Montreux memories: My visit with festival creator, Claude Nobs

It was destiny. He was born in paradise. Claude Nobs called Montreux, Switzerland his home from the start. He worked for the Tourism Office of Montreux. He understood the allure of this gorgeous, storybook village on the slopes of the Alps right at the point they begin their 1000 foot decent into Lake Geneva. If there was to be a Montreux Jazz Festival, Claude Nobs was the man to make it happen. In 1967, at age 31, Claude joined forces with Géo Voumard and René Langel to bring Charles Lloyd, Keith Jarrett, Ron McLure and Jack DeJohnette to the first Montreux Jazz Festival. Bill Evans, Weather Report, Jan Garbarek, and Ella Fitzgerald were there as well, making Montreux an instant buzz word in jazz. What was happening in music in 1967? Elvis Presley is 32 and records “Guitar Man” with Jerry Reed. The Rolling Stones perform on the Ed Sullivan Show. The Beatles record “A Day In The Life” with the London Philharmonic Orchestra at Abbey Road. Aretha Franklin records “Respect.” Barbara Streisand performs in Central Park. Miles Davis releases Nefertiti and Sorcerer, Wayne Shorter releases Schizophrenia, and legends Billy Stayhorn, John Coltrane, and Paul Whiteman see their final chapters.

So that is the rich earth that the Montreux Jazz Festival (later expanding beyond a jazz-only format) grew out of. Claude was there at the Montreux Casino, site of the festival, in 1971 when the rock band Deep Purple was preparing to record what became their most successful album, Machine Head. Frank Zappa was on stage before Deep Purple, and a fire broke out which overwhelmed the Casino, destroying it. Claude rescued a few young concert attendees who thought they could hide from the fire in the casino, and Deep Purple committed it to lyric in the hit song, “Smoke On The Water.”

(Uh) Funky Claude was running in and out,
Pulling kids out the ground.

Flash forward to 1978. Claude, as much the encourager of the next generation of musicians as celebrator of the current, invited outstanding youth groups to perform during many of the festivals. I arrive at the Casino the morning after our Amarillo High School Jazz Ensemble performance before a crowd of 1500+. It had been a magical night, all part of a magical few days is this paradise of beautiful living and music. We’re supposed to play that afternoon in another part of the casino, but I can’t locate my drums. I panic a bit when a Montreux Festival crew member mentions that he saw those funky tiger-stripped Ludwigs leave for the Geneva airport with Esther “What A Difference A Day Makes” Phillips. “Go talk to Claude,” he says. “You mean, THE Claude?” I come back. “Yes,” he says. “He’s probably in his office now and will be happy to help you.” So I walk to his open door and knock on the wall. Claude is there and has received a warning call that I’m in route. He says, “Come in, come in! Drummer from Amreeyo Jazz Ensaum. We will solve this!”

I sat in Claude’s small, humble little office (as I remember it) while he made a short phone call which I didn’t understand. Then he hung up and told me that he had “caught them in time.” The airport would hold my drums and someone from his staff would drive to Geneva (an hour each way) and retrieve my drums from the airport. I was amazed. This entertainment legend, in the middle of running his world-renowned annual music festival, was going to all this trouble for a high school kid and a cheap drum set (although they’re vintage now and I wish I still had them). It was the same Claude from “Smoke On The Water.”

(Uh) Funky Claude was dialing phones left and right,
Pulling drum sets off the tarmac.

We sat for a few more minutes and talked. He was in no hurry to rush me out. He asked me about our trip, how I enjoyed Montreux, about music. He made me feel, in that short moment, that I mattered as much as anything else, and delivered a life lesson. It was the highlight of my trip. I saw him once more on the Casino deck, as I flipped through boxes of jazz LPs I had never seen in Amarillo. He remembered me and said hello. I bought my first Keith Jarrett recording, Facing You. Whenever I listen to that record, I think of Claude. It seems appropriate that Jarrett’s LP was a monumental trailblazing moment in music history. Spending a few days at Montreux and meeting Funky Claude was trailblazing for me too. Godspeed, Claude Nobs.

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  1. Brilliant story, that was Claude, indeed – only a slight correction: the festival has started 1967, not 1976. Best LJ

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