Travel feature: Montreux Jazz Festival

1 Nov


For forty years now, a quiet war has been waged on the cobble-stoned streets of Montreux Switzerland. Those to whom Montreux belongs – the residents and puritan archivists of Swiss culture and history – have been in battle with the new Swiss generation, those who slowly want to drag the city into the 21st Century. (Poster courtesy of

Unlike Bern and Zurich, cities that have lost to the younger generation, Montreux and its gangs have reached a tenuous truce. Once a year residents hand the city and its manicured gardens over to the rebels. For 16 days, an international army of music lovers, artists and vendors take over Lake Geneva and its banks for 16 days, and rule victorious.

The Montreux Jazz Festival invades the quiet and tranquil beauty of conservative Montreux, and the residents retreat from this pagan past time. They know they have lost the war for that short period, but are assured that, once it’s over, they will be left alone to their exquisite streets for the rest of the year.

The man who brokered the truce is a remarkable and an unlikely figure. Claude Nobs could easily be mistaken for a typical Montreux resident – the kind who threatens to call the police if you use his parking spot for longer then two minutes. He is completely Swiss in mannerism, looks and speech. But it is his glasses that set him apart: constantly changing and always bizarre, they are a mark of a man who is endearing in his eccentricities. He is also a man who manages to hold the affections of both Montreux residents and the bandits that take over Montreux for the festival.

Nobs was born in Territet, Switzerland in 1936 to a baker and a nurse. He enjoyed the benefits of a typically Swiss childhood; surrounded by mountains, lakes and the quiet perfection characteristic of the country. It is hard to imagine that he would be the broker of peace between the troubled Swiss youth of the 1960s, and its increasingly frustrated Swiss elders.

Nobs started his career as a chef, and then went on to work as an accountant for the Montreux Tourism Office. A fiercly proud citizen of Montreux, and a lover of music, he enjoyed working with the Montreux Youth Association, and began organising small concerts for the group. Sent to New York on a business trip to promote the city, Nobs took a spontaneous trip to meet the head of Atlanta Records to discuss the possibility of holding concerts in Montreux. On the way out, he came across Roberta Flack and invited her to play in the city.

Music concerts and festivals were never the cornerstone of Swiss tourism. Chocolate and cows, yes. Museums and quaint villages – for sure. But pot smoking, hotel room wrecking, suicidal jazz artists? Never! But the youth of Switzerland (like all youth in the 1960s) were restless for something new to shake up their lives. They wanted something that would show that Switzerland was part of a changing, crazy, mad world – whether the old folks wanted it or not. And hence the war ever since, between the purveyors of Swiss stereotypes and the youth, who are crying out for more.

The first Montreux Jazz Festival took place in 1967, and with Ella Fitzgerald and Nina Simone playing, it was clear Nobs was waging the war with big guns. Since then, 41 Montreux Jazz Festivals have taken place, with the event growing yearly.

Now Montreux welcomes 230 000 tourists and concert-goers to the Festival every year, employs 1350 staff members, and attracts 650 journalists from all over the world. Since its start, it has hosted over 4000 bands and artists, and recorded over 5000 hours of music for its archives. It stopped being a pure jazz festival in the 70s, and now hosts an eclectic mix of jazz, rock, pop, R&B, blues, reggae, dance and retro bands every year. With a population of less then 25 000, Montreux’s residents are clearly outnumbered in this fight.

The vibe of the festival, its smells and sounds pull you in, and it’s almost impossible to leave the Festival’s grounds and head home to sleep. But its attraction also lies in the allure of the Festival’s home ground. The city of Montreux is built on a mountain side above the banks of Lake Geneva, and faces a stretch of the French-Swiss border. It is truly beautiful, with winding streets, ancient roads and a crumbling yet seemingly untouched castle.

A pathway stretches along the width of the lake, all the way to neighbouring cities Vevey and Villeneuve. It is ideal for a jogger, a family out walking, two lovers taking a lazy stroll. Every few metres, luscious, groomed flower beds are broken up by hidden benches, where you can sit and look out onto the lake and pretend that the world doesn’t exist. It is so picturesque and idyllic it almost hurts to try take everything in.

