Sarah Ellen Hughes reports on her Montreux Jazz Festival Experience:
For two weeks each July, the sleepy town of Montreux by Lake Geneva in Switzerland, looking out at the Alps of Savoie, is transformed into a hubbub of International stars and music performances of the highest calibre.
Started 46 years ago by Claude Nobs – a music enthusiast and former Tourist Bureau consultant – Montreux has become one of the major fixtures in the International jazz calendar. A host of super-stars have performed at the event, including Marvin Gaye, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Nina Simone and James Brown.
This year’s line-up was true to form. Headliners included BB King, George Benson, Natalie Cole, Quincy Jones, Chaka Khan and Esperanza Spalding. And not even headlining, but just playing in other people’s bands were Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter and Chick Corea. And as with most jazz festivals, there were plenty of non-jazz acts for the generic music fan: Ricky Martin, Santana, Sting, rapper Mos Def, and Seal.
The only trouble with this amazing line-up is that you can’t possibly program a different person each night, so many of the highlights were grouped together into one concert. Unfortunately, this meant for long evenings of music, which feel even longer if you have a standing ticket.
Natalie Cole was at the end of the evening’s bill at the Miles Davis Hall. But before I could see the first jazz singer I ever listened to and really loved, I had to stand through the first set from ‘Montreuz Jazz on the Road’ which was a showcase for last year’s vocal and piano competition winners. The second set came from Mario Biondi, an Italian singer who had brought with him many Italian fans who, after his 45-minute set, shouted for more so enthusiastically that he performed not one, but two encores. Then an interval, during which I held on for dear life to my front-row position that I had bagged at 10 past 8 that evening, waiting to be as close to the stage as possible for Ms Cole. At last she appeared – looking glamorous to the maximum, clasping a sparkly microphone to match her incredible dress. Unfortunately, she had such a bad cold that during every instrumental solo she had to blow her nose, and her backing vocalists out-classed her. After four songs, her frock was starting to fall down so in her wonderfully genteel and elegant way, she made her apologies and tottered off stage to get changed. By this time it was quarter to midnight and I had an early morning flight so I left mid-set.
Despite my disappointing experience at a formal concert, the Montreux Jazz experience is unlike any I’ve had before. An event that welcomes almost half a million music fans annually, the entire town and region works together to ensure a slick jazz operation. On arrival at Geneva airport, you can buy a discounted train ticket to Montreux and back. There is a bus that runs from Vevey to Villeneuve (two towns either side of Montreux) which is free during festival hours. Grand orange signs direct you to the best car parks from miles away, and there are temporary sign posts all over town directing you to the various venues and events. The festival not only offers formal concerts and workshops, but there are Jazz Trains and Jazz Boats that make the most of the incredible scenery and setting. An outdoor band stand surrounded by bars, food stalls and markets offers free music throughout the day and into the night.
It’s an amazing festival, and if I can afford to buy a proper seat at next year’s festival, I will definitely be returning!