Thirty-five years ago this July 10, I walked onto the stage at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland. I like to think that I was too young to truly appreciate where I was and to know what a rare opportunity it represented. In 1978, Montreux sat at the pinnacle of annual jazz festivals. I first heard of it a few years earlier when my jazz-loving father gave me a Woody Herman Live at Montreux LP for Christmas. I remember basking in the swinging sounds that blew out of my little KLH speakers and starring at the album jacket, wondering what this Montreux place was all about. During one of these jazz imagination sessions, my father sat down next to me on the floor and said, “You just never know. You might be there some day.” That record, and dozens of others in my father’s vast library, became my daily companions as I learned to play drums accompanied by the recordings of Woody Herman’s Thundering Herd, Count Basie, Dave Brubeck, Carmen McCrae, and Oscar Peterson.
A year later, my father was gone, lost in a crash of his single engine Bellanca Viking in the Colorado Rockies. My mother had to move us to find work, and we landed in the antithesis of the Colorado mountains — the Texas Panhandle. The only jazz I knew in Cedaredge, Colorado was that on my turntable, but could Amarillo, Texas be any better? In one of those precious moments of beautiful life timing, a gifted trumpet player and composer named Malcolm Harris was starting a new job as assistant band director at Amarillo High School and was assembling a jazz band. That band, and the gigs around town that Malcolm roped me into as a young, eager-to-learn drummer, were a godsend. By 1978, our AHS Jazz Ensemble had garnered regional awards and was invited to join a crowd of four US student bands traveling Europe with a final stop at the Montreux Jazz Festival. When I walked out on that stage, overwhelmed to be in front of 2000 people who were waiting to hear Clark Terry, Count Basie, Bill Evans, Stan Getz, and so many other legends, I choked up a little, thinking of my father’s comment back in my old bedroom in Cedaredge. “You might be there some day.” How I wish he could have been there to see it. The lights, the amazing sound of the Casino Hall, the deeply generous crowd that encouraged our novice group with rousing and lengthy applause — all made for a very surreal experience. The only sound that has rung in my ears as long as that standing ovation is the sound one of my drum sticks made when it left my hand during a flurry of notes and pinged off of a trumpet player’s bell. My father, who also loved humor, would have appreciated that too.
I was digging around for some old photos of that wonderful summer, but they’re eluding me at the moment. If any of my old band mates read this and have something they can scan, please send it to me. And while you’re at it, share your memories in the comments section of this post. I intend to write a few more times about my memories from that summer, including my encounter with the father of the Montreux Festival, the late Claude Nobs.
For me, Montreux 1978 truly was a dream come true, however bittersweet. I thought surely I would be back once I really learned how to play. I haven’t been back, yet.
But, “You just never know.”