Director of Blue Note Programming, Alex Kurland has done it again with the Western expansion of the Blue Note Jazz Festival – this time to Napa, California in a new three-day festival format. With seven clubs in Europe, North, and South America, the Napa Festival has begun an even larger expansion of the organization.
After 12 years with Blue Note, Kurland’s experience as a talent buyer has helped him continue to secure top talent, and the festival event at the Charles Krug Winery in St. Helena, California was no exception. Continuing in his commitment to present the very best of the jazz world—this time sprinkling in some Hip Hop—the event included contributions from artists Robert Glasper, Kamasi Washington, Chaka Khan, Black Star, Thundercat, Flying Lotus, Terrace Martin, Isaiah Sharkey, Ledisi, H.E.R., Corinne Bailey Rae, Maxwell and Snoop Dogg, and many others, hosted by comedian Dave Chapelle.
Foundational artist Robert Glasper and his annual month-long ‘Robtober’ residency at the Blue Note in New York (he is the fourth-ever Artist-in-residence in Blue Note history, following Dizzy Gillespie, Chick Corea, and Chris Botti) ultimately inspired the expansion to Napa, following Blue Note’s desire to create something special to celebrate the music industry’s reopening post-pandemic. “We had the resources and the opportunity in the Napa market to be able to present this kind of festival,” says Kurland. He added that Glasper was really the secret to Napa being “a true hyper concentration of artistry and live performances that are a reflection of Robert because—being the artist in residence—we programmed a curated jazz festival as if Robert Glasper was a festival—this festival presented that spirit.” Glasper “taught us a lot about the kind of vibe and environment that we want to maintain in general as a venue (…) more as happenings and events rather than just a gig or a date that needs to be filled—great moments that are truly memorable in a very small, super intimate environment. That kind of vibe and experience is something that we're trying to always maintain at the club.”
Napa’s inaugural event included incredible performances by Chaka Khan—with fantastic vocals, stage presence, and an incredible backing band full of driving energy and stellar percussion—and late-night, moody vibes with Kamasi Washington and Mos Def for a deliciously unpredictable string of performances. Hoping for an annual event in Napa moving forward, live music continues at the Blue Note jazz club in Napa, on the first floor of the Napa Opera House (a venue previously owned by City Winery that was scooped up by Blue Note in 2016 as a prelude to further shows on the West Coast).
“The spirit of jazz lives and breathes through a lot of different walks of music,” says Kurland. “I'm always very open and supportive of that. I want to acknowledge that. A lot of extraordinary Hip-Hop artists are coming into the Blue Note, always with a live band, jazzy vibe. A lot of great funky jam bands are coming, all kind of inspired and influenced by jazz. “Jazz is just the heartbeat of everything that we do at the club, but we try to push the limits and go a lot of different routes.” With artists ranging from legendary bassist Dave Holland (Miles Davis, Chick Corea, etc.), to Galactic, Tank and the Bangas and others, he says it’s “very high integrity music.” Supporting the scene and the culture comes first and foremost for Kurland and the team, along with creating an open, freeform kind of space for magic to unfold.
“Curiosity and exploration are core qualities that we see. That's great to witness and observe. It's amazing to be in this position, to observe that across so many different kinds of musicians and how that impacts other worlds of music and how it draws in other worlds of music and influences and inspires other areas of performance and music that you wouldn't necessarily expect - it's very inspiring.”
Blue Note is looking to open clubs in Los Angeles, Miami, and London – provided the partners and circumstances are a match. “We have to maintain quality because that's the purpose of everything we do,” emphasizes Kurland. “It's really the artistic integrity of the programming, of the artistry, and having an environment that feels like home for artists. The festival in Napa—that kind of state of jazz and the culture—it's coming out of the heart and souls of the artists and we're very supportive of that and trying to create opportunities and venues and a business model and community and culture that supports that. That’s very important.” Concludes Kurland, “It feels like a very creative moment. I just feel lucky to be doing this.”
Glasper’s New York residency at the Blue Note in Greenwich Village runs through November 6.