The Grammy and Emmy winner who jams with superstars and legends is this weekend launching the Blue Note Jazz Festival Napa Valley.
Robert Glasper has a lot of friends. So many, that when we speak in mid-July, the virtuoso keyboardist, composer, arranger and producer, who is amidst a European trek, is running into pals left and right.
“I did a show in France a few days ago and Anderson.Paak came through,” Glasper says. “He was in town because he’s opening up for the Red Hot Chili Peppers and they happened to be in France. And then two nights ago, I was in Berlin and H.E.R came and hung out. She was in town opening up for Coldplay. And then last night we’re in Barcelona and Mos Def (Yasiin Bey), came through and jumped on with me because he lives in Barcelona now.”
I ask if he’s the “Questlove of jazz,” a similarly collaborative musician who seems to literally know everyone on the planet (including, of course, Glasper). He just gives a hearty laugh, which makes me laugh and then we’re both laughing. And that cycle of laughter, which really is medicine, goes on pretty much throughout the entirety of our conversation. Fairly quickly, I believe wholeheartedly—much like the White Stripes’ song, and probably like so many others who meet this incredibly charismatic person and performe—that we are going to be friends.
“A word that you would use for Robert is absolutely infectious,” says Glasper’s longtime manager Vincent Bennett. “It’s not just Robert, but the world he creates and it’s not only infectious to audiences and people that love his music, it’s infectious to those guest artists that you see on all the Black Radio records. And it’s infectious to even someone like Dave Chappelle, who keeps coming back to his Blue Note residency every year and celebrities of all sorts. He’s just an infectious guy with infectious music that everybody loves to be around. When Rob walks in the room, he lights it up.”
If an artist’s music is a reflection of their life, then Glasper’s hyper-collaborative approach to music and performance is no different than his hyper-gregarious life which continuously builds upon itself taking his career to extraordinary heights. That translates into four Grammys and nine nominations. Collaborations with thousands, on stages and in studios ranging from Herbie Hancock and Roy Hargrove to Kamasi Washington and Thundercat; from Q-Tip and Slick Rick to Kanye West and Kendrick Lamar; and from Jill Scott to Maxwell to Killer Mike to Reba and far beyond. This while scoring for screens that most recently includes “The Best Man,” Netflix’s “Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty,” a reboot of “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” as well as the song “Letter to the Free,” featured in Ava DuVernay’s documentary “13th,” which in 2017 won an Emmy. (He’s already got the EG of EGOT, but stay tuned).
This weekend, July 29-31, could very well be an apotheosis for Glasper’s extraordinary career. The Blue Note Jazz Festival Napa Valley, which he is hosting, curating, the “artist in residence” of and at the epicenter of the flywheel, is the personification of so much Glasper’s worked hard for and achieved over the past two decades. For three days, at the Charles Krug Winery in St. Helena, California across three stages, some 5,000 a day will take in the varied sounds of artists who have collaborated, inspired and informed Glasper’s musical perspective.
From the fest’s large font headliners Chaka Khan, Black Star (the reuniting of Bey and Talib Kweli), Maxwell, Kamasi and Chappelle to a sublime underbill that includes the genius of Madlib, The Soul Rebels, Corinne Bailey Rae, Flyling Lotus and Dinner Party (Glasper, Kamasi, Terrace Martin and 9th Wonder), the weekend is filled with Glasper’s expansive and technicolored definition of jazz, a cypher-like version that incorporates R&B, hip-hop, electronic, rock and so much else. It’s a culmination of a life-long pursuit of musical growth, collaboration, evolution and especially human connection of which Glasper is the master both on and off stage.
Glasper, now 44, was born and raised in Houston where growing up he performed in churches, but it wasn’t only the sanctified that informed his wide-ranging music perspective. “Scarface and Geto Boys that’s who I grew up listening to as far as hip-hop goes,” he says. “When ‘Mind Playing Tricks on Me’ came out, that’s the first rhyme I ever learned when I was in elementary school. Then Screwed Up Click came around with DJ Screw and that became a whole movement of chopping and screwing songs.” Something to keep in mind when hearing Glasper’s plaintive versions of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirt” and Tears For Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.”
After bench warming for his high school basketball team, Glasper enrolled in Houston’s High School for the Performing and Visual Arts where he studied music along with one far more famous alumni. “You know what’s funny, Beyoncé was so quiet in high school,” Glasper says when asked about his younger classmate.
“She was super quiet. I mean that was like my little sis. I used to go to her crib. She used to have little parties at her house and my cousin is LeToya Luckett from Destiny’s Child, that’s my little cousin, so that was family. But Beyoncé never really sang in public at the school. Very, very quiet.”
