The Montreux Years: Documenting The Legendary Jazz Festival

The Montreux Years: Documenting The Legendary Jazz Festival

Written by Ray Chelstowski

The Montreux Jazz Festival has been home to some of modern music’s most memorable live performances. Across its fifty-year history, what has really set the festival apart has been its commitment to documenting every concert they have hosted. This has created a living, breathing articulation of founder Claude Nobs’ vision. Today the archive that sits at the center of the Claude Nobs Foundation, which boasts over 5,000 recordings. In total they tell a remarkable story and chart a journey that’s truly like no other in music.

Now in partnership with BMG, the festival will begin to release these recordings on CD and vinyl through a series they are calling The Montreux Years. The first two compilations celebrate the multiple appearances that Nina Simone and Etta James made to the festival over the years. They were mastered by Tony Cousins at London’s iconic Metropolis Studios, where he incorporated the MQA process with the goal of better capturing the original sound of these very special live performances. Both collections include expansive liner notes and previously unseen photography.

When Nina Simone took to the Montreux stage for the first time on June 16, 1968 she built a lasting relationship with Claude Nobs. Known to be volatile at times on stage, the trust she placed in Nobs created an energy that clearly comes across on the recordings in Nina Simone: The Montreux Years. The album features selections from all five of Simone’s Montreux concerts: 1968, 1976, 1981, 1987 and 1990, with Simone’s 1968 landmark concert presented in full.


Etta James: The Montreux Years features recordings from her Montreux performances in 1977, 1978, 1989, 1990 and 1993, and reflects Etta’s dynamic artistry and long-lasting impact. Spanning three decades, the James collection includes nods to her earliest hits through medleys like “At Last” and “Trust in Me,” and moves to the raw and emotional “I’d Rather Go Blind” and soulful horn-driven “Tell Mama.” The collection closes with “Baby What You Want Me to Do,” James’ homage to Jimmy Reed and the encore of her 1978 concert.

Together these are powerful musical packages from two of the strongest voices in jazz and blues to ever take a stage. We had the opportunity to talk about these collections with Thierry Amsallem, film director and Claude Nobs’ universal legatee, chair/CEO of Montreux Sounds and chair of the Claude Nobs Foundation. In our discussions we also learned more about Nina Simone’s history with Montreux and what lies ahead as the festival takes to the stage next month for the first time since 2019.


Ray Chelstowski: What prompted you to release these two records together?

Thierry Amsallem: They both played the festival four or five times. Nina herself played four times in Montreux. She was living in Switzerland at the time and she was a good friend of Claude Nobs, who was a kind of godfather to her daughter. Etta James was also a good friend of Claude’s. [These records are] a compilation of all of their appearances at Montreux. While they both have passed away, one [I would consider] the queen of jazz while the other was the queen of soul and blues. They were both particularly important for Montreux. I only met Etta James in 1993. But Nina Simone was coming to Montreux quite often to see Claude. As you may know she was a classical musician at the beginning but she suffered because of racism, with people suggesting she wasn’t really that good. So she moved to jazz and became quite an artist. Even today as you know she is remixed by the biggest DJs in the world.

Thierry Amsallem. From the Claude Nobs Foundation website, photo © 2018 Dominique Derisbourg.


RC: Nina Simone was known at times to have a somewhat hostile presence on stage. That comes across just a bit here but it’s relatively tame. Were her performances at Montreux challenged by the audience, with the audience giving her a hard time, like they were elsewhere?

TA: She had a beautiful voice but I remember Claude telling me the stories of how in 1976 he had to take care of her. She was like a grenade without the pin and could explode at any time. The goal was to [get] her onto [the] stage. They had to take care of her and that required switching off [with different people taking shifts] every two hours because she was unmanageable. For example, she went to buy some black socks at a store in Montreux and she was served by a blonde woman. Nina said to her, “I’m sure that you won’t serve me because I’m Black!” The lady responded, “Don’t worry. I actually work for a Black family!” Then once in the middle of a song in 1976 she told a lady who was standing to sit down. She was frightening the audience. It was always like this.


I think that she actually fell in love with Claude. She would say on stage that Claude “treats her like a queen because she is a queen.” At the end, she had a fight with Claude because she discovered he was gay. She was also claiming rights to the production (recordings). So, she came to his place with a kitchen knife asking everyone, “where is he? Where is he?” She wanted to cut him in pieces and at the time Claude was actually hiding under the table. That was the worst time with her, the most complicated.

