Behind The Scenes Tour & Overview of The Montreux Jazz Festival

Words & Photos By Karen Dugan (

I just attended the 45th year of The Montreux Jazz Festival over July 13th - 17th. Taking place on the gorgeous Lake Geneva, or Lake Léman, as the Swiss like to call it, the entire festival ran from July 1st - 17th.

Nestled amongst the French-populated section of the Swiss Alps in Montreux, Switzerland, this town has one of the most majestic views one will ever have as backdrop for a music festival.

Fun Fact: Lake Geneva was the site for the first measurement of the speed of sound in (fresh) water.

Take all your preconceptions, like comparing it to any festival you have ever attended, and throw them away. Especially for those thinking it might mirror New Orleans Jazz Festival in the sense of night and day jumps all over New Orleans to catch shows. Try thinking more along the lines of a dignified, classy, smallish in scale but giant in reputation, amazing, worldly festival thrown into the middle of The Sound of Music.

A Little Background:

The Montreux Jazz Festival is certainly the most well known music festival in the entire world, at least to musicians. I would wager that the average lackadaisical musical lover even has a few Live in Montreux CDs from an artist or two without even realizing it.

It is all began with Claude "Funky Claude" Nobs, a passionate jazz fan and a visionary who founded the festival back in 1967.

This guy was cool. He was rocking Missoni gear every time I saw him. Come to find out he rocks it almost exclusively. I have to be honest with you, when I lived on Park Avenue, Missoni was the only store on Madison Avenue I cringed by when I took my daily walks home from work. However, I took the time to take a look at the Missoni catalog that came in our gift bag (more about that later). I have to be honest with you; I dug some of the $1,000 and up items.

Our tour rep told us that Claude started as a cook and networked his way up to somehow create this festival. That wasn't a through enough description for me. How about these facts:

1. After apprenticing as a cook, Nobs worked in the Tourism Office of Montreux.

2. He later went to New York, where he met Nesuhi Ertegün, the president of Atlantic Records.

3. There he met Roberta Flack and invited her to the Rose d’Or de Montreux, one of the most important international festivals in entertainment television.

4. Aretha Franklin made her first visit to Europe thanks to him.

5. At the age of 31, while he was director of the Tourism Office of Montreux, he organized the first jazz festival.

~Thank you Wikipedia

Montreux's inaugural fest was only three days compared to today's three weeks and listed almost exclusively jazz musicians. In the 1970s, the festival began broadening its scope, including blues, soul, and rock artists. Over the years, the festival has grown to include all styles of music from around the world. This year, I noticed that there was an obscene amount of Hip-Hop focus at this "Jazz" festival. I would love to speak more with the team who creates the line up.

It's fair to say that The Montreux Jazz Festival might be one of the world's most diverse musical gatherings in the world. Over the four days I was in Montreux, on the streets alone I saw:

1. Indian group chanting with flute and drum accompaniment

2. Individual John Mayer-types with guitars

3. Japanese dancing and singing

4. African Tribal singing and dancing

5. A Didgeridoo group called DidgEra (They changed spots all week, I loved them but they need to be nicer to their fans if they want us to give a shit.)

6. A solo Kora player

7. Heard so many versions of American songs remixed with electronic beats

8. Hip-Hop dance rage on the park stage

9. Four dudes had strapped barely floating raft to a paddle boat and set up their band on the raft with an electric amp playing garage band music. THAT was amazing. As seen below :)

Try to take into perspective that the festival is very small in ground size even though 220,000+ people are said to have attended. It's basically laid out along the edge of Lake Le'man straight shot line ending at out hotel, Eden Palace Au Lac.  Literally a 15-20 minute walk from end to end.


The Overview

I arrived in Montreux, Switzerland, on the 14th of July and would be there for four days. Even though it was raining, the place shined through with it's gorgeousness. Spotless lawns and sidewalks, clean air, a large gorgeous blue lake in the middle of the most scenic of mountain views one could ever encounter. To have a music festival set in this type of landscape was phenomenal. As I grow and experience these musical adventures, my definition of phenomenal has changed.  This...was...PHENOMENAL!

The town itself was rather small and you didn't have to gaze far to see that the town took this festival seriously. Every window display had a music theme. There were guitars with pearls draped across them and drumsticks scattered around cupcakes. During our time there, I would see flower vases lined with sheet music or in the shape of piano keys, cloth stores hanging musically inspired cloth and restaurants serving Orchestral Salads and Musical Cheeseburgers. It was no joke.

