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The audacious taste of “Funky Claude”

Who would have thought that “Funky Claude Nobs” was the son of a baker and a nurse? Audacity and tastefulness is what this man had always managed to have, no matter the circumstances…

Born on February 4th, 1936 in Territet, near Montreux, Claude Nobs was indeed, the son of a baker and a nurse. Nothing would have predicted the enormous impact he would later have in the history of jazz…

He proved audacious in his choice to step away from the family business, choosing a different path from the one set down by his father. And it was his conviction in taste that led him to take hold of his own destiny – both his taste for music, honed during his youth as he listened fervently to his father’s 78 vinyl records, as well as his own particular taste for jazz. It was also his taste for fine dining that led to become a cook at the age of 17, a career choice which would lead him to work for a period at the House of Congress in Zurich. In between preparing dishes, he would sneak into the alleys of the concert hall to listen to such as Duke Ellington, Count Basie, or Ella Fitzgerald, artists he had loved as a child in his father’s record collection.

After his time in Zurich, he returned to Switzerland to finish his studies at the Hotel School of Lausanne. Aware of the challenges and skills needed to become the manager of a reputable establishment, he studied finance, and eventually came to work in a bank, where he was spotted by Raymond Jaussi.

Raymond Jaussi, director of the Montreux Tourism Board, sensed in the young man a sharp and promising spirit, well suited to management, and offered him a position as an accountant in his team.  “Funky Claude” suddenly found himself charged with the task of programming public events for the city of Montreux. He began to organize concerts for the Youth Association of Montreux, which he co-founded. But it was in 1961, when he was organizing the annual Golden Rose Festival, that “Funky Claude” the bureaucrat was finally reacquainted with his love of music.

In the early 1960s, what did it mean to be audacious?

In 1963, his audacity certainly didn’t pay off. For the Golden Rose Festival of 1963, from April 29th to May 4th, “Funky Claude” went to London to meet the Beatles. His idea was ambitious – to invite the band to give a performance at the festival, and to have the event broadcast by the national TV station, Télévision Suisse Romande. However, the company made their disinterest clear, because the Beatles were not a well known enough music group. At the time, while the Beatles were a growing sensation, they had not yet reached the legendary levels of popularity they would later come to have. In 1963, their single “Please Please Me” had just been released, and up until then their greatest hit had been “Love Me Do,” released in 1962. “Funky Claude” himself recounts of the episode:

In a little office in Carnaby Street, I showed them my plans, and told them more about what exactly the Golden Rose Festival was, since the BBC had reported on it the year before. They were all there – John, Paul, Ringo – who is one of the funniest men in the world – and George, who sat there like an angel. Along with their Brian Epstein, their manager, they agreed to come. However, when I came back to Switzerland, the producer of Television romande refused. “The Beatles? They’re not famous enough. Later on they would each come by separately to perform. But the next year, I secured the Stones to play at Montreux.”

This was a revelatory encounter for the young man, who felt comfortable with artists and understood their sensibilities.

“Funky Claude” then left his post as accountant to devote himself completely to Montreux and its programmed events. He then began to travel in Europe and abroad to promote tourism in Montreux. In 1965, during his first trip in New York for the Board of Tourism, he boldly walked into the office of Atlantic Records. As the story goes, he copied the address for the studio off of one of his favorite records. He then asked to see the directors of the label – the brothers Ahmet Ertegün et Nesuhi Ertegün. Without an appointment, he was refused, but Claude insisted that he had come from Switzerland especially to see them. This convinced Nesuhi Ertegün to hear the man, as his father had spent several years as the Turkish ambassador in Berne. Out of respect for his father’s years of service, he agreed to speak to him. Funky Claude revealed his plans to create a jazz festival in Montreux, and Ertugun immediately voiced his enthusiasm and assured him of his support. This short exchange would be the beginning of a long lasting rapport between the two men. While the episode well describes the extent of Funky Claude’s audacity and spontaneity, it also was an important occasion in his life – both as the spark of an instant connection, and a decisive moment in the history of the Jazz Festival.

The first Montreux Jazz Festival took place in 1967, with the modest budget of 10,000 francs. It lasted for three days, but immediately became a huge success. Two years later, Funky Claude would expand the festival to include rock music with the band “Ten Years After,” which drew positive reviews even from the purists of the genre. At the same time, he began to organize monthly concerts by artists such as Pink Floyd, Chicago, or Santana, which made Montreux a lively venue for pop acts as well. The mixture of genres became a distinctive feature of the Montreux Jazz Festival, which always remained open to the newest musical sensations.

The 2011 edition of the festival also exemplified the rich diversity of the contemporary jazz scene, alongside some influential indie rock groups. The many artists invited to perform at Montreux attest to the notoriously “jazzy” soul of the festival: Miles Davis, Ray Charles, Duke Ellington, and many more. Funky Claude’s most audacious move was to create an open stage for many different types of music, celebrating music in general and its legends, from David Bowie to Prince.

A few key dates to remember:

1967: Charles Lloyd, Keith Jarrett, and Dusko Goykovic perform at the the festival.This is also the first edition to include the European jazz contest, which was introduced by Goykovic.

