CAUX, Switzerland (Reuters) - The Montreux Jazz Festival has sewn up appearances by all the major jazz attractions in Europe this summer along with a host of pop and rock stars, founder Claude Nobs said.
Looking out over Lake Geneva and the snow-capped Alps from his chalet, Nobs, a former cook and an accomplished blues harmonica player, said the focus at Montreux from July 2-17 this year would be on top-notch music.
“This year, we got lucky because we got all the major jazz attractions in Europe. And no other festival has all those guys,” Nobs told Reuters during an interview at his home in the peaceful hills high above Montreux.
Nobs would not reveal any more about who might top the bill for the 44th Montreux festival until he and his team of organizers unveil the program on April 29, but he said they hoped to build on the success of 2009.
Last year’s festival featured such diverse stars from the worlds of pop, rock and the blues as Lily Allen, Prince and B.B. King, alongside jazz stalwarts Herbie Hancock, McCoy Tyner and Jamie Cullum.
“This is the beauty of Montreux. I can do nights with totally different music and it still works,” said Nobs, who was immortalized as “Funky Claude” in “Smoke on The Water,” Deep Purple’s song about the fire that gutted the Montreux Casino after a Frank Zappa concert in 1971.
A concert by former Dire Straits guitarist Mark Knopfler, announced in advance, could prove a good omen for the festival, taking place on July 2-17. Tickets are selling very well, with all online tickets already snapped up.
The festival’s mix and match attitude to music is reflected in the masses of memorabilia crammed into Nobs’s three houses, home also to dogs Kiku and Kuki and one of the world’s largest and most important archives of live music on film.
The collection ranges from a Flash Gordon pinball machine given him by rock band Queen to a Gibson custom ‘Lucille’ guitar from blues legend B.B. King, as well as artwork by singer David Bowie and a colorful portrait of Nobs by Brazilian artist Romero Britto, who created this year’s festival poster.
Nobs, who admits to hating meetings and number-crunching, said his willingness to take risks has led to a few flops over the years, but that his unorthodox approach and personal touch with artists is at the center of the festival’s overall success.
Last year, Nobs splashed out more on a single artist than ever before to persuade Prince to crown the festival with two rare European dates that sold out the 4,000 capacity main hall within minutes. It’s been rumored the rock star’s fee ran to seven figures.
“When I did Prince, nobody knew what I was doing. They all thought it was suicidal,” he said. “But if I didn’t do things I strongly believe in, I might still be a cook.”
The festival, which has not always broken even, has a budget that has grown from 10,000 Swiss francs ($9,363) in 1967 to around 20 million francs, allowing it to employ 1,200 people during the festival fortnight and 16 full-time staff.
“All I ever wanted was the freedom to do whatever I wanted to do,” Nobs said. “A lot of the thing with the festival is based on trust, of musicians trusting me and the audience trusting me to be able to do the things that way.”
Nobs puts quality and innovation before profit, spending millions of dollars on sound every year, opting to keep the festival’s intimate setting in the lakeside holiday town and backing numerous special projects, workshops and free events.
“I never liked the idea of 50,000 people in the same place, said Nobs. “I have too much respect for the audience. I want the sound to be perfect and the vision to be perfect and not just have a place where the people smoke, drink, talk and the music is just a side attraction.”
Nobs said he has never drawn a salary from the festival and has always relied on sidelines for his living, most notably as director of record label WEA Switzerland for nearly 30 years.
“Obviously, like everybody I wanted to be a musician,” said Nobs. “All I became was a bad, amateur harp player. But then I found out I had some ways to get special connections to musicians.”
As well as selling CDs, DVDs and Blu-Ray disks of concerts taken from the thousands of hours of recordings housed in his chalets, Nobs plans to open scores of “Montreux Jazz Cafes” around the world, where diners will be able to enjoy Montreux concert footage shown in high definition on big screens.
“I did the menu with one of the best chefs in Switzerland and you have things like the B.B. King Burger,” said Nobs, adding that Smoke On The Water, a dish with smoke coming off it and ice, was a favorite with diners when the first cafe opened at Geneva Airport.
Nobs, now in his 70s, plans to take more of a back seat in the running of the festival after presenting most of the thousands of acts appearing at Montreux himself over the years.
“It’s going to be more and more that I try and keep only to the creative side of things,” said Nobs.
“Taking a deserved break after 44 years to concentrate on certain things is something I will enjoy and it also is going to be good for the festival.”
Editing by Paul Casciato