzerland -- in 1969."

That's one of the lesser known aspects of Nobs' work. He's mostly known for spearheading one of the world's greatest festivals, but he is also a concert promoter the rest of the year. Before the festival, in the mid-'60s, he was organizing Montreux's winter concerts program, which included Floyd, the first appearance there of Led Zeppelin and many more.

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 Rolling Stones.

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," jokes Nobs.

Would you be able to book the Stones today?

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.

Montreux always has been musically eclectic.

The first year the budget was $8,000. I could not go very far, so with two friends, we got the idea to do a competition for jazz bands, which was very odd because there was no dominant style. You had a New Orleans band from France, an avant-garde band from Hungary and a big band from England. We did it for a few years and even on the first year I tried to spice it up with different groups.

The first year, I had a sort of pop jazz band with Julie Driscoll & Brian Auger. The second year there was Ten Years After and people were screaming that it was the end of the jazz festival. And even now people ask me how dare do I call it a jazz festival! Montreux Jazz is a brand name and most of the people know what to expect. Once, in 1977, we called it the Montreux International Festival. And people were confused so we went back calling it Montreux Jazz. It is like a tattoo, it is there on your arm, and it will be there forever.

What's jazz for you?

I would say that the word jazz stands up for me as a quality label.

What do you think of the evolution of jazz as a genre?

In a way it's a bit sad because the true innovators are all gone, except maybe Oscar Peterson, Sonny Rollins and Ornette Coleman. Al 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. It's getting so cleaned up and so perfect, and I listen to many of those records and I find something is missing.

Montreux is a quiet city, quite an odd place for a festival.

[Laughs] 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 hairs, 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?'

It's not like at the Isle of Wight where it happens once and people split. Here I was creating something different. They tried to stop me organizing shows after the fire at the Casino in 1971, which luckily had no casualties.

Some people thought it was important to continue to have an event that would rejuvenate the image of the city. Then Mountain Studios opened and artists started coming back here to record, people like the Stones, Bowie, Pink Floyd. So, throughout the year, we had rock musicians in the studio, the festival during the summer and the rock shows during the winter.

Speaking of casino burning and fire in the sky, you are closing this year with Deep Purple, whose classic "Smoke On The Water," was inspired by the Casino fire.

It is going to be a special evening. I don't know who they are going to invite. I hope Ritchie Blackmore will join them. I know they are trying.

I guess that "Funky Claude" -- as they described you in "Smoke On The Water" -- did a lot for your international image.

When I meet people and in the conversation I drop that I am the "Funky Claude" from the song they look at me with disbelief. 'What, you are funky Claude?' They find it hard to believe that this guy existed in the first place. But the story is very true, there's not one word that could be changed in the song. It's exactly what happened.

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