When first hearing about the inaugural Blue Note Jazz Festival—the offspring of Robert Glasper’s annual October residency at Blue Note New York—I was sold immediately. With headliners including Maxwell, Black Star, a daily Glasper & Friends rotation with guests including Goapele, Ledisi and soul music surprises, how could you not be? As anticipation around the festival grew, so did its lineup adding headliners, Chaka Khan and a super closing set from Snoop Dogg, the three-day fun fest was hosted by the one and only, Dave Chappelle.
Friday, July 29th
Arriving on the festival grounds during an oddly humid July day in Napa Valley, California, I was enamored by the outpouring of Black folk walking through the Charles Krug Winery. Treking past the local vendors selling food, copious amounts of wine and other spirits to make it to the main stage—dubbed the Black Radio stage—where no phones were allowed, the beautiful sea of melanated people were laid out on picnic blankets as vocalist Alex Isley kicked off the three-day affair with her enchanting tunes and effortless vibrato.
For those who don’t know, as a descendant of The Isley Brothers, the Marigold singer has a way to entrance her audience with ease. The serenading singer made sure to love on us with “Good & Plenty,” “Love Again” and the fan favorite, “About Him.” R&B is undeniably in great hands if she is one of the leaders of this new wave. As she wrapped her hour-long set, we noticed The Notorious B.I.G.’s son, CJ Wallace, chilling low-key among the attendees snagging the limited pockets of shade through the insufferable heat and fleeting breeze.
As the day went on, we were excited to catch West Coast beat maestro, Madlib. This was when the schooling in the history of Jaylib (J Dilla x Madlib) and Madvillian (MF Doom x Madlib) commenced, an era of hip-hop that went over my head as I was busy indulging in the likes of neo-soul. Don’t think that I don’t enjoy hip-hop, but don’t quiz me either. Hearing my editor-in-chief (who rarely fans out) provide a certain level of insight only a true fan can, due to his personal affinity for the late J Dilla, made the 45-minute set mean even more as Madlib guided the audience through a distinct, sonic journey of acid jazz, funk grooves and original Hip-Hop samples.
After several recent appearances from Chaka Khan—November’s Verzuz against Stephanie Mills and her headlining set at Mary J. Blige’s Strength of a Woman Festival and Summit—the “Sweet Thing” singer had the crowd full of the finest crop of aunties and uncles eating out of the palm of her hand.
Though the latter were in full force, age was only a factor when it came to indulging in the drinks. Gabrielle Union and Dwyane Wade were among those cuddled up, looking as fine as ever. Rapper, Wildchild and son, Miles Brown (Black-ish) and his friend, Philip Solomon (Craig of the Creek) partied the day away alongside the likes of Omar J Dorsey (Queen Sugar), Simone Missick (All Rise, Luke Cage) and husband, Dorian (For Life), Mark Curry, DJ Jazzy Jeff, James Poyser, J. Ivy, Hill Harper, Nas, Baby Rose, Terry Crews, Anthony Anderson, and more.
Closing out the first day of events was Robert Glasper and his Dinner Party crew—essentially a free-flowing musical experience with a rotating daily lineup. Opening night featured Kamasi Washington, Terrace Martin, with Snoop Dogg as the headliner. Of course it was masterfully hosted daily by Dave Chappelle. However, it turned out to be a jam session cypher among friends throwing Yasiin Bey, Talib Kweli, and Katt Williams into the mix as they covered and freestyled over Eric B & Rakim’s “Paid In Full” and Junior M.A.F.I.A.’s “Get Money (Remix).” You can just imagine the hilarity that ensued. This all lead up to The Doggfather hopping out of a stealth black truck, and hitting the stage.
“No disrespect to the wine world; I’m not no R&B singer,” declared Snoop before indulging in homegrown kush and sparking an impromptu, acoustic performance of his hits. As the current owner of Death Row Records captivated the audience with the stripped, live rendition of “Gin & Juice,” Chappelle grabbed the mic with a declaration of his own.
“F**k what’s popping. This festival is about real music,” he exclaimed as the crowd burst into a fit of cheers and applause. Funny enough, someone didn’t particularly like Glasper’s version of a dinner party and even filed a complaint about the lack of a formal “dinner party.” Yeah, we know what you’re thinking, but even that nonsense couldn’t shake the “mellosmoothe” aura filling the air.
Saturday, July 30
Day two began on a somber note as it was announced that Erykah Badu would not be in attendance, “due to direct exposure to the coronavirus and subsequent related symptoms.” Furthermore, this day was the one that felt most like a family reunion, considering many felt it was the first official day of the festival. On this day, I took advantage of the soft life vibe because Napa is not New York. From swaying to the sounds of Thundercat and Flying Lotus to VIBE coordinating the most epic group shot, which wound up being our Festival Szn cover, that needed to be the most stressful part of the day and weekend. There’s no other way you’d ever see BJ The Chicago Kid, Iamsu!, and D Smoke on the same cover as Goapele, Derrick Hodge, Chappelle, and Glasper.