1968: The Bill Evans Trio and Nina Simone headline the festival. The most successful solo performing artists at the festival are John Surman and Jan Garbarek.

1970: Carlos Santana, Duke Ellington, Bill Evans, and Stone the Crows perform at the festival.

1971: Aretha Franklin performs at the festival. A fire starts at the Casino during Frank Zappa’s performance this year, which becomes the inspiration for the song “Smoke on the Water” by Deep Purple.

1973: The legendary Miles Davis gives his first concert in Montreux, which would be followed by 6 repeat performances each year until 1981. Another important inclusion this year was Joan Baez, who arrived onstage on a horse…

1974: A grand total of 15 headliners, with Earl Hines, Helen Humes, Jay McShann, Junior Wells, Buddy Guy, Sonny Rollins, Bill Wyman, Van Morrison, Larry Coryell, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, and Cecil Taylor… just to name a few. The first influential African music is included in the program, with Randy Weston, and a few Brazilian sensations, such as Airto Moreira and Milton Nascimento.

1978: Montreux goes Brazilian, with an edition co-organized with the festival of São Paulo. Gilberto Gil, Airto Moreira, Ray Charles, Mary Lou Williams, Stan Getz, Miriam Makeba, Bill Evans and Kenny Burrell. Gilberto Gil, John McLaughlin, Billy Cobham and musicians from “The Stan Getz” even give a surprise performance on the Casino terrace.

1986: This edition was the 20th anniversary of the festival, and designated Keith Haring and Andy Warhol as special guests. Held in Atlanta, notable performers included Simply Red, Eric Clapton, Chris Rea, Talk Talk, Al Jarreau, and Michel Petrucciani.

1991: The 25th anniversary edition of the festival lasted for 20 nights of music, with Quincy Jones assisting the production. Headlined by Sting, it included performances by Bootsy Collins, Elvis Costello, Bonnie Raitt, Charlie Haden, B.B. King, Ray Charles, Milton Nascimento, Rachelle Ferrelle, the Reverend Jesse Jackson, Champion Jack Dupree, Allen Toussaint, Dirty Dozen Brass Band et many others.

1993: The festival changes sites in Montreux, from the Casino to the Palais de Congres Convention Center. Robert Plant, Gilberto Gil, Herbie Hancock, Paolo Conte, Chaka Khan, B.B. King, Etta James, James Brown and Chris Isaak inaugurate the stage.

1997: The festival begins with a collaborative performance between Marcus Miller, Eric Clapton, Steve Gadd, Joe Sample, and David Sanborn. Ray Charles gives his fourth and final performance at the festival.

1999: The festival welcomes a record 220,000 visitors. Performances by R.E.M. and Blondie, as well as the first piano competition within the festival, are main attractions.

2001: For the 35th anniversary edition, the festival returns to the Casino, with performances by Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Alanis Moriseette, Tricky, Sigur Ros, Georges Duke et Run DMC. A venue of the Montreux Jazz Festival is also opened in Monaco.

2003: For 17 nights, continuous performances are given by Morcheeba, George Benson, Bonnie Raitt, Tom McRae, Craig David, Chico César, Herbert Grönemeyer, Joao Gilberto, Lisa Stansfield, ZZ Top and Krokus, Jethro Tull, Yes, Gilberto Gil, Maria Bethânia, Natalie Cole, Noa, The Crusaders, Randy Crawford, Van Morrison, The Pretenders, Simply Red, Jamiroquai, Radiohead, etc… A tribute stage to Miles Davis, the Miles Davis Hall, becomes an official venue and hosts performances by Cypress Hill, The Rapture, The Streets, Appliance, Echoboy, Goldfrapp, Laurent Garnier &Bugge Wesseltoft, David Holmes Free Association, Jaga Jazzist, Jimi Tenor, Nada Surf, Stereophonics, Tricky, Flaming Lips, Susheela Raman, Mercan Dede, l’Orchestre National de Barbès, King Crimson, Joe Jackson Band, Roy Ayers, Dwele, The Roots, Ellen Allien, Richie Hawtin, 2 Many DJ’s, Michel Jonasz, Tony Benett, Charles Lloyd, John Abercrombie, Pierre Audétat, Jean-François Bovard, Soweto Kinch and Cassandra Wilson, and too many others to name. Another tribute performance to Astor Piazzola is given by Richard Galliano, and another to Django Rheinhardt by Biréli Lagrène.

2006: The 40th anniversary of the festival is also the 70th birthday of Claude Nobs. Artist Julian Opie creates three posters inspired by Deep Purple, as a tribute to the 1983 edition of the festival.

2007: This edition notably included a performance by Prince.

2008: The festival turns into Quincy Jones’ 75th birthday party, with performances by Erykah Badu, Lenny Kravitz, Alicia Keys, and Deep Purple.

2011: Carlos Santana, BB King, Sting and Paul Simon are the headliners of the 45th edition. Arcade Fire, one of the most influential bands of the indie rock scene, are also invited to give a concert at the festival.

Sanza Bulaya

Translation Ritz Wu