Montreux founder reveals his winning formula

"Pessimism is wearing braces and a belt," jokes Claude Nobs, who does without the belt

The Montreux Jazz Festival, which begins on July 1, is entering its 39th year under the direction of its founder, Claude Nobs.

This content was published on June 24, 2005

In an interview with swissinfo, Nobs explained that he thought the event’s lasting success was down to its mixture of free concerts, workshops and competitions.

He said this winning formula had been successfully exported to Brazil, the United States and the Far East.

Nobs, who is 69, admitted that this year he had had to delegate more tasks than usual, but said retirement was not yet on the cards.

swissinfo: It is the eve of the 39th Montreux Jazz Festival. What is it like for you in the run-up to the festival?

Claude Nobs: It varies from year to year. Sometimes I’m quite anxious. This year I have delegated more, possibly as a result of the open-heart surgery I had at the beginning of January. That made me think about the way I work. But instead of pulling back from my activities, I decided to do other things, get involved in other projects.

For example, a few weeks ago I was in Düsseldorf for an anti-landmine gala evening, hosted by Paul McCartney. I realised I would like to devote more time to fighting this scourge.

The fact that I have given up certain tasks while staying very close to the musicians gives me a certain peace. The sale of tickets went well, the poster was well balanced... I am looking forward to the opening on July 1.

swissinfo: Is the idea of handing on the baton one you would consider or, like the Pope, do you think you have to keep going until you die?

C.N.: Oh no, I don’t want to end like that! I have a team of people who are all set to take over the festival. In any case, back in January it wasn’t 100 per cent certain I would recover from my operation.

Now that it’s been going for 39 years, I think Montreux has established itself well enough that it can continue without me.

swissinfo: Montreux has given rise to a huge number of audio and video recordings. You have set up a company – Montreux Sounds – to manage these productions...

C.N.: It’s a small firm I set up with my partner, Thierry Amsalem. When the festival was sold as two separate entities, I bought the archives for my company. For years I didn’t make any use of them. But now the first DVDs of Montreux concerts are coming out. Thirty have been produced in the past two years... from 3,500 hours of film. So there’s still plenty to do!

swissinfo: The Montreux Jazz Festival is also a "quality label" that you’ve exported to São Paolo, Sapporo, Tokyo, Detroit, Singapore and that you will soon export to Marrakesh...

C.N.: We know that at Montreux we can’t develop much further as we’re restricted by things like seating capacity, and traffic through the town. So we opted for selling the name, which means we can support other festivals while giving publicity to Montreux, and to Switzerland.

The name sells well, but so does the formula. It’s a formula that offers a mixture of paying and free concerts, workshops given by musicians, competitions [this year there are singing, piano and guitar competitions], access to archives, and involves local groups. We export all of this.

swissinfo: You have many young people working with you. What is their attitude towards the "big boss" Claude Nobs?

C.N.: You would have to ask them... I think I’m an atypical boss. My door is always open and I hate organised meetings. I only call meetings if I feel I have to. But it is very important to communicate. Internal emails mean that everyone knows what the others are doing, and avoid the need for interminable meetings.

There have been people who’ve loved me and others who’ve given me verbal abuse, that’s nothing new! I don’t have an authoritarian attitude. I’m more like a colleague, a friend. We understand one another.

swissinfo: Talking about how others see you... You campaigned on behalf of the same-sex partnership law. And there have been pictures of you and your partner in the press. Why have you abandoned your previous discretion about your relationship?

C.N.: My private life was supposed to be private, but actually everyone knew about it. I have had a boyfriend for 18 years, everyone knows that. For me the stakes were high. The laws of inheritance as they stood meant that if anything had happened to me, all that I owned would have been sold off and wouldn’t have gone to him.

There was also the question of recognition, the possibility to visit me in hospital as next of kin, for example. The partnership law [which was passed at the beginning of June] seemed logical to me.

On the other hand, I can’t see me putting on a wig and high heels and taking part in a gay pride march! That doesn’t seem necessary to me.

swissinfo: You went from being a young trainee cook to the head of an internationally recognised festival. In what respects are you still the same?

C.N.: I have always been and will be a dreamer. And I try to remain humble. I think I still have a lot to do and there are many things I’d like to do better.

I’ve always been very close to nature and that is perhaps stronger now than ever before.

And I like simplicity. I’m not really into cocktails, parties or anything like that. I receive tons of invitations to events I don’t attend!

swissinfo-interview: Bernard Léchot

In brief

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.

Nobs became Swiss director of WEA, which groups the Warner, Elektra and Atlantic labels, in 1973.

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Key facts

The 39th Montreux Jazz Festival runs from July 1-16.
There are a number of festival venues, including the Congress Centre and the Casino Barrière.
In addition to concerts, there will be competitions for various instruments and workshops.

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In compliance with the JTI standards

More: SWI certified by the Journalism Trust Initiative

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