Ahead of the Black Star reunion, this evening’s dinner party included BJ The Chicago Kid covering Al Green’s “Love & Happiness” and D’Angelo’s “Untitled (How Does It Feel)” in a way that made both classics feel brand new. Meanwhile, Chappelle—in his own personal way—tackled The Staple Singers’ “I’ll Take You There” before sharing a hilarious recount of a very real Twitter beef with fake Dave Chappelle and Katt Williams Twitter accounts during the early days of the social platform.
Prior to D Smoke previewing his Sunday set, he joked with me backstage that Robert Glasper sort of sprung the idea of performing at dinner party on him and he was more than eager to oblige. No prep needed.
Glasper was joined by Isaiah Sharkey on guitar and Derrick Hodge on bass with poet J. Ivy performed his Grammy-winning verse from “Never Let Me Down,” which was famously featured on Kanye West’s debut album, The College Dropout.
As night settled in, Black Star took the stage for the long-awaited reunion following the arrival of their second album, No Fear of Time—which dropped back in May. Watching the set from the side stage was an experience in and of itself, momentarily seeing what artists do when they perform. Without their phones to both capture the moment and distract them, fans remained fully engaged in the rare moment as the blue and purple hues illuminating from the stage lit the faces in the crowd. Plus watching Yasiin radiating pure joy, dancing near the end of his set was the true highlight of the night.
Sunday, July 31
The third and final day was the most soulful-centered as Ledisi, Goapele, and Corinne Bailey Rae were all set to perform followed by a headlining set by Maxwell. The day began with a massage—a personal new standard for festivals to follow. Complete with the glow of a new woman, we headed over to witness Emily King, whom I hadn’t heard of prior to her performance.
Being introduced to the softness of her voice was befitting Sunday’s overcast. With Napa finally taking a momentary pause from the heat, King felt like the soundtrack to a sunset, the ones that kiss the sky and serve as a beautiful reminder for the stillness of life. If you enjoy the likes of Amel Larrieux and Norah Jones, luxuriate in Emily King as well.
I first noticed Corinne Bailey Rae while having lunch. She sat across from me in a subtle way where it took a minute to pinpoint how I knew her. Backstage, her eldest daughter “rehearsed” introducing her mom onstage, convincing us that she was actually going to be the one kicking off the British songbird’s set. Naturally, Rae’s performance exuded the embodiment of feeling the sun on your face, wind in your breeze, and soft grass under your feet—a transformative encounter.
Dinner Party was once again a fluid conglomerate of epic proportions, but the star of the evening was Gerald Maxwell Rivera. Fresh from his brief Vegas run following the first half of The Night Tour, Maxwell remains one of the most captivating artists of our time. Dave Chappelle introduced the crooner, speaking on their interactions in the ‘90s before Maxwell’s music career even began. Back when the “Ascension” singer was a restaurant runner, he noticed Chappelle as one of his frequent customers. As Maxwell recalled, Chappelle offered “a new form of comedy not the typical jokes but not uncommon of the day; yet there was a seed of depth & a fearless commentary wrapped in all of the delivery. clearly hinting at a legend in the making!”
“Even in the uncertainty of my future in music, I knew he was going to be someone and I was happy for him and his future,” he added. Though some onlookers were admittedly leery of Maxwell’s set, all angst subsided as the “Sumthin’ Sumthin’” took hold of the sold-out crowd. Moving through his storied discography and throwing in a cover of Heatwave’s “Always and Forever,” I was just as fascinated and engulfed as the grandmother who was dancing next to me.
Later, Robert Glasper and Dave Chappelle joined Maxwell onstage in an effort to bask in the moment and keep the party going—despite the attempts for the 11 p.m. noise ordinance to remain in effect. Once the enforcers realized that Chappelle gave not one f**k about the ordinance, the newly-formed trio wrapped up the festival with a final song—Marvin Sapp’s “Never Would Have Made It.” (Though I really thought we were going to turn Napa out with all of us singing “Lift Every Voice And Sing.”) With the gospel hit serving as the official benediction, that was a wrap on the first Blue Note Jazz Festival in Napa, California. Emotions were bittersweet as we all bid our farewells, encapsulating final moments before we left the grounds. Being at the festival evoked the same feeling I get from the song that powered this recap—Tank and The Bangas’ single, “Black Folk.”
As lead singer goes through all of the beautiful, historic, comical, and familiar parts of the Black experience, she closed it out by saying, “I love me some Black folk/For they are the people that were made from the darkest parts of the sky.” That’s what the Blue Note Jazz Festival was like—years of musical history and our ancestors’ wildest dreams rolled into one.