Celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Montreux Jazz Festival, the National Museum of Zurich opens today a memorabilia exhibition mainly focused on its founder, the legendary Claude Nobs (1936-2013). With a carefully selected set of objects, videos and sounds, "Montreux. Jazz Since 1967" tries to give form to one of the richest immaterial treasures of humanity.
Before getting involved in the organization of his first humble festival in 1967, Nobs started to meet established and promising performers working as an accountant in the tourism board of Montreux, then a sleepy holiday destination by Lake Geneva with barely more than 15,000 souls. His transformation into the larger-than-life personality who was unarguably the very soul of the festival, catering to all the artists’ whims and wishes, came in the same pace as the festival expanded its scope to embrace a big range of musical trends and styles.
Nobs is “Funky Claude” in the lyrics of Deep Purple’s classic “Smoke on the Water”, inspired by an episode when the Montreux Casino burned down during a Frank Zappa show. More than funky, Nobs was amazingly apt to please not just the musicians but also the music industry. The festival brought to life over 400 LPs and CDs, plus 150 DVDs/Blu-ray discs of live shows, of which tens of millions of copies were sold for the joy of the record companies.
Montreux Jazz figures kiss the sky: over 4,500 shows recorded; 11,000 hours of video (5,000 in HD); 400 million views on Youtube since 2008 (B.B.King’s “Live at Montreux 1993” had 32 million views); 6,000 hours of audio, most of it in multitrack format. The archive, that Nobs gave to the Polytechnic University of Lausanne (EPFL) to digitalize, was inscribed in 2013 on the UNESCO Memory of the World Register.
All this immaterial memory is kept in 14,000 magnetic tapes (weighing 30 tons) along 600 meters of shelves. Over 150 people are involved in the digitalization of the 14,500 terabytes of data at the EPFL.
The curator's choice
With so much material in hands, the curator Thomas Bochet focused less in the music than in a homage to Claude Nobs. After a short chronological narrative of the festival history made of bits and pieces on the walls, one enters a replica of Nobs’ home theatre, located in the basement of one of his villas, beaming ten selected live numbers, from Marvin Gaye and Van Morrison to Carlos Santana and ZZ Top. Behind the big screen, Nobs' favourite spot: the backstage, with excerpts of a fly-on-the-wall documentary that was aborted because of Nobs sudden death, in January 2013.
The rest of the space is filled with memorabilia of Dobs’ homes. Shelves filled with tapes, vitrines filled with autographed guitars, house porcelain, his cooking notebook, jukeboxes and other special gifts, such as Fred Mercury’s kimono. All this décor surrounded by huge walls covered with the outstanding view of Nobs’ villa attempt to re-enact the space where music was lived and staged intimately with all its anecdotal excesses.
Claude Nobs’s touch of genius, however debated, was to move the festival beyond the limits of jazz, making it a privileged space for musical creation and avoiding the risk of becoming a museum. But this exhibition is a clear sign that the festival is still at pains to move on beyond the persona of its founder.