While checking in to the Eden Palace Au Lac, to our pleasure we were immediately told we had a room upgrade with a better view!   Then we were told that a representative from The Montreux Jazz Festival had contacted them and asked to be alerted upon our arrival.  We were then told that in ten minutes a representative of the festival would be coming to our hotel to greet us.  Alright, this was pretty dope...

Josh and I went to our rooms and melted into our view. It was the most delicious view I had ever experienced in my life. The grandeur of the mountains was just breathtaking. The Blue Ridge Mountains where I spent my college years were put in perspective.

The water was so clear and clean, very much like a tropical island. At any point on your walk along the lake, and if you felt like swimming, you could jump in from one of the many quaint docks and ladders. While you swam, you were floating amongst ducks, swans, pigeons, and sea gulls. Around were sail boats, paddles boats, para-gliders, surf-board paddlers and more. Every single moment and spot was picture perfect.

I began to unpack before the phone call came.  Josh went down to meet the representative and came back with a huge bag of goodies. The gift bag contained two Montreux shirts, MAC cosmetics, A Montreux Jazz Festival dual-disc sampler cd, Missioni clothing magazine, and a Switzerland tourist-type booklet with fun things to do around the area.

Over the next four days, I would experience a world I had never known as this amazing festival opened itself up to me at the same time. I was walking amongst covered Muslims and Native American Indians. I heard people speaking French, Spanish, German, Dutch, Israeli and more. This is something I never see/hear at American Festivals.

During the three-week festival you could enjoy piano, voice and air guitar competitions with contestants from Great Britain, Australian, France and more. There were paying concerts with Carlos Santana (Rock), John Mclaughlin (Fusion), Jimmy Cliff (Reggae), Derek Trucks & Susan Tedeschi (Southern Rock), B.B. King (Blues), and any other style of music you can imagine. There were also free shows held in various locations along the water each day.

There were Salsa and Brazilian show boats and a New Orleans jazz train which all housed performances on board.  There were workshops in Funk, Soul, Bossa Nova, Rock n Roll, Electronic and Classical music.  There were teachings about the rise of Hip-Hop, music in film, Slam Poetry performances, and numerous individual artists workshops.  I attended the Larry Graham Workshop and the Marcus Miller Workshop, both of which will be posted in full later next week.

Some 22 food stalls can be found along the lakeside. The food was on par with the quality you might find at the New Orleans Jazz Festival, the only other festival I've attended whose food was on the same level as the music. My first meal was Jambalaya, followed by fondue, crepes, orange and apple portable waffles that tasted like fruit loops, baguettes with amazing cheese and oil toppings, German style potato salads, and cheesy scalloped potatoes with ham. There was Sushi, Thai, Mexican, Indian, Chinese, and German and there was even a salad/pasta bar in one of the booths. The food was never ending and I didn't get to eat enough of it while I was there.

The Behind-the-Scene Tour

To be honest, I had forgotten about the Behind the Scenes Tour until two days into the trip and we were on our last box seat night.  All we had to do was come in between 2:00 PM and 11:00 PM and they would give us a Behind the Scenes Tour.  The tour ended up taking place on our last day of the festival right around sound check. Coincidence? I think not ;)

I was described the difference between Backline (everything behind the artist on stage) and Front Line (the lights and video equipment). With that info under my belt, I was taken into the Instrument Storage Room.

Due to the small size of Montreux, the frequency of the shows during the festival and the lack of time for each artist to set up, most artist attending the Montreux Jazz Festival use instruments from the stock pile that is housed in the Auditorium Stravinsky. Of course, people such as Larry Graham and Paul Simon would use their own instrument but their backup bands were asked to use what was already on site.

Every day the staff prepares the instruments. The last performer of the night sound checks first. The selection of instruments was grand. I was told that the staff who maintain and organize this portion of the festival were the hardest working. It was their job to make sure that every artist had the instrument they needed. It was their job to be there multiple hours a day. They were first to organize what is needed for the day, then to organize sound check, see the show through to the end of the performance, and then make sure the instruments are put back accordingly. I immediately recognized the pressure that was on this portion of the staff and at that moment, a grumpy male snapped at Nathan to move out of his way. Clearly, there was pressure.

Because so many artists performed in such a small amount of time on one stage, the last artist performing on a given night has sound check first and their equipment is set up. Each following artist's equipment is set up in front of the last. Then, during performance time, the first act goes on, their items are removed from the line and by the time the last act is performing, only one line of instruments, that last artists instruments, are left on stage.

I was told of a story involving Keith Jarrett. There are only two pianos in the collection: a Steinway and a Yamaha. This artist struck one key on the piano provided by the festival and said "NO!" He refused to use the equipment. The Montreux staff went looking all over Switzerland for the piano that this artist wanted. There was only one located in Switzerland and it was flown in.

