First Person, Far Flung: Montreux
It all began with a kiss.
It was the opening night of the 2016 Montreux Jazz Festival, and the Casino Barrière Montreux was packed. Late light fell slantwise through the windows, reflecting off Lake Geneva. The quartet’s instruments gleamed in anticipation, and the audience members took their seats. We had come to see Charles Lloyd, the legendary 79-year-old saxophonist who had played with Cannonball Adderley, Ornette Coleman, and Howlin’ Wolf; he had, in fact, performed at the very first Montreux Jazz Festival, half a century earlier. Now he slowly strode on stage, a golf cap over his wispy hair, wearing sunglasses in the dark. His sidemen took their places with practiced solemnity. Lloyd shifted his weight and paused, came toward the edge of the stage, and adjusted his tenor sax. From the back of the room, a woman’s voice called out in a sonorous Swiss accent: “We love you!” Perfectly in sync, Lloyd blew a slow kiss into the dark. The snare drum rolled—and they were off.
Switzerland is known for many things: precision, finance, elegant neutrality. But it’s not usually thought of as a place that swings. Yet here is Montreux: a musical mecca nestled between Lake Geneva and the Alps whose fabled jazz festival, now in its 51st year, has drawn such disparate stars as Aretha Franklin, Carlos Santana, Nina Simone, the Beastie Boys, Miles Davis, David Bowie, and Freddie Mercury. The town was once a backwater, better known as a romantic haven for the ill-fated lovers in Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. But in 1967, Claude Nobs, a tourism office employee with a passion for jazz, created a three-day festival that featured Charles Lloyd, pianist Keith Jarrett, and a dozen European bands. With the help of Quincy Jones and Atlantic Records executive Nesuhi Ertegun, Nobs soon began to bring in the top names in jazz, blues, and rock.
Nevertheless, few people associated Montreux with musical legend until 1971, when a fan set off a flare gun during a Frank Zappa concert, and the original casino—Montreux’s main venue—burned to the ground. Deep Purple, who happened to be at the casino to record, watched the fire and wrote a song about it. “Smoke on the Water” was the result, and with that famous four-chord riff, the myth of Montreux was born.
I’d wanted to see Montreux ever since I was a teenager, when jazz consumed my every breath and thought. In high school I’d been an obsessive and a bit of an anachronism. I played piano in bands and dreamed of performing solo ballads like Bill Evans; with friends, I spent long hours singing Chet Baker’s “Autumn Leaves” solo until I knew it like a pulse. My skills as a musician were limited, but I understood the joy improvisation can bring—when musicians are in the pocket and communicate without speaking a word. Perusing my vast collection of jazz albums, I loved the thrill of recognizing old standards, hearing them played through a horn or sung by an unfamiliar voice; the wild romance of old lyrics; the satisfaction of hearing a solo whirl and spin and land—perfection—on the beat.
As I listened to those records over and over, “Montreux” kept popping up. The name had a mystique unto itself. I studied the stride piano technique on Ray Bryant’s 1972 Alone at Montreux, and wondered about the audience that he joked with between songs. I listened to Ella Fitzgerald’s version of “Come Rain or Come Shine” from her Montreux ’77 album, hearing her total vocal virtuosity and the crowd’s adoration. And I pored over Miles & Quincy Live at Montreux: the night that Miles Davis, with Quincy Jones’s assistance, played Gil Evans’s arrangements from Sketches of Spain for the first time in 30 years, just months before the trumpeter’s death. Montreux grew to be more than a place in my mind. It was a touchstone for the music’s legacy, a holy ground where jazz history happened time and again.
Alongside my fascination with Montreux came a special interest in one jazz legend: Herbie Hancock. The 14-time Grammy-winning pianist, who made his name in Miles Davis’s second great quintet, had reinvented jazz harmony in the ’60s with albums like Maiden Voyage, and paved the way for funk and jazz fusion with his bands V.S.O.P. and the Headhunters. I’d always loved listening to Hancock, but only as an adult had I learned of his singular role at the Montreux Jazz Festival. The wide appeal of hits like “Cantaloupe Island” and “Watermelon Man,” coupled with his explorations of different musical genres, have made him a perfect ambassador for jazz in Switzerland. It’s no surprise, then, that he has played Montreux 37 times, more than any artist in the festival’s history. I needed to see this hero play on his musical home turf in order to know what Montreux was all about. Hancock’s 2016 concert was scheduled for my last day at Montreux, and I couldn’t wait to see him live.
