By Everett Potter
Claude Nobs, the spirited founder of the Montreux Jazz Festival, has died after a cross country ski accident near his home in the mountains above Montreux. I visited Nobs two years ago and was impressed by his accomplishments, his humility, and the amazing home and life he made for himself. Here’s my piece from 2010:
Claude Nobs stands outside his house near the village of Caux, Switzerland, in a chalet compound on a grassy mountainside perched above the city of Montreux. On this day, the 70-something concert impresario looks rather elfin-like. He has a wool cap on – it’s a chilly and wet spring day – and he uses two hiking poles, while his pair of Bernese Mountain dogs bound in the wet grass around him. Birdsong is the only noise.
“I hate to say which was my best show but I think it was Aretha” says Nobs, the founder of the Montreux Jazz Festival. “She had King Curtis and an amazing backing band and in the end she just threw the backing band out and sat at the piano.”
Since 1967, “Nobs’s festival” has drawn the brightest lights in the worlds of jazz and rock, world music and hip hop. With the exception of John Coltrane, Louis Armstrong and Stevie Wonder, he claims to have gotten every artist he ever wanted to play this fabled festival.
The 45th Montreux Jazz Festival runs from July 1 to 16, 2011, with some of the biggest musical names in the world: Paul Simon, Sting, Liza Minelli, Arcade Fire, B.B. King, Bootsy Collins, Carlos Santana, Dr. John, Femi Kuti, George Benson, Herbie Hancock, Lee Ritenour, Paolo Nutini, Youssu N’Dour and Ziggy Marley, among others. There are two halls, 16 nights of performances, and two thirds of the concerts are free. Nobs says that this year, his 45th, may be the last one, and that he may move on to “special projects,” leaving the hard work to others.
Claude Nobs at his home in Caux, Switzerland.
At first glance – or even second – you would not assign this former accountant for the Montreux Tourist Office the nickname “Funky Claude.” But that’s what Deep Purple called him in the legendary song about the Montreux Casino fire, “Smoke on the Water,” when he helped drag audience members from the burning building. Yet it’s Aretha Franklin return appearance at Montreux that he recalls as one his greatest triumphs.
“Aretha had come to Montreux in ’68 for the Rose d’Or and had a great time,” he says. “I was desperate to have her back again for the Festival but we couldn’t match the price, she didn’t want to fly, it was terrible. So finally I went to see her one more time and I took with me the biggest box of the best Swiss chocolates I could find. She opened it up, took a bite of one of the champagne truffles, looked at me and said : ‘So, I get to have a box of these for myself?’
I told her ‘You can have as many as you like!’ She cracked up and decided ‘Ok Claude – I’ll come to your festival next year!’.
The view from Claude Nobs’ chalet.
We stand on this hillside with it’s million dollar view of Lake Geneva and the French Alps, outside his trio of chalets, which are discreet in the way that Swiss homes typically are. It’s what’s inside that comes as a surprise. The oldest chalet, Picotin, is a rabbit warren of rooms, festooned with multiple jukeboxes, most of them in working order, playing Steve Wonder songs or more obscure Motown tunes at a given moment.
Part of the train collection.
Other objets, from a green Vespa scooter to hundreds of scale model Swiss trains, are artfully arranged on shelves and rolling racks. A monitor plays a concert by David Bowie – a close friend who lived in nearby Blonay for a decade – during his last Montreux appearance. Upstairs, there is a screening room, with eight vintage Swiss Air first class seats for seating, a 15 foot screen, and a sound system way beyond state-of-the-art. Prince frolics on the screen – he was rumored to have earned seven figures for two shows on one night in 2009 – and performances by Miles Davis, Sting, and Lenny Kravitz go by. The festival’s legacy has been preserved in more than 5,000 videos that are managed by Nobs’ partner, Thierry Amsalem and there’s a sound room with cutting edge equipment for mixing the concerts.
A few of the guitars given to Claude Nobs by performers like B.B. King.
We move on to his other chalet, Grillon, and when we sit on the balcony, the phone rings.
“Petula? Is it Petula?”
Indeed, it is Petula Clark, an old friend. That gives a visitor time to look inside this modern chalet, with a panoramic view of the lake and the village of Les Avants, where the late Joan Sutherland lived and where Noel Coward once dwelled .
Inside Grillon, there is a glass-walled elevator and the decor includes Freddie Mercury’s grand piano, a wall of guitars signed by luminaries that include B.B. King, as well as artwork by David Bowie and Ronnie Wood of the Rolling Stones. There are pinball machines and a pool table, and Nob’s vast record collection well-preserved in library-style racks. There is also an enormous Aga stove, where this man who trained as a cook likes to make dinner for his guests, whether they be Carlos Santana or Quincy Jones.
“Aretha once made fried chicken in my house,” he says.
Now Nobs has taken his love of food and opened a Montreux Jazz Cafe in Geneva Airport (there are more to follow), where you can eat a “BB Burger” and watch vintage Montreux shows.
“I don’t know anything about technology but I know what’s going to happen,” says Nobs, who started Warner Brothers first video studio.
“But who is going to be Lady Gaga in 20 years? This I don’t know.”
Details: 45th Montreux Jazz Festival
Claude Nobs at home, with some highlights by Sting, Lenny Kravitz, Paolo Nutini and Miles Davis.