Claude Nobs Talks Montreux Jazz Festival, His Long Career in 1996 Billboard Interview
Claude Nobs Talks Montreux Jazz Festival, His Long Career in 1996 Billboard Interview

Montreux Jazz Festival founder and GM Claude Nobs died today after suffering a skiing accident on Christmas Eve that left him in a coma. In this 1996 interview, Billboard's Thom Duffy talked with Nobs at length about the festival and his illustrious career.

Montreux, Switzerland, on the shores of Lake Geneva, has attracted artists and musicians through the centuries. The English romantic poet Lord Byron was inspired the 13th-century Chateau de Chillon on the lake's shore. Richard Wagner came here in the mid-19th century, when his political activities forced him to flee Germany. Igor Stravinsky lived and composed in Montreux during the first World War.

But it took the son of a local baker to transform Montreux over the past 30 years into a mecca for musicians from around the world. Claude Nobs, 60, founder of the Montreux Jazz Festival, was once an apprentice cook. This year's 30th-anniversary festival, July 5 to 20, will find him again mixing musical ingredients with unparalleled grace and skill.

Nobs also is the managing director of Warner Music Switzerland, which has its Montreux offices in the house that was once his boyhood home. He is a self-confessed 'gadget freak' who early on saw the value of video to the music industry. At street level, in what once was his father's bakery, Nobs oversees the central archive and dispatching point for video footage of every Warner Music artist worldwide.

As artists, record executives and festival fans alike have discovered, Nobs is the consummate host to visitors. In his hometown, over a lunch of local delicacies, Nobs recently discussed the past, present and future of the Montreux Jazz Festival.

Among the world's many music festivals, what has given the Montreux Jazz Festival its unique reputation among artists?

I would call it freedom of expression, freedom of concept. It's doing something different from the usual two-hour show that they do around the world. A perfect example this year is Phil Collins, who will take the time, the effort and even his own investment to put together a big band, for the world premiere of tunes that he wrote for himself and for Genesis, arranged for a big band.

When Simply Red played here for the second time, Mick (Hucknall) started with an a cappella Billie Holiday song. After the show, Mick told me this is the only place he could do that.

There is something of a tradition that existed here in the old days when Stravinsky stayed here. He must have felt a kind of freedom of thinking--and a sense of time--which is not like the pressure of the big cities. You know we have no curfew (at the festival). We have endless concerts sometimes.

When did you begin presenting concerts in Montreux?

The first musical events (in 1963) were actually tiny blues concerts that I was putting together with a bunch of friends as the Association For The Youth Of Montreux. We decided to create our own entertainment because Montreux was so boring. Then I started to work for the tourist office and was involved with the Golden Rose television festival from day one.

How did live concerts become part of the television festival?

The creator of the Golden Rose Festival, Raymond Janussi, was also my boss at the tourist office and asked me to do some live entertainment. The first major show was a co-promotion with ITV London; it was 'Ready Steady Go,' and the billing was totally crazy. It was the Rolling Stones, Petula Clark and (French pop star) Adamo. I nearly had to drag people off the promenade by the casino to see the show. It was 1964, and people (here) had no clue who the Stones were.

The first Montreux Jazz Festival was then staged in 1967, but, from the earliest years, it has never been strictly a jazz event.

I'm using a kind of silly way to explain it, but if you come to Switzerland, you can buy a plastic watch, a wooden watch, a stone watch, a gold watch, a platinum watch. They are all called watches. And, for me, the festival is very much like this. We call it jazz to give it a quality name for music, and you have different styles of music: wooden music, steel music, platinum music. The heart of the watch is the movement, and it's the same thing with music.

A major influence on the evolution of Montreux into an international music festival was Atlantic Records co-founder Nesuhi Ertegun. How did you first meet?

It was around 1966. I took a trip to America, studying big hotels. One day, I just decided to go to 1841 Broadway in New York, which was the address of Atlantic. All my favorite records, from John Coltrane to R&B stuff, had Nesuhi's name on them. I told the receptionist, 'Hi, I'm Claude Nobs. I would like to see Mr. Ertegun.' She said, 'I don't think you can see him without a proper appointment. 'But I'm from Switzerland,' I said. I must have looked so sad, that Nesuhi's secretary got me up to his office. He greeted me in Swiss German, and it was an instant connection. Then each time I had a dream or a wish, I would go to him. The first dream was in 1968, when I wanted Aretha Franklin at the festival. Nesuhi said, 'I will pay for transportation.'

After Nesuhi launched WEA International in 1973, he hired you as one of the company's first executives in Europe, as managing director in Switzerland. I understand it was an unusual agreement.

It was a handwritten contract mentioning that I should be involved in new technologies and that I would be involved with artists. The last line was that I would cook for executives. There was no mention of any money.

Nesuhi introduced you to Miles Davis, correct?

