Montreux: Half a Century of Jazz in Switzerland

Photo: c2014_ffjm-marc_ducres
I recall when I turned 50. I wasn’t impressed with my reaching five decades on Planet Earth, yet it was nonetheless something to ponder. No matter what your perspective on getting older, 50 is a milestone. Though Montreux Switzerland has roots dating to Roman times and was first mentioned in 1215, this small village of fewer than 30,000 people hosts one of the premiere music festivals in the world - the Montreux Jazz Festival. MJF is certainly the most scenic music festival, its postcard views of Lake Geneva out across to the Alps is breathtaking in every season. Turning 50 is a reason to celebrate Switzerland’s iconic jazz festival.
The Festival runs July 1 – 16th and uses 15 different venues - intimate classic jazz rooms, to larger stages for traditional performances to a host of free concerts and workshops, some even outdoors. But don’t let the word “jazz” throw you.  Sure, the early days saw legendary performers like Ella Fitzgerald, improvisational piano guru Keith Jarrett, Etta James, Chick Corea, Spyro Gyra, even Jonny Cash, Nina Simone, Fats Domino, Irish pop group The Coors, and countless others. Festival 2016 goes beyond jazz to become a celebration of the arts. The line up for 2016 includes Herbie Hancock, to Buddy Guy, but also ZZ Top, Slayer, and European groups large and small like African Acid is the Future, to hip hop, saxophonist Charles Lloyd, to guitarist Bireli Lagrene, and even DJ Shadow. There is, literally, something for everyone.

There are a number of hotels in the area and I highly recommend the LeFairmont Montreux Palace, with its waterfront setting and balconies that open up to the lake. I stayed on the 6th floor and the views, hospitality and sunsets are magnificent. Directly across the street is their lawn, one which has bronze jazz figures strewn throughout, and it’s an easy walking distance from the train so you don’t need a car assuming you fly into Geneva or Zurich.

The views from the 6th Floor
The sound of your heels on the marble floor telegraphs that you have arrived at Le Fairmont, as if the bright yellow awnings weren’t a clue. The Fairmont is at once opulent yet comfortable, refined but lived in. It has been a hotel its entire life since it opened in 1906 with the exception of being used as a hospital during both Word Wars. What’s striking about the Fairmont is that the hallways seem unreasonably wide, but this was common at the time when women wore barrel-shaped hoop skirts and women passing in a narrow hallway was simply not acceptable, nor easy. Of the 236 rooms, most offer a bathtub and separate shower and most rooms were refurbished in 2011 reflecting a slightly 1950s Moderne style. 

Along the Montreux waterfront
There are many original doors and windows from the old days with original brass fittings and lamps, chandeliers and sconces that should not be missed. On the way to the spa for example along a corridor you would normally pass by are a collections of wonderful old photos of the hotel and Montreux from the early 1900s. The original entrance to the hotel is now a parking lot entrance and the car rental service there may not know their place in history. Three restaurants are on site like the Jazz Café, and MP’s Bar & Grill, which have forgone the formality of previous years, instead they reflect a hip, trendy style with cuisine to match. There is also walking path that fronts Lake Geneva, which not only offers artworks along the path, but it’s also populated with a diversity of mature trees from Europe, Japan and Africa. No matter where you stay in Montreux, the city is postcard pretty and the Jazz Festival only adds to the allure of this ideal Swiss town.

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