By Mike Zwerin
The Montreux Jazz Festival presents big-ticket acts like Alice Cooper, Kraftwerk, Crosby, Stills, and Nash, Audioslave, and Elvis Costello in the prestigious Auditorium Stravinski and Miles Davis Hall. Guess where most of the jazz musicians play. In the casino of course, right next to where people smoke, drink, gamble, and carouse - well, not quite, but the slightly shady location can be seen as metaphorical.
Jazz is literally small change here on the Swiss Riviera. Before you can consume anything, you have to change your nice hard Swiss francs into the festival’s currency called jazz. Goods and services and eats and drinks sold in the booths lining the lakeside path from the Congress Center to the casino are priced in jazz.
The exchange is on a par, one for one, but the jazz is a decidedly soft currency. Since there are no jazz cents, the prices were obviously rounded up when they were converted from francs. It’s a bit bloated. And there are big “WE DO NOT TAKE BACK JAZZ" signs on the walls of the little exchange booths. Talk about a metaphor. Who wants yesterday’s jazz?
A fan is put on the defensive. Jazz the music is a “very sophisticated, very urban sort of entertainment," as Evan Eisenberg writes in his book “The Recording Angel." “Its audience, white and black, suspected that it was something remarkable, with a tincture of the demonic or the angelic that set it apart from all entertainment previously known." It might have been better to call the money “pop." The festival has been going the way of pop and rock for decades anyway. Since pop music is basically petrified jazz, it tends to be more stable, and a currency named pop would have sounded better. You could buy beer at four pops a pop.
The organizers explained that jazz the currency was introduced some years ago when some concessionaries were thought to be hiding Swiss franc profits from the authorities, and that making the jazz convertible would have defeated the purpose. Possibly. The fact, however, remains that only really poor countries have currencies that are not convertible. If you should end up with a pocketful of jazz when you go home, there is nothing to do but throw it in the rubbish.
Be all of that as it may, as many as nine acts a night perform in the three major venues for 16 days. It was a bit like being on a film set; a lot of energy, money, and experience being invested over a short period of time. Well known for its technical prowess, the Montreux festival can be counted on for good sound, lighting, and production. The audience ambiance is usually excellent. So there was no excuse for Crosby, Stills, and Nash, who were, let’s say, disturbing. They had a good band behind them, but they were shaky, their time and intonation were off, and it sounded as though their once sophisticated harmonies had been dumbed-down. To begin with, of course, you missed Neil Young. Mostly, it was disturbing to hear anthems of our youth like “Marrakesh Express" turn out to be pompous, middle-aged camp.
There were free outdoor concerts, and the Central Washington University Jazz Band played with precision and verve one rainy afternoon in the Parc Vernex (it rained a lot). College students play better and better. The big band seems to be evolving into a classical formation, similar to a chamber orchestra. Listening to so many sounds day after day, they begin to meld into one amorphous blob. Only the worst and the best stays with you.
The best included Steve Earle in the Auditorium Stravinski, Zap Mama in Miles Davis Hall, and Steps Ahead, Marianne Faithfull and Bobby McFerrin in the casino. Supported by Lew Soloff’s trumpet, Faithfull sang the inventive assortment of songs associated with her with conviction and stamina (although she fell down at the end, just before “Broken English.") McFerrin, possibly the coolest one-man band of all time, sat in a straight-backed chair on a bare stage with dreadlocks and a t-shirt, singing sophisticated combinations of melodies, harmonies, and bass lines simultaneously; slapping the percussion on his chest. It was an epiphany of self-sufficiency worthy of Raahsan Roland Kirk or Glenn Gould.
Faithfull and McFerrin were worth the trip to Montreux all by themselves, so in retrospect it may have been a bit quaint – possibly even paranoid - to have gotten so worked-up about the name. We should be beyond all of that by now. Jazz has become “America’s classical music," although that too has come to sound a bit quaint.
Still, staging Alice Cooper at a jazz festival is something like eating a quarter-pounder in Fauchons. At the very least, it’s bad karma. Brother, can you spare a jazz?