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Montreux Off Festival plays on

Detail from poster of Montreux Jazz Festival 2000.

Montreux Jazz Festival is in full swing, and music lovers are flocking to the shores of Lake Geneva. They go not only to listen to the stars, but also for the many free concerts that add so much life and atmosphere to the festival.

Open-air shows along the lakeside mean that it is possible to visit Montreux, let your hair down, hear a lot of top-class music – and not spend a centime.

The Off Festival, as it’s known, has been in existence for as long as the official event, that is, 34 years. The organisers have always tried to provide free, open-air concerts, believing they add to the festival ambience.

“The idea is to offer free entertainment to both the paying customer and the tourist, and to create a great atmosphere around the main concerts that take place in the Stravinsky Hall and the Miles Davis Room,” says Off Festival director, Willy Zumbrunnen.

“The Off Festival complements the official festival. Over the years there have been more and more shows, more music, more novelty. It encourages more people to come to Montreux,” he told swissinfo.

An estimated 200,000 visitors will visit Montreux during the 16-day festival, and while many of them want to hear the likes of Lou Reed, Macy Gray, Ute Lemper and Youssou N’Dour in the main auditoria, a sizeable proportion go just for the free concerts.

“There are two kinds of people who come. Those who come exclusively for the Off Festival, and those who come for a concert in the official festival, but who arrive early so they can take advantage of the free entertainment and the atmosphere along the lakeside,” Zumbrunnen says.

While there is still plenty of jazz in the main festival, it has taken on a more eclectic feel. But jazz bands form the bulk of the acts playing the free concerts.

“Of course there is a lot of jazz in the Off Festival, because there are a lot of groups who play jazz and we’re happy to welcome them, because jazz is the motherland, if you like, of music today,” Zumbrunnen says. “But we also have other kinds of music: hip-hop, salsa, rock, African music, reggae and so on.”

That is reflected in the nationalities of the artists performing. Groups come from places as diverse as the United States, Brazil and Senegal.

“It’s great to come here to play in front of people from a different country,” says Alastair Waite, bass player with the Dunedin City Jazz Orchestra, only the third New Zealand group to play in Montreux.

“It’s also amazing to have the chance to see all these great jazz musicians,” he adds.

Not just anyone can appear in the Off Festival. When the festival is not on, Zumbrunnen spends a lot of time going to other festivals and concerts in the hope of spotting talent for the following year’s Off festival. Other participants are chosen on the strength of CDs sent to the festival’s special selection committee.

“We all have our own musical preferences. But that means we end up with a more harmonious, representative selection which will please everyone who comes to Montreux,” Zumbrunnen says.

The Montreux Jazz festival lasts until July 22.

by Roy Probert

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR