Celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Montreux Jazz Festival, the National Museum of Zurich has opened 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" gives form to one of the richest immaterial treasures of humanity.
Before organising his first humble festival in 1967, Nobs had begun meeting established and promising performers while working as an accountant in the tourism office 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 arguably the very soul of the festival, catering to all the artists’ whims, came as the festival expanded its scope to embrace a large 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 out over 400 LPs and CDs, plus 150 DVDs/Blu-ray discs of live shows, of which tens of millions of copies were sold.
In numbers, over 4,500 shows were recorded. There are 11,000 hours of video (5,000 in HD), and 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 multi-track format. The archive which Nobs gave to the Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne (EPFL) to digitise was inscribed in 2013 on the UNESCO Memory of the World Registerexternal link.
The complete archives are kept on 14,000 magnetic tapes (weighing 30 tons) along 600 metres of shelves. Over 150 people are involved in the digitisation of the 14,500 terabytes of data at the EPFL.
The curator's choice
With so much material, curator Thomas Bochet decided to focus less on the music than in putting together a homage to Claude Nobs. After a short chronological narrative of the festival history one enters a replica of Nobs’ home theatre located in the basement of one of his villas. Projected are ten live numbers, from Marvin Gaye and Van Morrison to Carlos Santana and ZZ Top. Behind the big screen is 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 Nobs’ homes. Shelves filled with tapes, display cases with autographed guitars, house porcelain, his cooking notebook, jukeboxes and other special gifts, such as Fred Mercury’s kimono. The décor is surrounded by huge walls covered with an outstanding view of Nobs’ villa. It's an attempt to re-enact the space where music was performed intimately, with all its anecdotal excesses.
Claude Nobs’ 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. One could say the exhibition is a clear sign that the festival is still at pains to move beyond the persona of its founder.