Documentary filmmaker Oliver Murray talks about They All Came Out To Montreux, his new three-part mini-series about the iconic Montreux Jazz Festival, which will premiere on BBC 4 this Saturday at 10.15 pm.
For years, Montreux was a sleepy Swiss town where nothing much happened. Hugging the northern shore of Lake Geneva and surrounded by snow-capped mountains, it was undoubtedly picturesque; and with its castle, casino, and hotels, it had long been a holiday destination for mostly affluent patrician families. But over one momentous weekend in June 1967, its “quiet” and “boring” image was changed forever. That’s when an accountant working for the Montreux tourist office organised a jazz festival that woke the town from its deep slumber. More than that, the jazz festival quickly made Montreux a permanent fixture of the international music scene and transformed it into both a playground and a place of pilgrimage for jazz icons, pop stars, and rock gods alike.
The mastermind behind it was Claude Nobs and far from being a dull number-cruncher, he proved that accountants could be imaginative and lead exciting lives. An avid and deeply knowledgeable fan of African American music who was known for blowing a little bit of blues harmonica on the side, Nobs was a happy-go-lucky drifter originally from Montreux who trained to be a chef but seemed unable to find his place or true calling in society. But by putting on the first Montreux jazz festival, he discovered a world where he would eventually become a king. He proved to be wildly ambitious, imaginative, tenacious, and highly resourceful and those qualities allied to his charismatic, charming, and slightly eccentric personality helped the Montreux Jazz Festival become a hugely successful international phenomenon. 56 years later, it is still going strong.
Nobs, who was amusingly dubbed “the Pope of Rock” in his native Switzerland, is the focus of writer/director Oliver Murray’s superlative new mini-series documentary, They All Came Out To Montreux, which takes its title from the heavy rock group Deep Purple’s iconic song ‘Smoke On The Water’: a track, incidentally, which immortalised Nobs (dubbed “Funky Claude”) and described how the Montreux casino was destroyed by fire when a fan set off a flare gun at a Frank Zappa festival gig in 1971.
With his three previous documentaries, all about musicians, Murray showed great skill as a storyteller. He impressed on his debut film, 2019’s award-winning The Quiet One, which focused on the life of ex-Rolling Stone Bill Wyman. After that, Murray brought London’s jazz world vividly to life in 2020’s Ronnie’s, an insightful portrait of jazz saxophonist Ronnie Scott and his iconic Soho jazz club. More recently, Murray directed another Stones-related doc: 2022’s My Life As A Rolling Stone – Keith Richards which garnered rave reviews. But as good as those previous films undoubtedly are, Murray has ascended to a higher plane with the brilliant They All Came Out To Montreux, which is executively produced by the jazz legend and uber-producer Quincy Jones, who also appears in the film and describes Montreux as “the Rolls Royce of festivals.”
Murray was certainly aided in his endeavour by being given free rein to explore the deep treasure trove that is the Montreux Jazz Festival archives, a humongous repository purportedly containing over 11,000 hours of concert footage and which has been recognised by Unesco World Heritage for its “cultural significance and importance to modern musical history.”
Among the artists whose performances were exhumed from the archives and feature in the documentary are Aretha Franklin – pictured left at Montreux in her early ‘70s pomp – alongside revered fellow 20th-century icons like Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley, Nina Simone, Marvin Gaye, Miles Davis, and Ray Charles; and from more modern times, we get glimpses of Prince, Alicia Keys, and Wyclef Jean.
Director Murray also allows us a peep behind the curtain with some backstage, behind-the-scenes footage, which gives the viewer an intimate fly-on-the-wall perspective.
“Montreux Jazz Festival was like a laboratory where people created alchemy to create miracles and blessings before your eyes,” states Mexican rock deity Carlos Santana in the film. For the Brazilian singer/songwriter Gilberto Gil, though, Montreux is not a mystical place but rather “a cultural embassy, a huge melting pot,” a description that alludes to the panoramic sweep of the festival’s musical and cultural diversity.
Certainly, Montreux was – and still is – a special place for music, and at the centre of it all, bringing all the different musical flavors together is the irrepressible figure of Claude Nobs. Though he died in a tragic skiing accident in 2013, his pioneering spirit and rich legacy live on.
Q&A with writer/director Oliver Murray:
Tell us about the background story of your involvement in the documentary.
In 2019 I had just finished a documentary on Ronnie Scott’s jazz club and I was looking to make my first TV series. Up until then, I had been making feature films which was always the ambition but I felt I was missing out on this explosion of great TV production we have seen in recent years. So I started to look for a story that works across the length of a mini-series and I felt as though the evolution of the Montreux Jazz Festival was it. The festival’s archive of music performances is truly astounding. I was turned on to it by Bill Wyman. He played there with Muddy Waters and Buddy Guy in the ‘70s and suggested that if I could crack the access – no easy feat – I would be working with the best technical recordings of the greatest musicians of the 20th century. When you take into account the historical and cultural context of the ‘60s, musicians sharing the stage and the nuances of festival founder Claude Nob’s life, a feature film wasn’t going to contain all that without rushing the narrative or cutting the music too short. So off the back of some previous success in the music documentary space and the backing of Quincy Jones, who was the festival’s creative director in the 1990s, I was given the keys to something very very special.
