Blue Note Jazz Fest Napa Exhibits ‘Black Radio’ Curatorial Vibe

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The all-star collective Dinner Party celebrates backstage at Blue Note Jazz Fest Napa. From left: Terrace Martin, Snoop Dogg, Talib Kweli, Dave Chappell, Robert Glasper, Kamasi Washington, Chris Dave and Derrick Hodge.

(Photo: Mathieu Bitton)

The drive up to the Blue Note Jazz Fest Napa on the last weekend of July, through winding roads and sunbaked hills, was an experience unto itself. The asphalt pathways are lined with neat green rows of grapevines stretching out towards the horizon, the occasional sign for roadside strawberries, wine tastings, puppies or antique olive trees, and silence (phone reception was spotty, and many of the Bay Area radio stations disintegrated into static). The setting, the Charles Krug Winery in St. Helena, California, gave the impression of an oasis, shaded by what appeared to be ancient walnut trees. Wine, as one might imagine, was plentiful. And the multigenerational lineup on the three stages, which encompassed Chaka Khan, Corrine Bailey Rae, Madlib, Alex Isley, and the all-star collective Dinner Party with Terrace Martin and Kamasi Washington, served as a testament to the enduring influence of jazz on Black popular music (arguably the thesis behind festival curator Robert Glasper’s Black Radio album series) and what jazz will become in the future.

Chief Adjuah previously performed under the stage name Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah. He shared with his Sunday afternoon audience that his new name reflects his coronation as Chieftain of the Xodokan Nation, one of the Black Tribes of New Orleans. His set was interwoven with powerful liturgical voicing, blues, crackling percussion and history. Clad in a Def Leppard T-shirt, he played his famed horn, as well as a new bowed instrument of his own creation called the Adjuah bow, an electric instrument derived from the traditional West African kora and n’goni. Adjuah said that he was aiming “to seed new instruments for the 21st century … [so that] children where I’m from, New Orleans” can play music connected to their heritage. After then launching into a sparkling rendition of “West Of The West” from his album Stretch Music, he furthered that the first jazz record was recorded in 1917 and as we “crossed into the second century” of this music, this moment is primed for a reevaluation of what the music is and what it is to become. Perhaps in response to the cliché pronouncement that “jazz is dead” (which is often credited to the 1959 film The Cry Of Jazz), Adjuah countered, “We think this music is for life.”

Most of the festival-goers I spoke with were between the ages of 25 and 55, didn’t necessarily identify as straightahead jazz fans and had come from afar: one man from North Carolina, a couple from St. Augustine, two women from New York, one young lady, like myself, from Chicago. Much of the same could be said for the artists. Chief Adjuah hails from New Orleans, fusion combo Butcher Brown from Richmond, Virginia, and Emily King, who performed on Sunday afternoon on the Black Radio main stage, lives in New York. After her set, I mentioned to her that it seemed as though the festival, part of the venerable Blue Note New York’s self-named “Western Expansion,” had patterned itself after Newport as a sort of destination experience. A seasoned tour performer who released her first album, East Side Story, in 2007, she shared that it was her first time in Napa, so it was a destination of sorts for her as well. Her set, featuring stripped-down versions of her signature songs such as “Look At Me Now” and “Georgia On My Mind,” felt like a full-circle moment in the sense that while she’s known for crafting swoon-worthy, distinctively soulful pop/R&B gems (primarily with partner Jeremy Most, who accompanied her at the festival), her performance was quasi-acoustic, a jazz-flavored trio with electric guitar, pedals and keys laying bare her jazz roots.

When we spoke in February 2019, King shared with me that the music deeply shaped her early musical identity. “I grew up listening to Duke Ellington, Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, Ella Fitzgerald, Miles Davis,” she said. “As a child, I was listening to that stuff because my parents were singing it. My parents had a singing group called Kim and Marion, and they sang when my brother and I were young kids, and now they have their own separate creative entities. My dad’s a straightahead jazz musician, and my mom, she does classical music and she’s a composer.” Later that year, I caught King performing with her father on a showcase curated by Quincy Jones at The Shed in Manhattan.

The Blue Note Jazz Fest Napa was primarily curated by Robert Glasper, who holds an annual month-long residency each October at The Note in New York. A good number of artists who sit in during his genre-blending residency, including Grammy awardees Ledisi and Isaiah Sharkey, also took the stage at Napa. Other artists were featured on Glasper’s most recent album, Black Radio III (rapper D Smoke, for instance in featured on Glasper’s recent single “Shine”), but the through-line was that most had notably collaborated with the Glasper before.

The resulting curatorial flavor was a de facto Black Radio live, blended with clear nods to the 2005 classic film Dave Chappelle’s Block Party. Chappelle, in fact, hosted the evening sets on the main stage.

Trumpeter Keyon Harrold, who played on Saturday afternoon at the Blue Note Napa stage, told me on Sunday evening, “This place is … magical.” It was his first time at Napa (and at a winery).

“To have people from all backgrounds come and experience the artists, the high level of curation that is here, it’s a beautiful thing,” Harrold continued. “Shout out to Robert Glasper and his whole team for putting this thing together, and the Blue Note and everybody else who dreamed up this baby. It’s like the perfect amount of people, the perfect weather. Everybody has their own name.”

While the headliners (including Chaka Khan, Maxwell, Mos Def and Talib Kweli, Thundercat and Flying Lotus) have name recognition outside of jazz circles, many festival-goers approached Harrold happy to discover some of the more underground or more squarely jazz-oriented artists. “Just seeing that and engaging with the people is a beautiful thing,” he exclaimed. “And this being the first big festival like this after COVID is super-cool.”

From the artist’s perspective, Harrold added that he hoped the event’s impact would go well beyond the festival weekend. “Backstage is a melting pot of all the generations. You’ve got James Poyser ,who we used to listen to as a producer, as an artist with D’Angelo. Lauryn Hill, Common. My first professional gig was working with Common and James Poyser, an inspiration on Like Water For Chocolate. You got DJ Jazzy Jeff walking around, then you got Robert Glasper, but then you got Elena Pinderhughes, who’s super-young, but super-amazing. Then, you got Christian Scott and so many amazing people walking around, Derek Hines, Chris “Daddy” Dave. Dead Prez walking around the back, and Nas and so many people, and this melting pot of culture is something special. I can only imagine what this is going to turn to next, the collaborations that are coming away from just the backstage chats.” DB



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