Montreux Jazz Festival Founder Claude Nobs Dies
Claude Nobs, founder of the Montreux Jazz Festival and jazz archivist who brought the genre to a new contingent of international music fans, died Jan. 10 from injuries sustained during a cross-country skiing accident on Christmas Eve in Caux-sur-Montreux, Switzerland. He was 76.
Nobs created one of the most iconic and eclectic festival programs in the world, one that gained overnight success and increased in popularity due to his passion for jazz along with his warm, friendly demeanor.
As a child during World War II, Nobs was sheltered from war-torn Europe due to Swiss neutrality. He pursued careers in the culinary arts and accounting and eventually took a position with the Montreux office of tourism. In June 1967, Nobs visited the New York offices of Atlantic Records. From his travels to the United States, he believed that a music festival would help generate American interest in the then-little-known Montreux region on the shores of Lake Geneva, Switzerland.
Nobs was always intent on preserving jazz, through both the Montreux Jazz Fesitval and his own highly regarded collection of recordings, which includes 30,000 CDs, 47,000 LPs and 10,000 78s (acquired from George Shearing in the mid-1960s). The festival quickly gained critical acclaim for its status as a breeding ground for labels and artists to congregate and record, among them Sonny Rollins, Etta James and Ella Fitzgerald.
“The idea was to have the sound best in the hall and to keep the testimony for history,” Nobs told writer John McDonough in an October 2006 article for DownBeat. “I always thought there would be a way to have a record with video on it, so I kept all the early black-and-white videos.”
Also among Nobs’ recording subjects was Miles Davis, who in 1991 allowed the festival producer to record a series of Gil Evans arrangements from Birth Of The Cool, Sketches Of Spain, Miles Ahead and Porgy & Bess that the trumpeter performed for Montreux’s 30th anniversary. The concert was billed as “L’Evenement” (The Event) and was initially conceived by Nobs’ longtime friend and co-producer of the Montreux Jazz Festival since the 1990s, Quincy Jones.
Jones released a statement regarding Nobs’ death: “There are no words to express the deep sorrow and hollowness in my heart that comes with news of Claude Nobs’ passing. Claude was a valued and trusted friend and brother to me for close to 40 years, but he was a valued and trusted friend to jazz and the artists who create it for his entire lifetime. It would be that love and appreciation for our music and the musicians that created it that would lead him to take over the Montreux Jazz Festival, and build it into what I consider to be the Rolls Royce of music festivals.
“I have a million great memories of spending time with Claude in Montreux at the festival, from co-producing it with him, to conducting Miles Davis’ last concert, to the amazing gatherings of musicians that he has hosted at his chalet, to most recently partnering with him to expand the festival’s brand internationally; it will be difficult to imagine him not being there ... I will miss him like the brother that he was to me. If God created a better friend than Claude Nobs, he or she must have kept them for him/herself.”
Nobs, who occasionally took the Montreux stage to play harmonica, was also widely known for infusing rock and pop acts into the repertory of the festival. He would later become personally acquainted with Roberta Flack and Aretha Franklin, whose first European tour occurred at Nobs’ request. Nobs was an influential proponent of rock music outside of the festival as well and was name-dropped in the 1973 Deep Purple song “Smoke On The Water.” The song refers to a fire during a 1971 Frank Zappa concert at the Montreux Casino, where Nobs rushed to save concertgoers; he was memorialized as “funky Claude” in its lyrics.
Nobs became director of the Swiss branch of Warner, Elektra and Atlantic Records in 1973, allowing him to introduce mainstream artists onto the Montreux stage, including Led Zeppelin, David Bowie and Pink Floyd.
In 2006, DownBeat honored Nobs with a Lifetime Achievement Award for his contributions to the jazz community.