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Adieu, Claude Nobs - The Eccentric Swiss Genius Who Jazzed Up Sleepy Montreux

Local memories and a final salute from French-speaking Switzerland to the founder of the Montreux Jazz Festival, who died on January 10.

"Funky Claude," as Deep Purple called him in their 1972 song "Smoke on the Water"
"Funky Claude," as Deep Purple called him in their 1972 song "Smoke on the Water"
Antoine Duplan

MONTREUX - There was a shop window in Montreux where you could watch “an incredible model train blowing steam.” Sixty years later, Claude Nobs’ eyes were still bright with excitement when he told the story of the amazing toy his parents couldn’t afford to buy him. But in the end, he got himself something much better than an electric train – he got himself a jazz festival, a fabulous machine blowing decibels and joy.

The Geneva Riviera and French-speaking Switzerland owe much to Claude Nobs. Without him, they would have remained provincial and uneventful. Fifty years ago, the most famous tourist event in Montreux was the Narcissus fair – a celebration of Narcissus flowers. Today, Miles Davis and B.B. King have their bronze busts on the quay and Freddie Mercury's statue looks out on the horizon. The visionary Claude Nobs opened his hometown to the world, gave it an economic push, and brought an exciting mythology to the site. He turned a sleepy lakeside city for retired Brits into a musical capital. And all the while, giving locals pure moments of amazement.

Nothing predestined this son of a baker to bring the blue notes to the blue skies of Switzerland, but his passion and unwavering resolve were able to move mountains. Right until he died last week at the age of 76, Claude Nobs stayed true to his motto – “Nothing is impossible.”

In spite of all the reasonable adults, accountants and the Montreux bourgeoisie who hated electric music with a passion, this visionary child fought relentlessly to carry out his cultural revolution. Deeply attached to his region, this citizen of the world managed to create the perfect mix between Delta blues and cheese fondue. He brought Black music into an unprecedented spotlight and put Switzerland on the map.

The Montreux Jazz Festival would not have had such an international aura without its generous director. He couldn’t bear to let a musician starve – his table was open to all and you could rub shoulders with the world’s greatest musicians.

Never mind his innate genius, would Claude Nobs have been able to live out his dream in today’s world? When he started, a handshake was enough to seal the deal. He became friends with Miles Davis by giving him his shirt – literally. This streak of eccentricity was inherent to the festival. The show will go on without its creator. But however successful it will continue to be, it has undeniably lost its soul with the passing of Funky Claude.

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