GENEVA – Claude Nobs, the founder and general manager of the Montreux Jazz Festival, whose passion for music and artistry introduced generations of legendary musicians to international audiences on the Swiss stage, has died. He was 76.
The Jazz Festival said Nobs, a native of Montreux, died Thursday after sustaining injuries from a fall while cross-country skiing in nearby Caux-sur-Montreux on Christmas Eve. He was taken to the hospital and fell into a coma from which he never recovered.
Nobs worked his way from being a chef and director of Montreux’s tourism office, where he organized charity concerts, to overseeing one of the most iconic music festivals in the world.
On its website, the festival said Nobs’ death came by “surprise as if to remind us once more, that in life as in music, each great performance could be the last one even if the show must go on.”
A visit to the New York offices of Atlantic Records led to the first festival in his home city in June 1967, featuring musicians such as Keith Jarrett and Jack DeJohnette.
The festival was an overnight success, building over the decades on Nobs’ passion for jazz, as much as his gumption and contacts abroad.
“‘And why not?’ You would repeatedly ask the same question when we tried to explain why a project would not be feasible,” festival officials wrote in an homage to Nobs on the website that praised his audacity to dream big. “The Montreux Jazz Festival is the ultimate proof of that! But not the only one!”
From that meeting in New York, Nobs went on to gain career-forming introductions to musical greats such as Roberta Flack and Aretha Franklin, who would make her first European tour at his request. The musical acts at the festival also would gradually broaden to include rock and pop.
An early incident involving the rock group Deep Purple, which had come to Montreux to record an album after performing with Frank Zappa, became forever linked with Nobs.
During a fire at Zappa’s concert in 1971, Nobs rushed to save several young concert-goers. Deep Purple’s hit song, “Smoke on the Water,” would memorialize the accident — Nobs as “Funky Claude” pulling kids to safety.
Two years later, Nobs became director of the Swiss branch of Warner, Elektra and Atlantic, a position that gave him added clout to introduce heavyweights on the Montreux stage.
By the 1990s, he was sharing festival-directing duties with the music producer Quincy Jones and bringing in Miles Davis as an honorary host.
Nobs, whose enthusiasm for greeting musicians at his office and chalet home cemented his standing and boosted the profile of his home, also became known for occasionally taking the stage to play harmonica.
In an interview with Swiss video magazine NVP3D posted on YouTube, Nobs’ compared the mix of tradition and creative innovation that he sought at his festivals to the popular Swiss German breakfast dish Bircher Muesli, a combination of rolled oats, fruits, nuts and dairy products.
“Which means it’s going to be like a fruit panorama, like a rainbow of different music, and this is what I like about Montreux,” he said in the interview, published in June 2012. “To make it really with such a variety of sound, of smell, of views and scene, that it makes it a real experience.”