The Montreux Jazz Festival archives were officially declared part of the UNESCO Memory of the World collection back in 2013. That should tell you all that you need to know about the kind of cultural value they offer. Since 1967, the event has acted as a cradle for great musical moments, each one giving off a quality of timelessness as well as feeling fixed to its own particular period. While it can sometimes feel difficult to pin-point and identify these moments whilst they are happening, the vast visual history on offer – through filmed concerts – allows us to revisit and refresh what has since past into collective memory.
Montreux Jazz Festival, Where is it?
Located on the shoreline of the beautiful Lake Geneva, the festival in Montreux is able to offer views that are equally as spectacular as its history. Few festivals can boast such a location, one that provides a stunning, serene backdrop to the buzz that takes place under the lights. Yet in truly appreciating the life of such an event, we should take a look back at the history that has served to mold it over the last half a century. Due to the incredible filmic record, soon to be made fully available on Qwest TV, this is a history that can be told visually, through exceptional performances and special moments.
In popular culture, jazz has sometimes been thought of as an accompaniment to seedy pursuits, something you might see or hear playing in the corner of a smokey bar, while drinks are drunk and all manner of deals and proposals get made. True to this unfortunate iconography, Montreux was started in a casino – the Montreux Casino overlooking the water. Yet far from operating as a place for chancers and downbeats, the event positioned itself as a vehicle for high art from the word go, with its first weekend featuring the Charles Lloyd Quintet.
Initial success meant that the fire had been started, one that continued to smoulder until the following year, having attracted enough attention to bring the one and only Nina Simone all the way from NY to Geneva for its second year. By the early 70s, the event was attracting names such as Miles Davis, Keith Jarrett, Bill Evans, Ella Fitzgerald and Richie Havens, who also had the honor of opening Woodstock 1969. These were strong early movements, and much of that came down to the festival’s visionary founder, Claude Nobs. Montreux was fast becoming a hotspot on the map.
Montreux Jazz Festival, Claude Nobs
While only the director of the tourism office in Montreux, Claude Nobs used U.S. contacts that he had made like Nesuhi Ertegun (Atlantic Records) to set up the first ever music and jazz festival in Montreux in 1967. It was a success that he quickly consolidated, turning the festival in Montreux into a world-renowned location in just a few short years. However, the legend of Claude Nobs stretches beyond the performances that he organized. In a fashion befitting of a visionary, he was the first through the door in several episodes that are worthy of their own mention.
During an interview with Wim Wenders in 2004, Nobs estimated that Montreux festival had played host to around 30,000 musicians. This, to Nobs, also meant “30,000 times problems, craziness and happiness.” Here is a case in point: in 1971, the British band Deep Purple was on the eve of a recording session at the Montreux Casino. Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention were playing the venue that night when the building caught fire after a member of the audience shot a flare gun at the ceiling. Cue: modest panic, evacuation, and the biggest fire Roger Glover had ever set eyes on, watching with from his balcony in a separate hotel.
From that moment a legend was born, along with probably the most-played guitar riff of recent times. “Smoke on the Water” tells this chapter of the festival’s history, while exonerating the heroics of its founder: “Funky Claude was running in and out / Pulling kids out the ground.” The resulting album, Machine Head, was dedicated to Nobs and acts as a key document in both music history, and in the life of the man himself.v
Montreux Jazz Festival, Quincy Jones, 1990s
The advent of the early 1990s saw a union between Claude Nobs and his “brother from another mother,” Quincy Jones. In fact, Q describes going to Montreux back in the days when it was held in the casino (before moving to the Montreux Convention Centre and beyond). “Claude always made it feel like my home,” he reflected when looking back on his relationship with the event in 2008. One of the things that endeared the producer to the festival, Quincy has revealed on many occasions, has been the way it drives the convergence of culture, breaking down barriers. Having witnessed the evolution of Montreux since its inception, he sees it as a place where people like to “come together, to mingle and merge, to diversify.”
From 1991-93 Quincy accepted the post of co-director alongside Nobs. Together, they presided over wide-ranging line ups that featured artists as varied as Sting, Toto, BB King, Gilberto Gill, Ray Charles and New Order. In contributing to the festival’s rich history, they also booked one of the very last performances Miles Davis ever gave. In Quincy’s own words, this gig had been fifteen years in the making: “he showed up, that’s the important part … he finally did it … and we lost him three months after that.”
It is this very sense that performances at Montreux festival carry historical weight that has afforded it such a reputation around the world. Quincy himself often uses the event to mark significant checkpoints in his life, with both his 75th and 85th birthday celebrations taking place there, the latter being organised by Qwest TV in 2018, including artists such as Richard Bona, Mos Def, Robert Glasper and Nate Smith among many others.
Montreux Jazz Festival, next year …
The question of next year, and indeed of the legacy of Montreux, is one that is sure to rest on what has gone before. In fact, looking back it seems as though the word ‘jazz’ isn’t the best indicator of what music is offered each year at lake Geneva. Instead, the event acts as a hub for all kinds of sounds, with this year welcoming acts from Sean Kuti & Egypt 80 to Elton John, Thom Yorke to Ms. Lauryn Hill. Here, good music remains borderless, something to be experienced in all its multifarious splendour.
With living legends rubbing shoulders with the up-and-coming artists of tomorrow, Montreux showcases the exciting state of music with each summer that comes around. A good case in point for 2019 can be seen by taking a glance at the line up for the Montreux Jazz Lab on Sunday 7th July: Tom Misch, Loyle Carner & FJK – three hotshots who are widely touted as worthy young torchbearers for interesting popular music.
Another young artist who has become a regular fixture at the festival is Jacob Collier, the one-time protégé of Quincy Jones who has succeeded in baffling the jazz world into submission with his ear, his harmonic touch and the complexity of his compositions. It is no coincidence that Quincy chose Montreux as the location to unveil Collier to the world in 2015, where he opened for Herbie Hancock in one of his first public performances. There, Quincy presented “the most talented young man I know, a young eighteen-year-old guy from London.”
To watch more great footage covering the history of Montreux, stay in the loop with Qwest TV. Here, we are going to be adding incredible performances on a rolling basis in the near future. Let’s share this fantastic and unrivalled cultural history that is unique to Montreux, and to the music it brings.
A word from the CEO
Stepping into the shoes of Claude Nobs is no mean feat, but for Mathieu Jaton, it is something he spent a long time preparing for.
Having been positioned alongside Nobs “nearly all his life,” Jaton took over after the former organiser’s tragic skiing accident in 2013, well aware of the magnificent history he was about to become custodian for.
“It is a huge advantage to have all this history – that said, it is important to keep the heritage spirit and to transform that into the model of the future. How can we use these values? There are two key words at Montreux: heritage and innovation.”
In this sense, the concerts filmed at Montreux are seeking to build on the archive that has been recognised and protected by UNESCO. It is a dynamic history, and a present continuous one.
This year, the programming at Montreux seeks to bring together legends and bright prospects, and to create line ups that tell particular stories.
“When you have Braxton Cook playing in front of Terence Blanchard, it brings generations together. We really like that and it creates a story that is emotionally big with a high spectacle value.”
“All those years that I lived with Claude – we are both from the hotel business – we tried to bring a sense of hospitality and an emotional touch. It is the passion, the intimacy, the love … that is what drives us every day.”