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Montreux Jazz Festival Founder Claude Nobs Dies at 76

Claude Nobs - P 2013
Getty Images

He brought all manner of legendary musicians to the Swiss event since its inception in 1967 and got a famous shout-out from Deep Purple in "Smoke on the Water."

Claude Nobs, the founder of the famed Montreux Jazz Festival, who was immortalized by Deep Purple in their 1972 hit "Smoke on the Water," has died. He was 76.

Nobs, a native of Montreux, died Thursday after sustaining injuries from a fall while cross-country skiing nearby on Christmas Eve, the festival's website reported. He had been in a coma since Christmas day.

"You left us by surprise as if to remind us once more, that in life as in music, each great performance could be the last one even if the show must go on," a statement on the site said.

The Swiss jazz festival began at the old Montreux Casino in June 1967. It soon opened things up to artists of other genres, and today the event, which now takes place on the shores of Lake Geneva, lasts about two weeks and attracts more than 200,000 people each year.

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"There is something of a tradition that existed here in the old days when Stravinsky stayed here," Nobs told Billboard magazine in a 1996 interview. "He must have felt a kind of freedom of thinking -- and a sense of time -- which is not like the pressure of the big cities. You know we have no curfew (at the festival). We have endless concerts sometimes."

Among those who were featured at Montreux were Keith Jarrett, Miles Davis, Santana, B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Eric Clapton, Led Zeppelin, Van Morrison, Herbie Hancock, Prince and Pink Floyd.

"I'm using a kind of silly way to explain it, but if you come to Switzerland, you can buy a plastic watch, a wooden watch, a stone watch, a gold watch, a platinum watch. They are all called watches. And, for me, the festival is very much like this," he told Billboard. "We call it jazz to give it a quality name for music, and you have different styles of music: wooden music, steel music, platinum music. The heart of the watch is the movement, and it's the same thing with music."

Nobs started out as a director of Montreux's tourism office. He put together some blues events in 1963, then helped launch the Golden Rose television festival in the city. He co-promoted a live show with Britain's ITV network that featured The Rolling Stones, Petula Clark and French pop star Adamo.

"I nearly had to drag people off the promenade by the casino to see the show. It was 1964, and people [here] had no clue who the Stones were," Nobs recalled.  

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In 1966, during a trip to New York, he walked into Atlantic Records' offices on Broadway and, without an appointment, asked to meet with producer and executive Nesuhi Ertegun. "He greeted me in Swiss German, and there was an instant connection," Nobs recalled.

Ertegun and his brother Ahmet helped Nobs launch the festival with Swiss pianist Geo Voumard and journalist Rene Langel.

Nobs, who played the harmonica, later served as director of the Swiss branch of the Warner, Elektra and Atlantic labels.

The Montreux Casino burned down in December 1971 during a performance by Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention. During the fire, caused by someone in the audience shooting a flare gun at the ceiling, Nobs rushed in to save several young concert-goers.

In "Smoke on the Water," Deep Purple -- who were in town to record their Machine Head album, on which the song appears -- referred to Nobs in the lyric, "Funky Claude was running in and out, pulling kids out the ground." Nobs has his picture on the liner artwork of the album. 

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