Why was the Montreux Jazz Festival such an attractive proposition for American musicians, particularly African American ones, during the late 1960s and early ’70s?
When the Montreux Jazz Festival started at the end of the 1960s it provided a unique platform for American musicians, especially African American ones, to showcase their talent in Europe, collaborate with other artists, and find an escape from the racial challenges they faced at home in the United States. Plus it offered them a chance to have their music and artistry repeatedly celebrated and appreciated on a global scale because Claude Nobs was recording every performance with the best possible technology and holding them in the archives. You have to remember that very few musicians ever got the chance to film a live show and even fewer got their performances archived so carefully for future generations.
Why is the Montreux Jazz Festival special as a music event?
Because of the close proximity the musicians had to the audience and each other. Of course, they play their own gigs but the really exciting part of the festival for Claude and the other organisers was that over the course of the few days that people were there, it was likely that the musicians would jump on stage with each other for jam sessions. You got some remarkable collaborations. The atmosphere and picturesque setting of Montreux shouldn’t be understated as a massive part of the allure. Situated on the shores of Lake Geneva at the foot of the Alps, the festival feels like you’ve gone to another land – a kind of musical Mecca where the setting, the hospitality, the production values, and of course the music is unique and world-class.
What kinds of production challenges did you face in making the film?
The Pandemic, simply put. I couldn’t leave my house for most of the production. The whole team worked remotely between London, Paris, Montreux, New York, LA, and Sydney. It seems more commonplace now to work remotely but at the time this felt like a mountain to climb. Psychologically it was a challenging adjustment too. I made the show in isolation from everybody with online access to the archives. The musicians and archive of Claude were my company. It was an amazing experience but I don’t think I’d volunteer to do it again. There was of course a huge amount of work to do around the rights and clearances of the music and historical footage. I am hugely grateful for the production team’s herculean effort on that front and to the musicians, managers, and estates that were so generous with their support for the project.
They All Came Down To Montreux is not just a story of a jazz festival but it’s also a vivid portrait of a unique individual. In your estimation, what sort of man was its founder, Claude Nobs?
Claude is the archetypal kid with a dream. He brought the whole world to his little hometown of Montreux. He had a passion for music and a passion for people that made him stand out in such a unique way. Claude’s genuine care and support for musicians fostered strong relationships and loyalty. But I think he could have been difficult and I wouldn’t have liked to have been someone who had to say no to him. I don’t think Claude could exist in today’s world. The music industry has tightened up into a business and you just can’t run things his way anymore.
Keith Richards described Nobs as “an oasis of culture” while Carlos Santana likened him to Merlin, so how did a former chef and accountant for the Montreux tourist office manage to transform a small festival in a sleepy Swiss lakeside town into an international phenomenon?
Well, that’s the story of the Montreux Jazz Festival. He started a small music event and built on it year-on-year until it had expanded into a world-class meeting of the best musicians on the planet. Claude was a visionary who constantly sought to push boundaries and expand the horizons of the Montreux Jazz Festival. He introduced diverse musical styles, embraced new technologies, and incorporated cultural elements beyond just music. Many people I spoke to about him called him Claude “Nothing Is Impossible” Nobs.
What special skills or qualities did Nobs possess that enabled him to lure superstars to Montreux and helped him to quickly make an indelible mark in the music industry?
Sadly, I never met the man because he died in 2013. He exists for me as a composite of all the archive material I’ve trawled through but I’m sure of a couple of things. Firstly, he loved music and he loved his hometown, even when it didn’t always love him back. He combined these twin passions into a perfect job, so I think that the old cachet of doing something you love and you’ll never work a day in your life is true. His love for what he did was so authentic that people worked for him because they wanted to be a part of something truly special. That authenticity was what earned the trust of the musicians. He was driven single-mindedly to put on the best concerts and he had a fantastic team behind him that worked out the logistics and the finance. He was the figurehead for a very special organisation.
If you could have interviewed him for the film, what questions would you have asked him?
I really feel that I left it all out there on the field as they say but I would probably ask him about the technology side of his passion. The archives are part of the UNESCO-recognised collections now and the University of Lausanne is conducting some amazing experiments with the material that are quite mind-blowing, printing a Miles Davis show as NDA for example, and sending it to space to see how it survives up there!
Were there any surprising discoveries about Claude or the festival that you uncovered in making the film?
