there are three great historical world-class jazz promoters whose paths i have been fortunate to have crossed: George Wein of the Newport Jazz Festivals, the late Norman Granz of Jazz At The Philharmonics, and the recently passed CLAUDE NOBS the founder of the Montreux Jazz Festival.
not too far from Montreux another Swiss musical giant, GEORGE GRUNTZ, left us.
Granz’s fame began in a big town, San Francisco. but Wein & Nobs took their wares to swank sleepy villages and made them more famous than the towns themselves.
all three loomed large in the imagination of a young jazzer who dreamed of one day meeting them. many years later i actually screwed in enough courage as a neophyte publicist/promoter to ask if i might bring some talent to their venues. i succeeded only with Nobs, whose staff i now realize humored me and allowed me to bring tapes to Montreux. i must have been persistent enough because enventually i was offered employment for the Montreux Jazz Festival, as long as they had an IBM Correcting Selectric typewriter. i was to be their U.S. Correspondent, a new position that was to be created. it never happened.
i befriended Claude’s personal assistant, Sylvie. and…i did get to meet and spend some personal time with the legendary promoter.
while i was not in any way as close as, say Quincy Jones, the very private Claude Nobs, gourmet chef, professonal engineer, allowed me into his sanctum sanctorum, his mountain studio under Montreux.
during one summer sojourn through Europe i dropped into Montreux to visit my then friend Stan Getz who was playng there and who invited me to stop by for a taste. i also happen to have been seeing a woman who lived nearby. Stan liked her as well. one thing led to another and a casual introduction to Claude was made.
i thought that would be that. the next day while sitting in the rear of the Casino watching the rehearsal of my pals in Irakere when two of Nobs’ creative people approached me to ask if i would photograph the presentation of instruments being made to the Cuban band. perhaps Getz set that up. i’ll never know. ”and when you’re finished [and present us with the undeveloped film] Mr. Nobs would like to talk with you,” they added. ”are you available for lunch?” the great one wanted to talk with me!
we met in his spacious office suite overlookng Lak Lemain (Lake Geneva). we walked along the cay to the famous Castle the ground floor of which was a seasonal restaurant serving one thing: lake perch specially prepared midday, only in summer. we sat on the lakeside patio and talked of many things musical and personal. he did seem interested in my business background, MBA, Wall St. career. all very casual. when i mentioned i had an electronics bent he asked if i’d like to see his Montreux setup, in the mountain!
my mind screamed “shit yeah!” but like Oscar Brown, Jr., i was cool. we walked back to the Casino but never made it there as we ducked onto a path which led to his Batcave. there in dimly indirectly lit splendor built right into the rock was equiment i had never even envisioned. ”this,” Nobs explained “is where and how i record everything (emphasis his).” some of the equipment he invented and had built to his specs and, i presume, patented. i knew i was being given a very privileged tour.
the invitation to return for more further consultation came later that Winter 1979. they paid my way to meet with the powers that be including the man himself. we talked for two days. Sylvie took me to lunch in a mountain top chalet with hot rum on the menu. it was one of those dead of winter days when one could sit on the sun-drenched patio, outdoors overlooking the ski-ers. [N.B.: it was Claude Nobs who first fired my interest in cross-country skiing. an accident while participating in the sport eventually was his demise.]
it was there that i got the word that the vaunted position with the MJF was not going to open anytime soon.
i did manage to leave tapes of the late vocalist Joe Lee Wilson and my brother Noel a tenor saxist whose recordings included sidemen Billy Hart, drums, and pianist Fred Hersch.
the vibrantly creative talent that was GEORGE GRUNTZ is gone. at least his physical presence. producer, orchestra leader, composer, pianist, arranger, organizer, the Swiss-born Gruntz was more than all of that: his personna transcended his talent. he directed the Zurich Opera, conducted, with Quincy Jones, the band that re-created some Miles Davis-Gil Evans charts at Montreux with Miles and Wallace Roney, wrote blues operas starring the likes of Sheila Jordan and Renee Manning.
to call his tourng ensembles “all stars” does not even begin cover the topic. his bands drew from the vastness of international jazz. sometimes the only common language was the music itself.
Gruntz was the accompanist of choice for visiting Americans as those “Jazz Icons” videos will attest.
i called him friend. our exchanges were like family reunions. we shared our lives –and loves– and his joix d’vivre. you never saw him sans smiling countenance. our conversatons always picked up where they left off no matter how long the time or distance between.
perhaps the most important thing about George Gruntz vis-a-vis me was the letter i received in 1976 inviting me to be the guest of the Berliner Jazztage, the Berlin Jazz Festival. he had become the Festival’s Musical Director and he liked what i had to say in the pages of Down Beat. my first sojourn to Europe was to be behind the Iron Curtain. indeed, to a city divided by the dreaded Berlin Wall.
i had complete freedom to get all the color for my reportage. with that in mind record company owner Joe Fields and i decided to cross over the Wall into the East. it was scary fun being followed by heavily fortified soldaten. on other occasions i would take verboten photos right under the guards’ –and their dogs’– noses.
in retrospect, i’d have to say that if i didn’t feel that i had a “safe house” under the aegis of Gruntz i might never have had the guts to do that.
there are many recordings still available by the George Gruntz Concert Jazz Band (GGCB) as are those Jazz Icons videos.
Claude Nobs and George Gruntz left town on the same weekend in January 2013. the warmth of the company and the long friendships remain with me.
ⓒ arnold jay smith