I was escorted to the inner belly of the building.  Here was housed the recycling center.

Fun Fact about the alcohol: The festival has 20,000 liters of beer imported from Belgium because the tiny Swiss kegs don't serve the purpose of the large festival.

Montreux's Greening efforts are intense. Their mission is to limit waste creation while at the same time maximizing sorting and recycling. This mission manifests itself through:

· Returning the site to its original state on a daily basis

· A team that works 24 hours a day, sorting trash and ensuring the cleanliness of the festival areas

· An on-site eco-compatible waste plant

· Eco Points spread across the site, both indoors and outdoors, allowing the public to recycle items including plastic cups, PET, glass, aluminum, paper/cardboard, and items to be incinerated

· Prevention and information for the public, in partnership with the Summit Foundation, to promote eco-friendly measures

For its second year, in addition to financial support, Alpiq is providing practical energy efficiency solutions for the Hospitality Garden, the festival’s VIP area.  With the installation of a photovoltaic system and energy-saving LED lighting, this technology is to be extended in future to the entire festival infrastructure.

The audio trailers were also in this area. There were two audio trucks and two video trucks. The Montreux Jazz Festival has been recording their video in HD since 1991. Back then, HD was seen as ridiculous. Now Funky Claude just sits back and smiles with his awesome video while everyone begs for it. The entire festival is recorded live and there has been 5,000 hours of tape recorded. As an artist playing the festival, you have to be ok with being taped. Don't worry; you get a free copy of your show! In fact, Marvin Gaye refused to be taped until he went to Funky Claude's personal home and saw the quality of the HD video. Only then did Marvin agree to be taped.

The fest is staffed with 1,200 volunteers who are mostly students who make little in wages. Many either stay with someone they know or travel in from the outer towns.    There were perks for them throughout the festival. Food was a 15% off price, there was a masseuse backstage for cheap whenever they needed to relax, they were allowed to see music for free days on end, and sometimes lucky ones, or not lucky, were allowed to work for the artists!

The two main Halls, Auditorium Stravinsky and The Miles Davis Hall, used for the evenings shows, were located inside the Convocation Center.

Backstage at Miles Davis Hall: The Miles Davis Hall, located in the Music & Convention Center, was built on as an audition to the Auditorium Stravinsky after the festival got too big for the solo stage and has a capacity of 2,000 people. Once built, musicians, specifically jazz musicians, wanted to perform in that space rather than the large space.

I inquired about the jam sessions that Sean Rickman had mentioned to me when we ran into each other at a red light on the street. Artists are encouraged to go to the Montreux Cafe after their performances for impromptu jam sessions. There are certain concerts that help promote such a thing happening. Unfortunately, the scene late night in the Montreux Cafe is not one that many artists of Sean's caliber want to participate in. Whenever we were near the area late night, the scene was full of young twenty-something drunken ragers who were more interested the opposite sex then the music fueling the vibe.

As we approached the backstage entrance to the Hall, I could hear Larry Graham's bass lines coming from sound check. We were let in to watch a portion of the sound check and sadly had to leave our camera outside.

I can tell you, standing in front of the stage with just me and Larry Graham and his low-end was an absolute thrill. In that moment I felt very special. I knew I was in a special moment, experiencing a very special thing. I couldn't help but think about the people who had gotten me to this point. Thank you to my parents, the Sloanes and Josh! I wasn't taking any of it for granted.

Larry Graham was on stage with his wife checking things out. His wife and he were sporting matching jerseys with #1 and #2 on the back. Josh, myself, Nathan and Helen watched for about 15 minutes. Taking it all in...

Backstage at Auditorium Stravinsky - We headed through a few corridors and up or down some stairs to end up in the Auditorium Stravinsky, situated in the Music & Convention Center. The interior is completely paneled with cherry wood and has an audience capacity of 1,800 seated and 3,500 standing.

We immediately went backstage and were walking amongst the orchestra that would be backing Deep Purple that evening. There was a red carpet on the floor that found out led to the stage. How cute is that? A red carpet to the stage!!

To the left of the red carpet was Claude's dressing room and interestingly enough, Quincey's Jones', who stays all three weeks each year. When our rep explained to us that her first job had been serving artists relations, Josh asked her which artist had been the most difficult. Prince became the topic of discussion now as she spoke of going all over Montreux with Prince's makeup artist looking for the correct wig and he apparently has a very impressive makeup collection.

The tour was informative and exciting. As we left the building to go do some more shopping, we passed the entrance to the line for the Deep Purple show. Diehard fans with purple hair and Deep Purple clothing were already lined up for the show that would be taking place in two hours. I knew how they felt. The music was calling...


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