The year is 2020 and the month is July. An unusual tranquillity descends upon Lake Geneva. Amongst the many towns that border this ethereal body of water, none quite feel the lack of sonic activity as Montreux, for this is the site of one of the most eclectic music festivals in the world. Second only in size to its Montreal counterpart, the Montreux Jazz Festival is renowned for the diversity of the performers and styles that it incorporates into its line-up. When founded in 1967 it was intended to do exactly what is says on the tin. A musical gathering of the finest performers in Jazz to dazzle listeners with their complex compositions. But soon the roster of artists grew, and a diverse array of sounds graced the waters of the lake and echoed through the surrounding alpine mountains. Indeed four years after its foundation in 1971, “some stupid with a flare gun, burned the place to the ground” and inspired one of the most iconic songs in the history of rock music.
Myself and one of Axerian’s founders, George Challiss, have had the privilege of performing twice at this historic event in 2014 and 2015. They were experiences we shall carry with us to the end of our days, and so we feel comfortable in recommending it to anyone that has not yet attended.
The festival’s 54th birthday was a quiet night in, but this year it will celebrate its 55th with a 21-gun salute. It promises a new stage on the water and an array of stylistically eclectic artists to signify its, and indeed the worlds, return to live music.
The festival was the brainchild of Claude Nobs, René Langel and Géo Voumard. In 1967, and with considerable help from Atlantic records co-founder Ahmet Ertegun, they planned to hold a three-day jazz festival at an expense of 10 000 Francs. The location was rather unusual. It was not in an expansive field, as was the case with Woodstock. Nor was it in some vast arena. Instead they had plumped for a rather quaint town nestled into the corner of Lake Geneva. With its narrow streets, idyllic atmosphere, and sumptuous Belle Époque architecture, few could have predicted what the town would help to produce. But many great endeavours have a humble birth before a raucous adolescence, and the festival was quick to enter this maturity. In 1969 Les McCann and Eddie Harris recorded the live album “Swiss Movement” there and it became the first jazz record to sell over a million copies. It signified the start of the festivals growth and the succeeding decade built upon this. It was then that the assortment of musical styles and genres we have come to expect really began to take hold.
1971, as stated previously, saw the inspiration for “Smoke on the Water” but other memorable moments have come from this embracement of diversity. Artists such as Alice Cooper, Gary Moore, Etta James, Ella Fitzgerald (to name but a few), have all released live albums of their performances there. However, jazz still remains to hold an extremely important place within the festival. Miles Davis, Chick Corea, Maceo Parker and Herbie Hancock have all performed there and the latter three still grace the stage. But why the Montreux Jazz Festival is so important to the world of music is its broad scope of allowing all sorts of styles to enter its doors.
This is evident due to the many greats who have performed there, but also in its selection of newer artists. While the 2021 line-up has not yet been released, it is usual practice that those featured on their “ones to watch” list will be given a slot. At a glance you can see that each artist has a different course to bring to the auditory banquet. Nathy Peluso could provide a serving of the avant-guard, Pa Salieu may delight all present with the rap tinted afro-swing that has put him on the map, and The Lathums could bring the grits of British indie rock. All is possible and all are welcome.
The music is the most crucial part of the festival, but what makes it a spectacle is all that comes with it. The town of Montreux itself is a delight. With cafes, bars, and shops to immerse yourself in it is also astonishingly pretty. Though by the waterfront, it must be said, you may find enough to satisfy your appetite. Here there is an open stage, more bars and small food stalls that offer an assortment of edibles so great as to rival the music in its diversity. What is exciting about this year is that there are plans to have a stage that is completely on the water, with an adjacent stand on the shore that could accommodate 500 people. This would be the first time that such an endeavour would be undertaken in the festival’s history. It is certainly ambitious, but it does prove that the event means business after being forced to lay dormant last year.
This all amounts to a factually wonderful experience. Perhaps one could argue that my eyes have been adorned with rose tinted spectacles, but I do not think that this is the case. The festival annually attracts, last year excepted, more than 200 000 people over its two-week period of activity. Surely this can be ascribed to the feeling generated within everyone who attends. The music, the food, the drinks, and the atmosphere are set against a backdrop of extraordinary beauty to create a unique atmosphere. I lack the eloquence to properly articulate my thoughts and so I, albeit with hesitation, use the cliché that the whole situation is indescribable. But if you ever have the chance to attend, I recommend this. Spend your day taking in all you can. Whether you are onstage or in the crowd, absorb everything until the Swiss summer renders your body a pillar of sweat. When the day is drawing to an end, undress and plunge into the crystal-clear waters of the lake. Upon emerging, open your eyes and gaze at the surrounding mountains as the last flecks of sunlight tenderly caress the craggy outcrops… Then you will understand.