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My Montreux Jazz Experience
Dave Homerding by Lake Geneva
In July I was able to experience something that I had wanted to do for many years- attend the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland. It was my first trip to Europe as well (I can’t believe it took me so long!). For me, and a lot of my peers, one of the first recordings that started me down the jazz path was “Compared To What?”, the Les McCann/Eddie Harris masterpiece from their album “Swiss Movement”, recorded in July 1969 at the Montreux Festival. After 4 decades or so of expectations building up, the actual event was still way beyond anything I was prepared for- like a pilgrimage, it’s something that every jazz enthusiast should try to do at least once, something for the “bucket list” - and I plan on going again.
First of all, at little history- the Festival was founded by Claude Nobs in 1967, and despite the name and a solid base of “real jazz” performers, it has attracted musicians from every genre imaginable- what other event has seen Earl “Fatha” Hines and Johnny Cash, Miles Davis and ZZ Top, Count Basie and Bob Dylan, Charles Mingus and Prince, Ella Fitzgerald and Emmylou Harris and the Kings- Carole King and BB King? You may have seen Stevie Ray Vaughn’s performance at Montreux that is frequently shown on Rocky Mountain PBS during pledge drives… And, of course, the rock anthem “Smoke on the Water” was written by Deep Purple about the 1971 fire that burned down the Casino. Also, the event has grown over the years, today it lasts 21/2 weeks, features around 650 performances, and attracts somewhere around 225,000 people- I swear they are all along the lakefront every night- in some ways it reminded me of being on Bourbon Street during Mardi Gras- except with the beautiful lake and snow capped Swiss Alps as a backdrop, and a decidedly sophisticated international crowd (Look- there’s Quincy Jones, walking Claude Nobs 2 beautiful Bernese Mountain dogs). And even though it may sound overwhelming, the feeling is rather intimate- even the bigger venues like Auditorium Stravinsky aren’t really that big, and I never really waited in a line for anything, there’s always a place nearby to get a beverage, or food, and it doesn’t take much looking to find a place to sit with your friends along the lakefront and take it all in…
Be prepared, though, for “standing room” concerts, which is the way a lot of the performances are presented- if you’re not near the front, and/or not very tall, you’re not going to see much of the “big names”; the first show I went to, Norah Jones, was absolutely packed, and Europeans stand closer to each other than many Americans would find comfortable- I retreated to the “lobby” area, where I watched sitting on a comfy leather sofa in front of a giant TV with a cold Heineken in hand - the number one surprise for me was that it’s pretty hot and muggy, despite the view of snow capped Alps across Lake Geneva, even after 2:00 am it was over 90 degrees. And speaking of cold Heineken, Switzerland is a pretty expensive place in general- they use Swiss Francs, not Euros, and the Franc was priced at about 96¢ this July, mentally about equal to the dollar- beer wasn’t too bad at 4 francs for a plastic cup of draft and 5 for a can, but a scotch on the rocks will set you back 14 francs…my wife and I were lucky enough to stay with some friends 10 minutes away in Aigle (Eagle), it’s important to note that even though it’s a resort town, Montreux is not a big city, so accommodations are going to be fairly limited during the festival - the most central hotel, and where some performances happen, such as the Bosendorfer Solo Piano Competition, the Montreux Palace, rates go from about 450 francs a night on up - way up! But the Swiss have an incredible infrastructure, with trains and buses providing easy access from the surrounding towns, for example, there’s a special Jazz festival bus that runs to Vevey as late as 5:00 am, which is about when things start winding down. (Jet Lag? What Jet Lag? For me, staying up until 3:00 am or later and sleeping until noon wasn’t that much different than my Colorado schedule of bed at 9:30 and up at 5:00, when you take into account the 8 hour time change) And even though ticket prices are fairly high (ok, really high), there’s so many free events, performances and workshops (what guitar player wouldn’t want to attend a free workshop with Pat Metheny?) that even with a limited budget it’s more than worthwhile to check out Montreux in early July. Another thing that makes Montreux special is that the musicians all hang out for days before and after their gigs, and are often coaxed onstage by their pals for extended jam sessions - like my favorite show I attended this year, Angelique Kidjo, Youssou N’Dour and the “Africa Night” (a tribute to Miriam Makeba) when more and more performers kept coming onstage and jamming on and on….
So, what you’ve got is the perhaps the premiere music festival in the world, held in one of the most beautiful lakeside resorts anywhere every July for over 4 decades, that every performer and jazz aficionado dreams of attending; after being part of it all in 2010, I’m kind of afraid to not go next year, because every year musical history is being made on the shore of Lake Geneva. Do yourself a favor and at least visit the website, www.montreuxjazz.com , although they won’t announce the lineup for 2011 until next spring, you can watch videos of past performances, outfit yourself with some merchandise, or take the plunge and book a room for the first couple weeks in July 2011!
J'espère vous voir un jour à Montreux!