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Founder of Montreux Jazz Festival dies

Claude Nobs would occasionally take to the stage in Montreux to play harmonica Keystone

Claude Nobs, the founder and director of the Montreux Jazz Festival, has died. He was 76.

Nobs died on Thursday after sustaining injuries from a fall while cross-country skiing alone in the village of Caux close to his home overlooking Montreux and Lake Geneva on Christmas Eve. He was flown to hospital and fell into a coma from which he never recovered.

On its website, the festival said Nobs’ death came by “surprise as if to remind us once more, that in life as in music, each great performance could be the last one even if the show must go on”.

Nobs, who trained as a chef, launched the summer festival in 1967 while working at Montreux’s tourism office. He went on to attract some of the world’s greatest stars, including Miles Davis, Ray Charles and Prince, to perform there.


“Deep sorrow”

The music world was shocked to hear about his death.

“There are no words to express the deep sorrow and hollowness in my heart,” wrote music producer Quincy Jones on his facebook page.

Jones, a long-standing friend who shared festival-directing duties, said Nobs had built Montreux into “the Rolls Royce of music festivals”.

“He was such a devout fan of the music and knowledgeable about it, not to mention a great harmonica player… I will miss him like the brother that he was to me.”

Nile Rodgers, one of the founders of Chic who played in Montreux in 2012, said he was extremely sad to hear the news: “A true friend from the beginning. I’m proud to have been with you at your last Festival.”

Swiss Interior Minister Alain Berset paid tribute to Nobs on Twitter as the man “who helped Switzerland discover jazz”.

Speaking later to Swiss television, Berset praised Nobs for creating “a small miracle on the banks of Lake Geneva”. “Claude Nobs had an incomparable talent for connecting people with each other,” he added.



Hitting all the right notes

This content was published on These posters bear the signatures of Niki de Saint-Phalle, Keith Haring, Andy Warhol or Phil Collins. And they sometimes remind us of a concert or another time in our lives. (All pictures: Montreux Jazz Festival)

Read more: Hitting all the right notes

Achieve impossible

From its launch in 1967 the festival was an overnight success and over the decades built on Nobs’ enthusiasm and passion for jazz, rock and other styles as music, as much as his business skills and contacts abroad. 

“‘And why not?’ You would repeatedly ask the same question when we tried to explain why a project would not be feasible,” festival officials wrote in an homage to Nobs on the website that praised his audacity to dream big. “The Montreux Jazz Festival is the ultimate proof of that! But not the only one!”

Emmanuel Guétaz, who worked as production and finance director at the festival from 1991-1998 and helped set up the Cully Jazz Festival, agreed that in Nobs’ mind nothing was really impossible.

“He only worked to try to make the festival even better and to make the musicians even happier,” he told

But he was sometimes not an easy person to follow, he added: “Sometimes there were major misunderstandings with the city of Montreux – he was too fast for them.”

Smoke on the Water

Nobs was immortalised as “Funky Claude” in the song “Smoke on the Water” by rock band Deep Purple, written about a fire that burned down Montreux casino during a Frank Zappa concert in 1971. During the fire Nobs rushed to save several young concert-goers. 

Two years later, Nobs became director of the Swiss branch of Warner, Elektra and Atlantic, a position that gave him added clout to introduce heavyweights on the Montreux stage.

By the 1990s, he was sharing festival-directing duties with Quincy Jones and bringing in Miles Davis as an honorary host.

Nobs’ enthusiasm for welcoming musicians at his office and chalet home cemented his standing and boosted Montreux’s profile.

Despite heart surgery some six years ago, he had stayed on as festival director while handing over certain responsibilities to secretary-general Mathieu Jaton.

He received a number of awards for his lifetime work: an honorary degree from Lausanne’s Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL), a Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters from the French Ministry of Culture, “Man of the Year” award at the 2007 Music Industry Festival in Cannes and the US Ambassador’s Award for Cultural Diplomacy; he is also honorary citizen of Atlanta and New Orleans.

Nobs is due to be cremated at a private ceremony. The festival organisers have announced that in accordance with his wishes a musical tribute to the people of Montreux will be held in February, followed by similar events in New York and London.

The 47th edition of the festival, organised by Jaton, is due to take place from July 5-20.

Jazz legend dies

The announcement of Nobs’s death was followed by the futher sad news that Swiss jazz legend George Gruntz also passed away on Thursday.

Pianist and band leader Gruntz, described by many as the most internationally successful jazz musician that Switzerland has produced, died in Basel at the age of 80 after a long illness.

In one of his last public appearances, Gruntz celebrated his 80th year by playing at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 2012.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR