Dave Chappelle made history in St. Helena.
The foul-mouthed comedian took over the Charles Krug Winery for the first Blue Note Jazz Festival in Napa Valley on Friday, July 29, bringing together a motley crew of artists to the Black Radio Stage for a jam session that featured sax solos, a few jokes and even some freestyle rap duets.
“Ladies and gentlemen, it will be a great memory tonight. The first night the Blue Note has ever done a jazz festival in Napa Valley,” said Chappelle, who seemed eager to put the recent controversy surrounding his solo standup shows and Netflix special “The Closer” aside for the weekend. “Get ready to get your teeth good and purple, motherf—ers, we havin’ some wine tonight.”
Taking the stage about 15 minutes late for Friday’s all-star closing set, Chappelle and the musical collective Dinner Party — featuring festival ringmaster and pianist Robert Glasper, tenor saxophonist Kamasi Washington, keyboardist and producer Terrace Martin — brought thousands of festivalgoers to their feet for a nearly two-hour set.
Telling the crowd that he finds himself with his pinky out when he drinks and generally poking fun at Wine Country’s posh and proper reputation, Chappelle rapped to the beat of Notorious BIG’s 1995 classic, “Get Money” and proclaimed it was the “first time Northern Cali seen so many Blacks around.” He then jokingly renamed the town “Nappy,” sparking uproarious laughter among the intergenerational, diverse crowd.
Surprise guests during the set included rappers Yasiin Bey (also known as Mos Def) and Talib Kweli, comedian Kat Williams, and trumpeter Christian “Chief Adjuah” Scott for what felt like a preview for the weekend, as everyone except Williams is scheduled to hit one of the outdoor festival’s three stages. Even the rest of the rhythm section — bassist Derrick Hodge and drummer Chris “Daddy” Dave, who were part of Glasper’s classic Robert Glasper Experiment lineup — would be leading their own bands over the three-day festival.
“There’s no place I’d rather be,” Chappelle said. “This stage is populated by virtuosos.”
Calling out the last star of the night, he introduced Snoop Dogg as “a miracle of culture” — “the same man who rapped ‘bitches ain’t s—’ (and) has also been on ‘Sesame Street.’ ”
Snoop, who performed with his supergroup Mount Westmore at the BottleRock Napa Valley festival in May, ran through a selection of his hits that spanned the ’90s and early aughts, from “Nuthin’ but a G Thang” and “Gin and Juice” to “Drop It Like It’s Hot” interspersed with Dinner Party’s masterful jazz beats .
“I like this jazzy s—,” he proclaimed.
The 161-year-old Charles Krug Winery was transformed into a 21st century music festival setting, featuring two intimate stages — Blue Note Napa Stage and Garden Stage — in addition to the phone-free Black Radio Stage, where festivalgoers are expected to place their smartphones in Yondr pouches, a standard procedure for Chappelle events. There were also elevated viewing sections, indoor Instagram-ready backdrops and several merchandise booths complete with branded festival gear, amid the Napa Valley food and wine options patrons have come to expect from Wine Country events.
Not quite the level of BottleRock, which sees more than 100,000 attendees, Blue Note cultivated a relaxed and easygoing atmosphere, with plenty of room for fans to spread out throughout the winery. That vibe extended to the festival’s schedule set times, which seemed only a loose suggestion as to when artists were to hit the stage.
As expected for a new festival, there were other logistical hiccups, including a disorderly parking lot where it took some patrons up to an hour to exit the compound.
Still, opening day was decidedly a creative, live event success.
“It’s like a dream,” Washington told The Chronicle backstage after his set on the main Black Radio stage. “I told Rob this is the dream lineup for every musician who really loves music. It’s, like, ‘Wow, that’s a lot of music in one place.’ So it’s an honor to be here.”
Earlier in the evening, the audience was treated to the tunes of Chaka Khan, Kenny Garrett, Alex Isley and Madlib, among others.
After successfully presenting shows at Charles Krug Winery for the past few years, Blue Note Entertainment President Steven Bensusan said he saw an opportunity to fully utilize the property for an elevated fan and artist experience.
In addition to the three musical stages, the artists’ grounds tucked behind the winery’s trees featured amusement park-like amenities such as cornhole, a pingpong table, a side-by-side basketball challenge and even a half-court basketball setup.
“We wanted to create a homey environment for the artists backstage and their bands, where everybody’s hanging out with each other,” Bensusan explained, noting that many of the festival’s acts have previously gigged together and may have even been classmates at one point. The goal was to provide an opportunity for artists and their families to reunite, he said.
That sense of camaraderie was evident on stage too, with Washington offering a guest solo on Khan’s Prince-penned 1984 smash hit “I Feel for You” when the diva took to the Black Radio Stage just as the sun began to set.
“It’s very exciting to people who’ve grown up listening to Robert Glasper now adding their own thing to it and taking it to a new place,” Blue Note Records President Don Was told The Chronicle.
While Blue Note Entertainment and Blue Note Records are unaffiliated, Was celebrated the fact that his label’s acts were well represented at the festival in performances by such artists as Domi & JD Beck, bassist/producer Derrick Hodge and tenor saxophonist Marcus Strickland.
“It’s an incredible validation for all of these artists that you can actually have a whole festival with this kind of stuff that 10 years ago was fringe music,” Was said. “It’s a very big turning point.”
Indeed, Chappelle made sure the crowd knew that “we are all witnesses to history.”
“This was the first night… and we are the ones that did it,” he said. “Thank you very much. Let the festival begin.”
The Blue Note Jazz Festival Napa Valley continues through Sunday, July 31, with scheduled appearances by Thundercat, Flying Lotus, Corinne Bailey Rae, Maxwell and more.
Freelance writer Yoshi Kato contributed to this story.