I was surprised how much investment had gone into the maintenance of the archive. I knew it was special and therefore it would be looked after well but their timeline for how the material is going to be stored and copied is not just one generation ahead. It’s a 1000-year-long project!
How much of a different approach to storytelling is required in making a documentary series as opposed to a one-off film?
It’s a great question but a hard one to answer succinctly. This is a mini-series so it’s not strictly a traditional series complete with a cold start and a cliffhanger ending to each episode. It’s a story in three parts and the music is showcased as a main event, not just an illustration of Claude’s journey. Interestingly there are ongoing discussions about a 90-minute film version of the series which would be an interesting challenge – what music do you cut and how do you reshape the story into something that feels like a progression of more movie-like moments? The exciting thing in this age of ‘content’ creation is that it doesn’t really matter what form it takes. People want strong stories beautifully told for the big, small and handheld screens.
How would you describe the process of making a documentary from start to finish?
It all starts with paper and a pen. Some people still think docs don’t get written before we make them and it’s not true, not in my case anyway. I read everything I can on the subject and then the interviews start asap so I can hone in on the characters that are going to narrate the journey. Some interviewees are harder to pin down than others so you keep the door open as long as possible to include them. Then in the case of a music doc, I start to punctuate the audio interviews with key music performances. The result is essentially a podcast on the subject. Now I’ll start to pull in film archive to build up the world the story takes place in. I’ll do this with archive researchers and the editor, my key collaborator. The aim is to tell the story visually and break away from the audio narration as much as possible, cutting the elements of the audio you don’t need until you’re left with a perfect balance of sound and image. At the end of the day, I’m a filmmaker, not a journalist so I want to create a moving experience for the audience as well as something informative and detailed. Finally, I work very closely with a composer on the score. It’s a huge part of the storytelling and this last phase can make or break the whole production. Paul Englishby, who I’ve collaborated with on the series, did a fantastic job.
Over the years, Claude Nobs had assembled over a staggering 11,000 hours of concert footage – obviously, you couldn’t view every performance so how did you decide which concert footage to use in the film?
I started by researching which shows were Claude’s favourite. As this was his story it seems correct to think about how he would curate the history of the festival. Then I used personal taste to whittle that down to a manageable list of performances that would support the story best.
Quincy Jones (pictured right with Claude Nobs) is the series’ executive producer; how did he get involved and what did he contribute to that role?
Quincy’s involvement opens doors that not many other people can open. For a start, it required his blessing to go ahead and create the series in the first place because of his love for Claude and his care over the festival’s legacy. Then his attachment was a seal of approval that made a number of the contributors comfortable to take part in the series.
Tell us about Paul Englishby, who wrote the striking original music score…what was the brief you gave him for the background music?
What Paul did was really hard to pull off. He had to set the tone of the series, support the flow of the story, but without the score being too front and centre. He had to move from one performance to the next with key and tempo changes that wouldn’t distract from the scene and reflect the chronology but without it becoming too on the nose stylistically. I think he did a lovely job.
You had made three prior music docs before They All Came Down To Montreux (about Bill Wyman, Ronnie Scott and Keith Richards); was there anything you learned from working on those three projects that helped prepare you for the Montreux series?
Technically I made this before working on My Life As A Rolling Stone and it had to wait a while to find its home with a UK broadcaster. I was very lucky that my first three projects – The Quiet One, Ronnie’s, and They All Came Out To Montreux – ran back to back for me and I look at them like a trilogy. Three kids with a dream to somehow make a life for themselves in music. They’re very different people but the drive is the same. The message of their story is to follow your dreams and take some risks, so I try to take that approach to my own work.
This is your fourth music-focused documentary – where do you go from here in terms of your next project? Are you staying with music or looking further afield?
I’ve actually got music-focused documentaries 5 and 6 in the can! They’re waiting to be released in the early autumn. Sadly, I can’t talk about either of them but they were both stories I was offered to direct and I was not about to turn either of them down. I’m sure you’ll see why later in the year.
You’ve made two well-received documentary portraits of Bill Wyman and Keith Richards – are there likely to be any further Stones’ related projects in the future?
Who knows? I’d work with The Stones anytime, anywhere. Their story is still evolving even after 60 years.
Finally, Oliver, what was the highlight for you in making They All Came Out To Montreux?
Heading up the mountains above Montreux to Claude’s cabin in a little cable car a day after travel restrictions eased enough to get onto a plane. It’s great to think that this summer the world is back open for business and all the festivals around the world are back to full strength. Live music took such a huge hit but watching the sun coming up over Lake Geneva and thinking about the crowds making a pilgrimage to see such spectacular shows is exciting.
They All Came Down To Montreux will premier on Friday 16th June via BBC Four at 10.15 pm and will also be available to stream on the BBC iPlayer