A short drive will take you out of the city into the mountains, with isolated farmhouses, forest glades and numerous cows (at least one stereotype that is definitely true of Switzerland).

Nobs probably Montreux’s most famous citizen (next to Freddy Mercury, who has a statue erected next to the lake in his memory). Denizen of the festival, and ‘God’ to all who attend, Nobs, now 71, introduces a majority of the bands before they play, by name, no matter how small or unknown they are. He also invites them all to meals at his mansion, a sprawling, mountain top house that overlooks Montreux.

This year, he gave artist Tori Amos a bunch of flowers and a diamond watch for her third performance at the festival. Why the diamond watch? Apparently, in the early days of the festival, an artist had demanded she receive a diamond watch for her performance. But, as he explained on stage, Amos has never demanded anything from him, and the diamond watch was a gift for “his favourite girl… because she never asked for it”. Nobs’ personal touch is legendary.

Free outdoor concerts remain a staple of the festival, and high school jazz bands from all over the world fly in to perform. Nobs also travels the world looking for unknown artists he can potentially sponsor to play at the festival. With a clever funding model, ticket prices for the festival have remained constant, despite artist prices soaring. This is really a festival for the people, and Nobs wouldn’t have it any other way.

Each year the Festival brings a blend of established, unheard of and classic bands together, and attracts a diverse mix of people to the shores of an otherwise typical Swiss city. In 2007 popular modern bands The Chemical Brothers, Placebo, Faithless and Beastie Boys shared the bill with artists of the moment Norah Jones, Seal, Paolo Nutini and John Legend. Veteran visitors to the festival were acknowledged with appearances by Sly and the Family Stone, Van Morrison, the Pet Shop Boys, George Benson and Al Jarreau.

Writing about the lineup, festival director Peter Rothenbühler quoted Claude Nobs as saying: “The public has been loyal to us, and we must stay loyal to them. The person that was twenty years old, twenty years ago, should still be able to experience his idols.”

Rothenbühler is full of praise for Nobs: “[He’s like] an ageless child… moved by music like a child… Nobs’s unending passion for music is his secret.” He goes onto to say that Nobs likes to “spoil his loyal public”, by making two thirds of the concerts at the Jazz Festival free.

The 2007 Festival showed that not even rain could dampen the aura and attraction of the Festival. The heavens opened this year in Switzerland, and the first 10 days of the 16-day festival saw very little blue sky and a whole lot of mud.

Vendors were put out and outdoor concerts performed to miserable audiences, but the spirit of the Festival prevailed. Eventually, when the summer sun did emerge, the rain-soaked misery of the previous week was forgotten.

The rocky banks of Lake Geneva provided handy seats for attendees to eat their meals and drink their beers before the concerts began. And after that, the numerous stalls and bars provided music until the early hours. Dancing at a Brazilian bar with sand under your feet and a Caiparinha in your hand, with a multitude of languages and cultures surrounding you, it becomes hard to remember that you’re still in Switzerland, a country renowned for its rigid rules and obsessive need for order and control.

And that is essentially what the festival is about. For the rest of the year, Montreux remains a litter-free, immaculately clean and unbelievably orderly city. Like other cities in Switzerland, it wows tourists with its well-tended lakeside gardens, graffiti-free public facilities and well behaved, punctual and polite residents. But for the youth, this is a false and insulting mask. With high suicide rates amongst young people, and soaring drug use, Switzerland is finding that perfectly maintained parks and public services are not going to placate an obviously disaffected youth.

And while politicians mull over these problems in board rooms and offices, Claude Nobs realised the power of music to soothe troubled souls. The popularity of the festival has grown, and even though the Montreux residents have to give up their parking, they no longer begrudge the festival’s existence. Most who visit the city for the festival are compelled to return to Montreux’s idyllic peace and beauty.

Whether you’re going to indulge in some debauchery at the festival,or partake in some restrained sight seeing at the famous Chateau de Chillon, Montreux Tourism is happy. This is one Swiss city that has managed to balance new and old, with style. Claude Nobs is largely to thank for this – he found the compromise that keeps everyone happy. Which goes to show: a peace truce is far more profitable and rewarding in the long run then a war will ever be.


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