Located at the base of the Alps, Montreux is built on an incline, so no matter where you look, you can’t forget what surrounds you. The bright green mountainsides rise up immediately behind the town, with waterfalls folded into the Alpine valley. When I arrived a day before the festival, Montreux was all quiet, save for a focused bustle down by the water, where work crews were assembling the mile-long promenade along the quay. In a day, this scenic lake walk would transform into an ambling celebration, with crowds passing between some 30 bars, food stands, and concert venues each night until 4 a.m. The town would be overtaken: Montreux has a population of about 25,000, but for the first two weeks of July each year it grows to 10 times that size.
Though Montreux is a true jazz festival, one of its signatures has always been the wide range of musical acts that perform here, owing to Nobs’s capacious tastes, not only for straight-ahead jazz but also blues, funk, and rock. (Deep Purple nicknamed him “Funky Claude,” which is how musicians and locals still refer to him.) On any given day at Montreux, you’re likely to hear folk, metal, big band, trip hop, and soul, all back-to-back. But whether it’s Keb’ Mo’ or Muse or Sting or Ty Dolla $ign, the thread connecting all is experimentalism. Montreux is known for legendary late-night jam sessions, when electronic artists and pop balladeers unexpectedly join jazz bands onstage. “Jazz is really the spirit of Montreux,” explains Mathieu Jaton, Nobs’s successor and the director of the festival. “And it’s not only the jazz style; it’s the spirit
I made it my mission to sample all the music on offer. On my second evening in town, I started out at the Auditorium Stravinski—named for the Russian composer, who lived in Montreux in the early 20th century. There, I saw the transgender avant-garde English singer and visual artist Anohni perform songs from her experimental album Hopelessness. Shrouded in black, her face invisible, she sang with a soulful voice that rose to the wooden ceiling of the 4,000-seat theater; behind her, a video displayed a series of women lip-syncing to her song “4 Degrees.”
The performance was poignant and melancholy, but I needed some jazz to even me out. I stumbled downstairs into the more intimate Montreux Jazz Club, and on a small stage, I found jazz-fusion band Steps Ahead lit in blue light. Watching the pianist play off the saxophonist’s solos, I felt I was hearing exactly what I’d come for. The energy and excitement in their interplay shot through me; my legs and arms tensed as I nodded in time, following the chord changes. After a few songs, the quintet slowed things down, and the bandleader began to play a pensive version of Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life” solo on the vibraphone. For a few moments, the whole room stilled and held its breath.
I hopped from show to show for the next couple of hours—saw the French electro-pop duo Air playing their hits with reserved cool; DJ Shadow spinning for sweaty, dancing fans; Swiss singer-songwriter Bastian Baker strumming his acoustic guitar for young couples sipping the local Lavaux wine. It was nearly midnight when I walked out to the lakefront, but I discovered that the evening had only just begun. Crowds poured in and out of the festival’s nightclub and rock club, and an armada of yachts bobbed just a few feet from the quay, each seeming to carry its own private concert. Montreux had proved itself to be far more than I could have expected. It was true to its heritage while embracing all kinds of new music, inside and outside of jazz. Under the neon lights of the promenade, I saw every type of festivalgoer, music nerd, and cosmopolitan jet-setter I could imagine, all wearing the same look of excitement—to be here, to be hearing this, all hungry for more of what Montreux could offer.
The next morning, I headed down to the Fairmont Le Montreux Palace, the 1906 Belle Époque–style hotel that’s the centerpiece of the town’s lakefront and of the festival itself. It’s a place thick with history: Vladimir Nabokov spent the last 16 years of his life here, and its ballrooms and great halls have been the site of treaty signings and international conventions. But each year during the festival, its 236 rooms are filled with top-class musicians and their fans. To get inside, I had to thread my way between a Lamborghini, a vintage Porsche, and Matt Bellamy (the Muse frontman had just arrived and was happily posing for selfies with a clutch of fans). On a whim, I inquired about availability. In true Swiss style—accommodating, warm, firm—the concierge told me that to get a room during the festival, many book a year in advance.