Nesuhi invited me to the Newport Jazz Festival, and I had a backstage pass. It was one of those afternoon shows, and it was very hot. I was just back from a vacation in Tunisia. I had on a nice Tunisian embroidered shirt, and Miles said, (whispering in imitation of Davis), 'Hey man, you got a nice shirt!' I said, 'Miles, you want it?' I just took it off. He said, 'Nobody ever took their shirt off their body to give it to me. Thanks, man!' When I saw him later on, he always said, 'Thanks for the shirt.'

Almost all the performances at Montreux through the years have been taped and filmed. What percentage of those archives has been released?

Less than 10%.

That's remarkable. Does the festival own the rights to that material?

There is no way you can do a contract for a live performance and have, at the same time, commercial rights of any kind. The rights we have usually requested are for three numbers per artist, worldwide (for television and radio), so we can keep the history of Montreux for television and radio. Lately, we have asked for one minute for multimedia use, because we want, at some point, to do a CD-ROM on the history of Montreux. Those rights have been no big deal to obtain, because they would be traded against the free rights for the artist to use the full performance on video for promotional use. If they want to release the performance commercially, then we have a standard deal.

Who owns the physical tapes in the Montreux archive?

Earlier this year, I made a deal with the tourist office. I purchased the entire library of 2,000 hours, including all union fees for the use of video. I don't have the artist rights, but I have the physical tapes, which puts me in a good negotiating position. Even if we clear 10% per year, it's only 200 hours per year. The deal I've done so far is with Rhino, where they now have priority access to (performances by) all the Atlantic artists.

Have some artists refused to be filmed at Montreux?

Marvin Gaye had never agreed to be filmed live. I went in the afternoon to his hotel suite, and he said, 'No, I don't want to be televised.' I ran back to my house, got a couple of tapes from the early years, and started to play him Aretha Franklin, James Brown. He said, 'Wow, where was this made?' I said, 'The same place that you're playing tonight--with the same people directing.' He said, 'OK, let's do it.'

You've always been known as a technology buff.

I think it's very simple. The respect I have for the musicians is such that I always wanted to have a high-end hi-fi system to re-create in the best possible way the quality of the recording done in the studio or a live performance. One of the most amazing live mixes I ever saw at Montreux was when Jerry Wexler came and produced the Muscle Shoals rhythm section with some blues people, including B.B. King. At the rehearsal, he sat in the middle of the hall by himself, and he was giving hand signs. You could see his arm waving up and down. And he said, 'That's the way I mix a live recording.'

The festival this year will again be part of the Macintosh New York Music Festival, combining music and technology.

What we'll do, and we started to do this last year, is to upload every night a minute of each of the live performances and a picture taken that night. This year, we'll be able to do it in real time--and possibly with some video--right onto the Internet. However, if the quality (on the Internet) gets too good, then you have a further problem. One of the things that I worked very hard on with Nesuhi in the early years was preventing piracy. The reason we ask for only three songs for broadcast is that we don't want anybody to be able to bootleg a radio broadcast or a live video recording.

But some artists still have objected to their performances being taped.

Bob Dylan's agent, Barry Dickins, called me (in 1994) and said, 'I cannot put this in writing, but it is possible you'll have Dylan in Montreux. But one thing: no TV, no radio. (During his performance, Dylan) suddenly realized this was not your average crowd. He stopped the show and said, 'Let's go acoustic.' And from that moment on was pure magic. After the show, he came by and said, 'You know, I hope you still recorded that. It was my best show in 10 years.' I said, 'No, I gave you my word.'

How did Quincy Jones get involved in co-producing Montreux in 1991.

When he finished 'Bad' with Michael Jackson (in 1987), he was exhausted. So he comes here, and I go to pick him up, and we go to the hotel. I had brought two stacks of (video) tapes of an entire festival to see. Quincy is a workaholic. He watched the (video footage of) an entire two-week festival in the two halls during one week in Montreux. As a joke, I said, 'I would love you to come and work with me.' And he said, 'Yeah, sure!'

The festival is now run by the nonprofit Montreux Jazz Festival Foundation rather than the Montreux tourist office. How has that come about?

The buyout of the festival from the tourist office came in two parts. First, I bought the archive. Then the foundation bought the name Montreux Jazz Festival, the name Montreux Jazz Cafe and all uses of the jazz-festival name on a worldwide basis. The foundation is a nonprofit organization where profit can be reinvested. We are looking now (to raise) about a million dollars, which will pay for the buyout of the name and have a half-million dollars as a reserve.

What is the Montreux Jazz Cafe?

This idea came in 1993 at a lunch with Quincy, when we decided to start a chain called the Montreux Jazz Cafe. We both feel there is a spot (in the theme restaurant marketplace) for it. And we have assets that all the others combined don't have. We have the archive, the wonderful collection of posters, all the live recordings released by record companies throughout the years. We can have live appearances. We're doing a lot of testing right now. It's a big investment, and you need people who have been involved in doing it.

How can you put 30 years of the Montreux Jazz Festival in perspective?

It has been very intense and very moving. The emotion came before the money or the budgets or whatever. I still do the festival a little bit as a cook, with the spices I put on every night. It's very, very emotionally involving.