The Scene that “Funky Claude” Built: the Montreux Jazz Festival

September 22, 2013

Around Lausanne, Cultural stuff

30km east of Lausanne, in the heart of the “Swiss Riviera” near the end of Lake Geneva, lies the town of Montreux. The town has long been a popular escape for the rich and famous, owing to its benign climate, tony hotels, beautiful waterfront, and secluded location. Artists and musicians including Noel Coward, Igor Stravinsky, Vladimir Nabokov, and, more recently, Freddie Mercury and Shania Twain have called Montreux home at one time. To  the rest of us, however, the town is best known as the host of one of the largest and most famous music festivals in the world, the Montreux Jazz Festival.

KR Jazz

Kathryn in front of the Stravinsky Auditorium.

First held in 1967, the Montreux Jazz Festival has been held every July since then. The festival was the brainchild of a young tourism development official named Claude Nobs, who was looking for a way to bring more visitors to the area. The Montreux event was an almost instant hit, with A-List performers like Miles Davis, Keith Jarrett, Bill Evans and Ella Fitzgerald appearing on the bill. Originally established as a traditional jazz event, under Nobs’ direction the festival soon expanded and evolved to embrace rock, soul, R&B and folk musicians too, including acts like Led Zepplin, Santana, Deep Purple, Bob Dylan and Van Morrison.

The festival was immortalized in the early 70s rock classic “Smoke on the Water” by Deep Purple, which recounts the story of how a fan at the 1971 festival ignited a flare and accidentally burned the concert hall to the ground! Nobs too was celebrated in the song, as the “Funky Claude” who was “running in and out, pulling kids out the ground”.

1971 © Bruno Gaeng

Poster from the 1971 festival, where the infamous fire took place.

Attracting up to 200,000 visitors a year, today’s festival stretches over two weeks and features an eclectic mix of over a hundred performances ranging from traditional jazz, rock, and soul, to contemporary hip-hop and electronica. All the venues are packed closely together along the waterfront at Montreux, where festival goers stroll outside among the food and beverage kiosks between gigs while watching the sun set over Lake Geneva. Those who can’t afford the  pricey tickets to see a headline act can still join the crowds outside, soaking up the vibe and enjoying the many free outdoor performances. For those with the energy and stamina, the music goes on late into the night, with a host of “after-shows”  taking place after the main performances, often with cameos by festival headliners.

Festival goers taking a break by the water.

Festival goers taking a break by the water.

Kathryn and I have been fortunate to attend the festival for the last two summers. Last year we were late in getting tickets and most shows were sold out, although we did see the Canadian crooner Rufus Wainright, as well as taking in the sights, sounds and smells of the waterfront. Last spring I kept a sharp eye out for when the line-up would be  announced and tickets released. My vigilance paid off, as we were able to get tickets for three performances at this year’s festival.

Festival goers outside the Miles Davis Hall, with the spectacular Montreux Palace Hotel behind.

Festival goers near the Miles Davis Hall, with the spectacular Montreux Palace Hotel behind.

For our first show we went to see the American punk group Green Day. Not your typical Montreux act for sure, although they had no trouble packing the Stravinsky Auditorium, the festival’s largest venue. Lead singer Billie Joe Armstrong seemed a little disoriented himself, confessing that the band had “no f–king idea what we’re doing here”. Nonetheless the band put on a spirited and energetic performance that kept the youngish (by Montreux standards) audience hopping on their feet.

You can watch them performing in Montreux here:

Green Day put on a lively show at the Stravinsky Auditorium

Green Day put on a lively show at the Stravinsky Auditorium

The following night found us back in Montreux for something a little more traditional, a performance by the American soul singer Oleta Adams, with the young jazz vocalist Gregory Porter as an opening act. The venue was the Montreux Jazz Club, a much more intimate setting, with seating for about 200. Now, I really don’t know anything about jazz, so my comments  about this show should be taken with a huge grain of salt, but here goes nothing.

We were familiar with Oleta Adams from the amazing vocal work she did on Tears For Fears’ 1989 album Seeds of Love. She has since released numerous solo albums and has toured with Phil Collins. Gregory Porter, on the other hand, we had never heard of. (Turns out the guy has already been nominated for a couple of Grammys – told you I knew nothing about jazz!).

Oleta Adams at the  Montreux Jazz Club.

Oleta Adams at the Montreux Jazz Club.

Gregory Porter came on stage looking sharp in a white tuxedo jacket and crimson bow tie, as well as his trademark headgear (OK, what’s up with that?!), accompanied by a 4 piece band. Porter then proceeded to put on an incredible hour-long set of mostly original tunes in a jazzy R&B style, and it seemed pretty clear to me that we were witnessing something special (despite my ignorance). I loved his voice and the strong lyrical storytelling in his songs, especially in his closing number “1960 What”, which you can see him perform live in Montreux here:

You can also see Porter sing his Grammy nominated song “Be Good” here:

After Porter’s showstopping performance, I have to admit that I found Adams’ show a bit of a letdown. She has an incredible voice and some strong original material. On this night, however, she mixed in too many jazz standards for my taste, and the large back-up band and musical arrangements competed too much with her voice. Frankly, I would have preferred a solo performance of her singing and playing piano.

Festival goers enjoying the sunset on Lake Geneva

Festival goers enjoying the sunset on Lake Geneva

A week later we were back at the Stravinsky to see some guy named Gordon Sumner, aka “Sting” of The Police fame, who admittedly has had a very successful solo career since the band broke up in 1986. The last time I saw him perform live was at the 1981 “Police Picnic,” (a festival of new wave, punk and ska bands held near Toronto back then), where he had a case of laryngitis and whispered his way through half the set, so I was  looking forward to hearing him in full voice this time.

Sting put on a great show and, despite showing his 62 years a little, seemed to be in fine voice. He played a mix of both his solo material (e.g. Englishman in New York, If I Ever Lose My Faith) as well as Police mega-hits (e.g. Message in a Bottle, Roxanne), with the latter clearly pleasing the older crowd the most, many of whom looked like they were around before The Police broke up and knew the songs by heart. This was definitely our favourite of the three nights at the festival.

Here are a few video clips taken during his show:

If you’re a music lover and ever happen to be in Switzerland in early July, I recommend that you check out the jazz festival in Montreux. As this year’s line-up clearly showed, Claude Nobs and the rest of the organizers stretch the meaning of “jazz” to the limit, so there is something here for just about everyone each year. I can’t wait until next April when the line-up for 2014 is announced.

I’ll wrap up this post on a sombre note by mentioning that, sadly, Claude Nobs died last January as a result of a fall while cross country skiing the day before Christmas near his home in Switzerland. He suffered a head injury from the fall and lapsed into a coma before dying on January 10. He was 76 years old.

And because that’s a bummer, hopefully this will put a smile back on your face:


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