Still, I wanted to look around. Inside I found old-world charm married to modern sophistication. Passing through turn-of-the-century corridors—built extra wide to make room for two women in ballgowns to pass easily—I heard squealing arpeggios on a trumpet just rooms away. When I entered the Grand Hall, I caught my reflection in the lid of a piano Prince had once played while passing time after his set.
Indeed, everywhere in the hotel I felt myself in two eras at once. An employee pointed to the hall that Motörhead once strode through, bare-chested and bedecked in leather pants. Riding the elevator to the seventh floor, I took a peek inside the Quincy Jones Suite, a 1,200-square-foot penthouse with a marble bathroom larger than my New York apartment, as well as lake-facing balconies and a state-of-the-art stereo stocked only with Jones’s albums.
While in the hotel, I also stopped by the festival’s jazz guitar competition, where prodigies played for guitar legend John McLaughlin in the Salle des Fêtes, the festive hall where palace guests once held after-supper dances. One studious young man after another took to the stage, electric guitar in hand, locked eyes with the bassist and drummer, and plunged into song. A South African guitarist rendered Mongo Santamaria’s “Afro Blue” as a driving waltz dotted with blues riffs; a British musician essayed the jazz standard “My One and Only Love,” floating the ballad atop considerable reverb, weaving original lines throughout its hovering lyrical melody. Watching each of them walk off stage, I was struck by their talent, but I could also see just how much work goes into the virtuosity of the jazz musician. Young performers developing their own style have to get the balance between technical mastery and good taste just right. A flurry of notes without feeling will fall flat, and practiced listeners can tell the difference. During a break in the competition, McLaughlin, looking the part in an open blue button-up, his silver mane swept back, slipped into the sunlit corridor to sign autographs. A Swiss woman asked what his favorite memory of Montreux was. He smiled and replied in carefully enunciated French: “It was when Claude cooked for me. Filet de perche.”
I finally saw Hancock play on my last night in Montreux. Before the show, Mathieu Jaton introduced him as “le plus fidèle de tous nos amis”—“the most faithful of our friends”—and for good reason. Although Hancock was in the middle of recording his latest album with producer Terrace Martin, he’d flown in from LA for one night. He arrived in a pink band-collared silk shirt and narrow-rimmed glasses, looking part architect, part guru. Over the shouts of an adoring crowd, he introduced his performance as “an overture.” He and his quartet explored songs from across his six-decade career, folding familiar tunes and jazz and funk hybrids into one another, reminding the audience of just how much of American pop is the product of this one man.
During one bass solo by the formidable James Genus, Hancock supported
with brief chords to keep the harmony intact. I watched his face change. Hancock got an idea, playing a four-note melody twice in a row. Two measures later, Genus played the same thing back to him. Then it was both of them, locking up as one mind. Drummer Trevor Lawrence Jr. joined in too, and, as if they’d had the same thought at once, all three struck a sequence of rhythmic hits in perfect time. The crowd screamed. It was this kind of telepathic interplay that made Miles Davis’s second quintet famous—also with Hancock on the keys, but 50 years before. I thought of all the musical history here on the banks of Lake Geneva: Miles, Prince, Marvin Gaye, Etta James, a pantheon of others. And I realized, in that moment, that jazz is a language of covers, of call and response: It makes room for every other genre within it. People say that jazz is about improvisation, but they miss what improvisation really is. It’s a sensibility of openness, of enthusiasm. As the band played to at least three
generations of fans, all nodding and dancing to the deep groove of “Chameleon,” a look of joy spread across Hancock’s face.
After I left, I continued to ponder what it was about Montreux that’s kept Hancock coming back for 37 years. I wanted to hear it in his words, and finally arranged a time to talk with him. “Montreux’s a watering hole for musicians who don’t get a chance to hear each other live that much,” he told me by phone. “It’s designed to remove the invisible barrier between the performers and the fans. Montreux is where you feel comfortable trying out new things. Because you get the feeling that the audience is begging for that surprise, even if it’s a work in progress. They love that.” He paused, and I wondered whether his thoughts were floating back to that stage. “They feel that they’re almost in on a secret,” he continued, raising his voice in excitement. “There’s some kind of magic that happens there.”