Claude Nobs might not have been a professional musician but he lived and breathed music and enjoyed making things happen. In 1967 he co-founded the Montreux Jazz Festival and nurtured a three-day occasion into a high-profile, fortnight-long event with an international cachet and a reputation second to none.
For two weeks in July, the bijou Swiss town on Lake Geneva becomes a destination for music-makers and aficionados of jazz, blues, rock, pop, Latin, world and dance music. Free workshops enable festival-goers to get closer to musicians like BB King, Carlos Santana or Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull, who have all performed there, as did the late Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald and Dizzy Gillespie.
A tireless networker who never took no for an answer and convinced Aretha Franklin to appear in 1971 with a box of Swiss chocolates, Nobs was a wonderful raconteur and an engaging host at Le Picotin, his memorabilia-filled chalet in Caud, overlooking Montreux, where he welcomed musicians and friends like David Bowie, Quincy Jones or Phil Collins long into the night. He arranged for most of the Festival performances to be filmed and recorded, building a unique archive and enabling the release of a range of albums and DVDs, even if he regretted acceding to Bob Dylan's request in 1994 that the equipment be turned off. "I gave you my word," he told Dylan when the singer requested a tape of what he thought had been his best concert in 10 years.
Nobs was known to music fans the world over as the "Funky Claude" mentioned in the Deep Purple hard rock anthem "Smoke On The Water". The song told the story of the group's time in Montreux recording the Machine Head album in 1971, and highlighted the présence d'esprit of "Funky Claude running in and out, pulling kids out the ground," when a fire started during a Frank Zappa and a Mothers of Invention concert at the Montreux Casino destroyed the venue.
Born at Territet in the Vaud canton in 1936, he was one of three siblings; his mother worked as a nurse while his father was the local baker. He took to jazz from an early age, conducting invisible orchestras and inventing a rating system for the 78s brought home by his dad, who nicknamed him Duke Ellington. He was somewhat of a tearaway, happier exploring the forest and the mountains rather than studying.
Not keen to take over his father's bakery, Nobs decided to follow his other passion, haute cuisine, and trained as a chef. He worked at the prestigious Schweizerhof hotel in Basel and was voted best young Swiss chef before returning to the Montreux area and a brief, unhappy interlude in a bank. In 1960 he was recruited by Raymond Jaussi of the Montreux Tourist Board as an accountant, but he was soon tasked with organising events to put the town once favoured by Richard Wagner and Igor Stravinsky on the map once again.
With Jaussi, Nobs helped launch the Rose D'Or, the Golden Rose Festival of Television, and began organising concerts by visiting blues artists. In 1963, he flew to London and signed the Beatles to appear at the Rose D'Or, only to be told by the head of entertainment at Swiss TV that the group was not famous enough yet. The following year he secured the Rolling Stones and Petula Clark for a Ready Steady Go show co-promoted with ITV, and began to plan for bigger things after attending the Jazz à Juan festival on the French riviera.
In 1966, he travelled to New York, ostensibly to promote Montreux, and cold-called Nesuhi Ertegun at the offices of Atlantic Records. "All my favourite records, from John Coltrane to Ray Charles, had his name on them," recalled Nobs. Nesuhi Ertegun and his younger brother Ahmet, the Atlantic co-founder, had spent time in Switzerland with their Turkish diplomat father, and welcomed him. "It was an instant connection. Then, each time, I had a dream or a wish, I would go to them," Nobs said of the Erteguns, who played a crucial part in the launch of the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1967.
The first edition featured Cecil McBee, the Charles Lloyd Quartet with Keith Jarrett and Jack DeJohnette. By 1969, Nobs was running the Festival in the summer and promoting concerts under the Super Pop banner at other times, bringing groups like Deep Purple, Yes, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Ten Years After and Wings. From 1973, he concentrated his energies on the now two-week-long Jazz Festival, as well as working for WEA. That year he met Miles Davis at the Newport Jazz Festival, literally giving him the shirt off his back since the trumpeter liked it so much, and forged another lifelong friendship.
With many artists keen to escape the British tax régime in the '70s, Nobs helped Bowie, Keith Richards and Freddie Mercury settle in and around Montreux. He was a decent harmonica player and is on Water Sign, Chris Rea's album recorded in Montreux in 1983. He also guested with acts like Rory Gallagher and Deep Purple at the festival.
He began spreading the brand, in Brazil, the US and Japan, as well as the Montreux Jazz Café brand as far afield as Sydney. He lived with his partner of many years, Thierry Amsallem, in a chalet full of juke-boxes, instruments, model trains and art by famous friends like Ronnie Wood and Tony Bennett. He launched the Montreux Jazz Chronicle, a daily free publication, for last year's festival-goers.
Nobs never lost his sense of child-like wonder or his enthusiasm for hearing new music by emerging acts or old favourites. When I visited him last April for the launch of the 2012 festival, I gave him a preview copy of the then unreleased Shape Shifter album by Santana He smiled mischievously and presented me with a brand new Santana Live At Montreux 2011 DVD, snap-style. He died after a skiing accident near his home on Christmas Eve which left him in a coma.
Claude Nobs, concert promoter and festival organiser: born Territet, Vaud, Switzerland 4 February 1936; died Lausanne 10 January 2013.