Q&A: Montreux Founder Claude Nobs (continued)

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

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.

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 non-profit 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 what 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?

You are proposing a tribute to [Atlantic Records co-founder and co-chairman] Ahmet Ertegun this year. Did he help you pick up the acts?

Ahmet is so sweet. I was putting some names together and I told him I really wanted to do a tribute to him. He said, 'Yeah yeah yeah, you can do a tribute but I call the guys!' [Laughs]. So he picked up the phone and called Jimmy Page, Kid Rock, and so on, telling them they should all come to Montreux, and they all agreed.

You go back a long way with the Erteguns.

Oh yes. My relationship started with his brother Nesuhi whom I met him for the first time in New York. Nesuhi was in a way my father, my mentor, and he helped me and the festival. He gave me confidence and taught me a lot of things. Through him I met Jerry Wexler and Ahmet. I developed a great friendship with Jerry. We share a lot together, in particular a love of R&B.

And you worked for Neshui was he was chairman of WEA International?

Nesuhi was my boss and helped me develop my ideas. He was telling me, 'Claude, you do whatever you want!' Which other boss would say that to an employee? When it came to choose where I was going to work from I chose to stay in Montreux, because I always found that being from a small city would just work better for me. Nesuhi put me in charge of Warner's central video library, which I am still in charge of. We do the duplication of all the videos worldwide and there's now some 22,000 videos. It's one of the biggest video libraries, apart from my own personal library. I was able to develop these things in a very free manner.

What do you think Montreux brought to the world of festivals and what do you think is its trademark?

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 se how great you were?' It was an argument that usually worked.

Any artist has the right after the show to watch it and tell me if I can have three numbers or more or none. And if they ask me to put it on a shelf, I do it. But I think it is important that performances are kept. And we also try to have the best possible sound, which gives us the opportunity to provide the artists and their record companies with great live recordings.

What could explain the festival's longevity?

Well, it may have to do with my stubbornness and my desire to carry on despite all odds. We had years with little money, there were years when it did not work very well, we had all kinds of problems. And now we face enormous competition. If you go through the calendar of festivals in the summer in Switzerland alone -- a country of six million people -- you have over a hundred events.

How can you sustain your position?

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. There are people who want that type of quality, who do not want to be lost in the middle of nowhere. That's part of the fabric of Montreux.

Can you quantify the economic impact of the festival?

It has a big impact on the hotel business and on the business of the whole community. The Lausanne School of Economics made a study that showed that there's about euros 20 million that goes back into the local economy, and that not counting the TV rights or our budget that is now 12 million [euros].

What's the artistic part of the budget?

About one-third. We have very high production costs because we have to reshuffle the whole location each time, we have to adapt the hall because it is made for classical concerts with a three-second natural echo. Setting up the different halls is costing us already over one million euros. Then you have all the other costs, such as transportation, hotels, etc.

Do you think Montreux, with its foundation ownership, could be a model for other festivals?

The Foundation is quite specific, but where we can be a model is in the variety of genres it exposes. It was first a kind of mesh-mash of styles of music that made no sense and made the real jazz fan very critical of my choices to mix it with other genres.

My point from the beginning onwards was to go into other directions and bring a new crowd to the festival. Now that I've been doing this for 40 years, I can see people who were at the first gigs coming with their grand children. You create a place where people want to come and bring their friends or their children. It's like a family affair. It is designed for people aged 15… to my age [laughs].

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