Montreux Jazz Festival — Not Your Average Music Festival
by Alex Edel | Middlebury College
Each year towards the end of June a sense of excitement mounts, hotels fill, and the normally quiet Montreux area becomes an epicenter of music. This is not your run of the mill music festival like that of the Swiss Paleo festival or U.S. festivals like Lollapalooza and Coachella. No, this is the Montreux Jazz Festival. Referred to by most locals and frequenters of the festival, as “The Jazz,” the festival is not just enjoyed by locals, but by an average of 230,000 people from all over the world that accumulate to attend the 16 day event. This year was no different.
The Jazz started in 1967 when jazz enthusiast Claude Nobs created the festival while working in a tourism office in Montreux. The first festival lasted only three days, but in just 10 years the concert expanded to a whole 23 days. While the event now lasts just over two weeks, the festival spans over 12 different venues located up and down the banks of Lake Geneva, open to everyone 18 hours per day and employing a staff of 1,400 people. More importantly, the festival features 1,000 musicians for thousands of hours of musical entertainment.
For Margot Jaggy, a student at Fordham University who calls Montreux home, the length and scope of this festival is what sets it apart from festivals in the U.S.
“It’s much longer than festivals in the US, and it’s in a place that you would never expect to have such a big music festival with so many people and such great music,” Jaggy said. “It is also so well handled for such a long period of time. Three days at the Electric Zoo in New York is a mess. They can’t handle three days in that major city, yet this place can. I think that they do an amazing job making it a great time for everybody the whole way through.”
The festival is about more than just the music. For many young people, it serves as a gathering ground, a place to reunite with old friends and make new ones as summer begins. Whether one is sitting on “the hill” listening to bands playing from the outdoor stage, at one of the numerous lakeside bars, or enjoying the more club-like atmosphere of the Montreux Jazz Café, the festival provides a special arena for young people to socialize.
One of the most unique and encouraging parts for the young attendance at the festival is the fact that many of the venues and music are free of charge. In fact, 10 out of the 12 venues feature free music, pointing towards the festival’s emphasis on providing enjoyment for all. Of course, the drinks and tickets to the major concerts are quite expensive, but the majority of the music and entrance to the festival is free. This provides a place for all types of people from all walks of life to come and enjoy the music-filled summer air.
Besides making most of the venues free, the festival organizers also employ hundreds of university-age students to work as anything from bartenders to ticket sellers. By employing mostly young people, even the environment between staff and festival-goers is friendly. Local university student Nicolas Scalbert said he believes this is also what makes the festival unique.
“As people that work there not only work but come to see free concerts and hang out, the general ambiance is very friendly amongst everybody,” Scalbert said.
For those interested in the bigger name artists that are featured at the concert, the Jazz touts an eclectic mix. This year the lineup included Rufus Wainwright, MIA, Lana Del Rey, Bob Dylan, Pitbull, Tony Bennett and many more from around the world. Clearly most of these artists are not jazz musicians, as the festival over the years has started to use jazz as a vault to numerous genres of music.
Playing at either the Miles Davis Hall or the Stravinksi Auditorium, these concerts can be quite pricey, ranging from 90-300 Swiss Francs. This means that most people only choose one or two big artists to see, making those concerts even more special. For the 1,400 people working at The Jazz, their staff badges allow for them to have free access to any and all of the concerts.
Bartender Alex Pleisch said he appreciates this feature of the Jazz.
“My favorite part of the Jazz is the friendly atmosphere, the fact that you can go to the Jazz for free and that you can actually party for free,” Pleisch said. “The whole concept of having the Jazz Café for free for me is the beauty of the festival.”
Now 20 years old and studying architecture at a university in the nearby city of Lausanne, Pleisch has been coming to the festival since he was a child, enjoying the outdoor music and different ethnic food and drink kiosques which line the river. Acknowledging the wide range of adults and children that attend the festival, one can enjoy food ranging from french fries to Pad Thai. One stall even offers several different varieties of tea and provides a small tea lounge where one can escape the hoards of people who usually crowd the walkways.
Amidst the food, laughter and music that make up this 16 day festival, Montreux becomes a sort of oasis away from the trying times that are facing Europe. As students and families gather every year at the Jazz festival, it also becomes a unifying and constant event in many people’s lives.
“Bob Dylan wrote about how time changes, and I really agree with him,” Pleisch said. “Times are changing and right now many things are problematic, but the Jazz is still beautiful.”Alex is a rising Junior at Middlebury College majoring in Political Science and minoring in Film and Media Studies. She grew up in Pacific Palisades, California.