Big things were Napa-ning at this year's Blue Note Jazz Festival in the heart of northern California. At this star-studded gathering of cultural icons, the 2023 theme was exploring the relationship between jazz and hip hop, just in time for the latter's 50th anniversary. The program included a representation of artists who understand the evolution of jazz and are masters of blending genres, hosted by artist-in-residence / award-winning jazz pianist Robert Glasper and comedian Dave Chappelle.
What Is Blue Note Jazz Festival?
Blue Note, which is in its second year, took place at the Silverado Resort with three full days of music and entertainment. As Isa Nazakawa of Okay Player wrote, the talents of those onstage created “a place where Black and African diasporic cultural traditions can be transmitted and transformed… a rip in the fabric of spacetime opened up just to receive the boundless divine sounds bursting forth from Napa Valley.”
The lineup was nothing short of extraordinary. All generations of hip hop were represented, but artists also crossed all genres, allowing the festival to become a symphony of communal experience. With each day headlined by Mary J. Blige, Nas, and Chance the Rapper respectively, Blue Note seemed to fashion itself a spiritual successor to the wild creativity of the Newport Jazz Festival as seen in the 1959 film Jazz on a Summer’s Day, this time suffusing it with the revolutionary and poignant energy of reference-laden hip hop and soul.
Music Legends Honor Many Genres And Black Culture At Blue Note Jazz Festival
Legends took the spotlight in all their glory. George Clinton, whose Parliament-Funkadelic collective formed the basis for an influential form of surreal 1970s funk, appeared on Day One, as did hip hop pioneers De La Soul. World-renowned vocalist and songwriter Bobby McFerrin (of “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” fame) put in a family act with his son Taylor and daughter Madison; all three artists improvised through their allotted time to the audience’s delight. Progressive soul innovator Bilal returned to his jazz roots as he and Lalah Hathaway started scatting with Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Philip Bailey. Talib Kweli, Madlib, Rakim, Gary Clark Jr., and DJ Jazzy Jeff all contributed their distinctive powers of musical storytelling to the celebration.
Mary J. Blige, Chance The Rapper, And Surprise Guests At Blue Note Jazz Festival
Mary J. Blige’s hour-long set showed why she’s earned the moniker “Queen of R&B,” sharing hits from her career of over three decades. “Real Love,” “You Remind Me,” and “Family Affair” all made the cut; the joint was jumping. Meanwhile, Chance the Rapper is in his own 30th year (of life), bringing the enthusiasm of his more youthful early work to new interpretations now that he’s matured into the community leader he was born to be. His own renditions were spellbinding enough, but Chance surprised the crowd with unexpected guests Vic Mensa, with whom he performed “Cocoa Butter Kisses” and Yasiin Bey (formerly known as Mos Def), playing his song “UMI Says.”
Nas: Rap GOAT Salutes Hip Hop's 50th Anniversary At Blue Note Jazz Festival
But truly there’s nothing like seeing Nas in person. The hip hop god took our breath away during his set. Nas is regarded as one of rap's true GOATs, on Billboard's historic Top 10, one of The Source's Top Lyricists of All Time; his work has been preserved in the Library of Congress. He's been nominated for 15 Grammys, winning Best Rap Album in 2021 for King's Disease. Without him, in many ways, hip hop as we know it today would not exist.
Over the years, Nas has shown his versatility and acumen for furthering social discourse. He’s the co-founder of Mass Appeal Records and associate publisher of Mass Appeal magazine. Among his other projects, such as producing and directing acclaimed documentaries like The Last Dance and SMOKE: Marijuana + Black America, he is a partner in one of NYC's most important cultural culinary brands, The Sweet Chick.
Which Artists Performed At Blue Note Jazz Festival And Its VIP After-Parties?
When fans left the outdoor concert area, they were invited to join ticketed nightly after-parties inside the Silverado. These VIP mixers featured DJ Trauma and guests such as “Queen of Bounce” Big Freedia (who also performed on the mainstage on Day One), 9th Wonder, DJ Jazzy Jeff, The Hamilton Mixtape’s award-winning DJ J.Period, Grammy winner Anderson .Paak under his alter ego DJ Pee .Wee (Anderson also performed on the mainstage as part of the duo NxWorries with his co-creator Knxwledge), and DJ Jahi Sundance.
