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Digital project saves Montreux Jazz heritage

Nobs with Aretha, Ella, Miles, Quincy, Sade and thousands of other treasures kept at his Swiss chalet above Montreux. juliane.gauthier/audemarspiguet

Unique live concert footage spanning the entire 44-year history of the Montreux Jazz Festival has been saved for future generations under a new initiative.

Recordings by artists such as Ella Fitzgerald, Aretha Franklin, B.B. King and Prince will be preserved and immortalised in the “Montreux Sounds Digital Project”, launched with the Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL) and private sponsors.

Ever since the first edition of the festival in 1967, which featured the Charles Lloyd Quartet with Keith Jarrett, the festival’s founder and director Claude Nobs has tried to keep a record of the music played there.

Together with his partner, Thierry Amsalem, Nobs has spent years creating a unique archive stored in a specially built “bunker” at his chalet in the hills high above Montreux, near Lake Geneva.

In all, 5,000 hours of  video and audio recordings from 4,000 concerts are kept there on 10,000 original tapes in a dozen different formats.

“This material represents the biggest video library of contemporary live music from the 1960s to today – bigger than those of the BBC or in the US, France or Germany,” Nobs told reporters on Wednesday.

The 74-year-old said he was “very moved and grateful” to know that the future of the material was secure, describing it as “maybe my biggest reward after doing the festival”.

About ten years ago the computer giant Microsoft offered Nobs $50million (SFr49 million) for the archives as part of a music history project.

“They could have offered me $100million, but I would have told them the same thing,” he said. “I preferred to wait to find partners who can guarantee the longevity of these archives. Today this is possible with EPFL and a watch sponsor [Audemars Piguet] from canton Vaud,” he said.


EPFL President Patrick Aebischer described the “shock” four years ago of discovering that there was only one copy of the jazz archives, kept at Nobs’ chalet.

“It’s our duty to make a copy so that this treasure is accessible to future generations. It’s also a technological challenge for EPFL,” he said.

Under EPFL supervision, the 5,000 hours of material will be digitalised in real time and stored on Linera Tape-Open (LTO) format. This is expected to take three years for the video and four years for the audio.

It will then have to be re-transferred every seven to ten years onto a “next-generation” format to keep pace with technology, according to specialists.

Research projects


Once the archive is digitalised, it will be made available via the EPFL to researchers, students, musicians and professionals.

Some 20 EPFL laboratories are expected to use the material for research into audio production and post-production techniques, data stocking and user experiences.

At the same time the EPFL plans to open a “MetaMedia” centre at a new building next to the futuristic Learning Centre on campus, which could also house other archives like the Swiss Film Archive or that of the Federal Culture Office.

The new EPFL media centre is expected to cost SFr22 million ($22.5 million), of which SFr5 million will go towards the digitisation of the Montreux Jazz tapes.

General public

Unfortunately, the general public will have to be more patient, with initial access to footage only possible via the slowly growing network of Montreux Jazz Cafes (Geneva, soon to be followed by Zurich, New York, Paris, Frankfurt and Copenhagen) and “Live at Montreux” DVDs and CDs. So far only 80 are available for sale.

Montreux Sounds, a firm Nobs created in 1995 to manage the collection, owns the tapes, but most of the rights remain with the musicians.

And reaching agreement on a live release is a “crazy job”, explained Eric Glardon from Montreux Sounds.

“You have to speak to the artist, his musicians, their lawyers, the artist’s son, etc, etc,” he told

Aretha saved


Over their 40-year history, the tapes have been rescued several times from near destruction.

“Up until 1971 the Montreux Jazz concerts were filmed by the Swiss national TV station TSR in black and white and tapes were kept in Geneva,” Nobs recalled.

“One day I went to their archives and picked up a tape that was marked Aretha Franklin; the name was crossed out and instead it was written “Football match between Riddes v Isérables. I panicked and bought all their archives.”

From 1991 Sony provided equipment to film the festival in HD (high definition) format while keeping the rights to the footage.

In early 2000 Nobs enquired about Sony’s HD Montreux Jazz archive and was told the firm was about to erase them as they were too expensive to keep. He eventually paid SFr10,000 and brought them all back to his private bunker via the Swiss diplomatic courier service.

Claude Nobs was born in Territet near Montreux in 1936.

His two passions are travel and music. His love of jazz and rhythm and blues led him to organise concerts in the region.He founded the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1967. Other types of music have since supplemented the jazz concerts, including: pop, rock, blues, Brazilian, reggae, rap and techno.

The Montreux Jazz Festival traditionally takes place during the first two weeks of July every year.

Most artists appearing in the main concert halls are filmed; under their contracts they get to view the recording and can block it if they are unhappy. Nobs says this happens “very rarely”.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR