What is the Montreux Jazz Festival exactly?
If you’re like me, you’ve occasionally seen or heard live performances from the festival on video or CD — and you have the impression it’s a far-flung gathering of musicians socializing over jazz in some elite location in Switzerland.
Well, now I’m here, and the first thing that I can report is that it’s not just a jazz festival — it’s dedicated to all kinds of music ranging from rock to soul to EDM. It’s also not necessarily all that elite. Take for example this year’s Montreux Jazz Festival 50, which hosts an incredibly robust free program over its two-week stretch in this month of July. You could attend from 2pm to 5am many days and see many performances and then dance until you drop for free admission.
As a further surprise, many of your dining options, set up along rows between venues, are relatively affordable compared to generally high prices along Lake Geneva.
Let me back up a bit. Almost the entire festival takes place in a small beachfront city along Lake Geneva called Montreux. It’s about 93 km from Geneva, which hosts the nearest international airport, and it would take you about an hour to drive between the two (or 90 minutes on a train). Lake Geneva is a large body of water (nearly 8,000 square km), imparting a warm feeling to cities along it, giving them the air of beach resorts. The festival generally draws about 200,000 people total during its annual run, making it actually quite an exclusive experience.
The first Montreux Jazz Festival took place in 1967, making 2016 the 50th edition of the festival. It was founded by a gent named Claude Nobs, who was a music promoter who started it in Montreux Casino. (The casino burned down in 1971, inspiring Montreux Jazz Festival faves Deep Purple to write their song “Smoke on the Water”; the casino was rebuilt.) Outside the casino stands Mountain Studio, which was owned by the band Queen from 1979-96, and they recorded seven albums there. Freddie Mercury lived in Montreux for a time, and now a memorial statue of him stands near the casino along Lake Geneva.
Claude became friends with many musicians he worked with, and he sadly passed away after a skiing accident in 2013. His friend Quincy Jones took over as primary producer for the festival after already assisting for several decades.
All of the festival now primarily takes place in one building — the Montreux Music and Convention Center. During the festival, individual rooms serve as intimate gathering spaces for the various bands that perform in the center. Some of these rooms are permanent enclosures, like the Stravinsky Auditorium (Grand Rue 95, 1820 Montreux), which holds 4,000 people. Some of the concert halls are semi-permanent structures that are not open year-round, like the Rock Cave, an indie rock club space that holds about 400 guests, who access it from the walkway along Lake Geneva.
The major daily headliners usually perform in the Stravinsky Auditorium. Other major acts also play in the Montreux Jazz Club, the Montreux Jazz Lab, and the Montreux Jazz Trains. Generally, patrons attending these shows pay an individual price for that show. Today, Wednesday, July 6, for example, concert-goers pay to see headliners Patti Smith and PJ Harvey at the Stravinsky.
Free performances generally occur at The Rock Cave and a park outside the convention center, designated as “Music in the Park.” But the biggest draw for free performances is undoubtedly the Strobe Klub, which sits steps outside the convention center. Nightly, the Strobe Klub hosts current touring DJ acts, and starting around 10pm local time, young clubbers 18 years and older pack the club in droves for the free programming, which empowers them to dance the night away. (And yes, you can drink at age 18 in Switzerland; you can drink beer, wine, and cider as young as age 16.)
The Montreux Jazz Festival also hosts free workshops and many of these are hosted nearby in Petit Palais or Petit Theatre. Some big names participate in these workshops, such as one last night conducted by Al Jarreau.
Speaking of the great jazz singer, Al performed at the festival also, and there remains a big focus on jazz. Al Jarreau is among a number of musicians participating in a big band headed up by Quincy Jones on Friday night at the Stravinsky. (Other performers include Jon Batiste and Quincy’s lovely daughter Rashida.)
But Montreux Jazz Festival 50 in particular would like to remind you that its mandate is larger than jazz. The festival is hosting extravagant tributes to both Prince and David Bowie, former Montreux performers who both passed away this year. Prince last performed in 2013, and his image adorns many walls in the music center; Bowie last performed here in 2002, and indeed he lived nearby in the lakeside city of Lausanne for many years (and married Iman there).
In the next week, Parklife DC will present reviews of a few of the free live band performances that occurred during Montreux Jazz Festival 50 this year.
I heartily recommend you take up the opportunity to explore the wonders of the Montreux Jazz Festival yourself if available to you. Like me, you may find that it’s not what you may have first thought, and you will find the wonderfully refined environment surprisingly accessible, navigable, and affordable. A votre santé, Montreux!
For more information on specific performances and workshops, visit http://www.montreuxjazz.com.
Montreux Jazz Festival 50
Montreux Music and Convention Center
Friday, July 1 through Saturday, July 16
2pm-5am (many nights)
Free programming available