RC: These are compilations of both artists’ time at the festival. How did you select the songs, and is there a volume two for Nina Simone and Etta James in the works?

TA: The decision was quite complicated because the first time that I saw the compilations of songs I thought that [they were] missing everything in between [most of the performances], that [they weren’t] the same as a full concert. But is really an approach more for people who don’t know Nina Simone or Etta James. Then one by one we will be releasing the full concerts for each. Not just another compilation. With artists like this the music has a longer life and you can continue to work on it so that they are understood by future generations.

Nina SImone. Photo © 1976 Georges Braunschweig.


RC: How involved were the estates of Nina Simone and Etta James in these releases?

TA: Before Claude passed away it was said that he told Nina Simone’s estate that if we were to publish the 1976 concerts the estate would be compensated. I respected that because I preferred that the estate continue to publish concerts as opposed to having them remain in the books. So I gave my co-producing rights to the estate of Nina Simone. It’s always an issue of connection. Now, in working with BMG, they manage all of the deals directly with the artists.

RC: Both Nina Simone and Etta James took the stage in July 1990, five days apart. Did they see each other perform that year?

TA: That’s a good question. They might have. Unfortunately it would have been Claude who would have known and he’s passed away. I’m not sure. As I remember in the 1990s Nina Simone was very discreet and didn’t appear in public often. She led a very quiet life.


RC: Please tell our readers more about the Claude Nobs Foundation.

TA: Montreux is a small city, very quiet, and at the time the festival began it was filled with older women from the UK. Claude had the great idea of shaking it up and decided to organize concerts. He started with the Rolling Stones directly in 1964, which was their first time performing outside of the UK. He followed that with Pink Floyd. Then he had the idea of starting a jazz festival because he had been listening to jazz since he was a kid. He was very interested in this kind of music, and he recognized that there was no video to be found of the jazzmen he enjoyed listening to. That prompted him to begin the recording and broadcasting of each concert he organized.

Since then we have always recorded with the very latest technology and now have over 5,000 recordings. Claude would always ask the artists, “What are you going to show your grandchildren if you aren’t recorded?” Before this, there were of course live musical recordings. But rarely were there any with video of the performance. So it was a fantastic idea he had and I have now worked on those archives for 35 years.

It’s been a lot of work. My goal is to preserve it for not only the next generations but for the next millennium. We digitized the entire thing. Years ago we began with over 18,000 tapes. Now it’s all digitized and is an active archive on a server. We did this with the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne. I had 250 people working on the project for 13 years –  students, professors, and researchers. In 2013 the archive was inscribed to UNESCO’s International Memory of the World Register. We continue to work on many projects, improving the sound and the picture to have the most metadata around each [performing] group. We are also working on the musical sociology to help explain what happened [in these festivals] because it wasn’t only about jazz. It was jazz and blues and everything in between, even rap.

For the first time, we put two songs onto DNA. You can record now on synthetic DNA, which is a very low-cost energy process that allows you to keep the content [archived safely] for thousands of years. With this technology you could put the memory of the entire web into a shoebox.

Etta James. Photo © 1975 Georges Braunschweig.


RC: What do the festival and the Foundation have planned next for release?

TA: Across our 50 years we have actually published over 450 concerts. Each artist has an audience. It could be two people to twenty million. Together they have driven a billion views of our content online. CDs are different. With CDs you own your music. You have the physical product. Very soon we should release many more because of our partnership with BMG.

RC: Who are you most excited to see hit the stage next month at this year’s festival?

TA: You know it’s [going to be] a big surprise, because the festival will be the same size as it was when it began in 1967. It’s small. A stage is being built on the lake but there will only be seats for 600 people. That’s all we can do today. So for me it’s a rediscovery of what the festival was like in its early years. Although the production this time will be made on the lake stage using drones [for filming] – which should be interesting. I am excited though because we have newcomers, Arlo Parks and Nubya Garcia. If you don’t know their music you should check it out. There’s more of a focus on Swiss artists because of the travel limits. It’s going to be very good for Swiss artists.

Header image of Nina Simone © 1976 by Georges Braunschweig.

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