Not counting the surprise acts, the full lineup of artists at Blue Note included: Robert Glasper, Dave Chappelle, Mary J. Blige, Nas, Chance the Rapper, De La Soul, Lalah Hathaway, Terrace Martin, Bilal, Ari Lennox, Cordae, George Clinton, Big Freedia, Talib Kweli, Madlib, BJ the Chicago Kid, NxWorries, Gary Clark Jr., Rakim, DJ Jazzy Jeff, PJ Morton, Soulive, Adam Blackstone, Ghost-Note, Frederic Yonnet, J. Period, Digable Planets, Meshell Ndegeocello, Rapsody, The Soul Rebels, Keyon Harrold, Yussef Dayes, Nicholas Payton, Weedie Braimah and The Hands of Time, Domi and JD Beck, Cory Henry, Bobby McFerrin, Taylor McFerrin, Marcus Gilmore, Derrick Hodge, Mononeon, and Kenneth Whalum.
What Are Team Honeysuckle And Friends Saying About Blue Note Jazz Festival?
Blue Note Jazz Festival provided us with a lot of memories and some new friendships. We asked Honeysuckle staffers and industry notables what their big takeaways were from this phenomenal event.
Bianca Gutierrez, Founder of BStarr Agency and the first Latina dispensary owner in San Francisco’s Mission District
- The location. Being able to enjoy the festival one day and brunch surrounded by vineyards the next.
- Yasiin Bey’s unplanned special appearance with Chance.
- Seeing old friends! It's like a family reunion!
*Editor's Note: Want to learn more about Bianca? Check out her interview here!
Ronit Pinto, Founder and Publisher of Honeysuckle Media
- [I loved the] live accompaniment, live music, live instrumental! When I lived in Detroit and Austin, I used to go listen to live music all the time: jazz, blues, funk mostly (often by myself!). In Detroit, of course, there was a lot of house and electronic music. In New York, it’s been mostly hip hop. Hearing musicians who are MASTERS of their trades is such an enormous treat for my mind, body and ears. A highlight was Robert Glasper’s band - a 5-time Grammy winner and the poets that accompaied some of the sets. And, of course being front row at an fairly intimate (size wise) performance by Nas.
- The after-party with J.Period, DJ Trauma, and DJ Jazzy Jeff was fire.
- The shaded VIP tent with complimentary drinks was a great touch (it was hot AF). I got to chatting it up there with award-winning actor Daniel J. Watts, who’s currently playing Ike Turner in the Broadway musical Tina, based on the life of the late Tina Turner, a performance that earned him a Tony nomination. You may also recognize Daniel from The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and Marvel’s Werewolf By Night. Through research, he became close with Brazilian soccer player Pele, regarded as one of the sport’s greatest figures of all time.
Sam C. Long, Creative Director of Honeysuckle Media
- The Northern Cali / Napa area is stunningly pretty. Every direction you look, there are golden rolling hills, vineyards, and mountains. Every time you looked away from the main stage it was shocking how beautiful the backdrop was.
- Vibes. While it was a festival, it had more “big-ass picnic with a huge stage” vibes. The whole thing was on the smaller scale and that’s pretty charming once you’ve been to a couple mega-fests.
- Every act was 100 incredible artists. Digable Planets, Robert Glasper, and Nas [were] all world class performances. And the crowd was there to sing every word with them. The mix of hip hop and jazz was the perfect blend for a festival in 2023. Appreciation for what came before and an eye towards the sounds of the future.
For upcoming Blue Note Jazz events and festival dates, visit bluenotejazz.com.
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Featured image: Dave Chappelle (center), Robert Glasper (left), and Keyon Harrold (right) onstage at the Blue Note Jazz Festival, Silverado Resort in Napa, CA (C) Sam C. Long / Honeysuckle Media @tissuekulture