For summer camp, Glasper attended Vail Jazz Workshop in Colorado where he would befriend fellow jazz player Terrace Martin, who would go on to produce Kendrick Lamar and join Glasper in the aforementioned all-star quartet Dinner Party. From there, it was on to New York City’s New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music, where he quickly made an indelible first impression with a soon-to-be famous R&B singer and collaborator.
“I met Bilal literally the first day of college in New York,” Glasper recalls. “They called us up together on stage to play a song. Like you put all the freshmen in a room and your name is on a list. And the teachers just call the names on the list based on your level of where they think you might be. And they called me and Bilal up together to do a song together.”
Glasper adds, “And we never left the stage.” Literally and perhaps figuratively.
Glasper, in New York, would play with an assortment of musicians playing jazz, R&B, soul and hip-hop, music inextricably tied together that for decades informed and inspired each other. Bilal, from Philly, introduced Glasper to a number of contemporaries, including The Roots, Common and Erykah Badu. “He was in the midst of working with all of them on some level,” Glasper says, “so he was really my introduction into, at that time, the neo soul movement, which is what it was called back then.”
“The experience of the artist is a very big part of what defines, of course, who they are, their sound and their style and their presence,” says Alex Kurland, Director of Programming/Talent Buyer for Blue Note Entertainment. “It’s challenging to find a comparison, just knowing that [Glasper’s] voice and sound and his story is uniquely his own. He played in so many unbelievable jazz musicians’ bands. But he also played in Erykah Badu’s band, Mos Def’s band and Maxwell’s band. He was in studio sessions with Questlove and worked at Electric Ladyland Studio while also going out on tour with Roy Hargrove and Christian McBride who are phenomenal jazz musicians. He is his own thing, for sure.”
It’s incredibly telling, then, that Robert Glasper is the only artist in history to have an album, his 2012 touchstone Black Radio, debut in the top 10 of four Billboard charts at the same time: Hip Hop R&B, Urban Contemporary, Jazz, and Contemporary Jazz.
The album, which featured a host of cameos by the likes of Badu, Lupe Fiasco, Bilal, Lalah Hathaway, Ledisi, Musiq Soulchild and Yasiin Bey, and would win a Best R&B Album Grammy.
“There is truly no one else like Robert Glasper,” says Ryan Whalley of Loma Vista Recordings, Glasper’s label, “and that is exactly why we wanted to work with him. In both his live show and on his recordings, he pushes boundaries, blends genres and brings so many unique artists together. Robert Glasper is a leader and a pioneer.”
How Glasper’s expansive muse translates into his touring strategy, Glasper’s longtime music agent, Mitch Blackman, who just joined APA from ICM, well understands. “He can do a traditional jazz trio, he can do Black Radio, he can do collaborations with R&B singers and rappers and he can do a show with a symphony behind him,” he says. “All these different sounds and configurations has expanded his audience into all different types of fans, young, old, traditional and non-traditional.”
Blackman cites his two most recent Los Angeles plays as examples of his breadth: a gig with the L.A. Philharmonic at Disney Hall “reimagining” Duke Ellington in January, and then a March play at the Vermont for his Black Radio III. But it’s NYC’s Blue Note, the iconic West Village club, that has served as Glasper’s primary venue platform for the past fifteen years. Nowadays, as he moves more into rock clubs, PACs and theaters, he says the Blue Note “is the only consistent jazz club” he plays. For the last four years, Glasper’s live hallmark has come every October, when he transforms the Blue Note into “Robtober,” a month long residency in which he plays twice a night for more than 30 days bringing in special guests from across the music universe.
“Robtober came about because there was a time where I did like one week at the Blue Note and it sold all the way out,” Glasper says. “And I started doing a week here and there and every time I would do one week. It would sell out. And then at one point I did like two weeks and every night it sold out. So then the owner [Steven Bensusan] came to me and said, ‘Hey, do you want to try a month?’ There’ve only been three other people in the history of Blue Note to do a month, Chick Corea would do a month. Chris Botti would do a month and Dizzy Gillespie did three weeks…” so I was like, ‘Sure, I’d love to try a month.’”
The lines around the block for the 220-capacity club say it all with the promise that on any given night anyone could show up both onstage and in the audience. “I’ve had so many just dope collaborations and random things happen at the Blue Note because of the melting pot of people that fall through there,” Glasper says.”It’s always great and it’s most of the time. I don’t even know what’s gonna happen ‘til the day of. I’ll just get some texts, like, ‘Yo, I’m in town.’ I’m just like, ‘Oh, it’s gonna be one of these nights, huh.’”
“At least three times I’ve had Dave Chappelle and Chris Rock open my show together,” he says. Another time he notes that, “just this last residency, on one song, I had Q-Tip, Common and Black Thought.” Another “super epic time,” he says, “was definitely when we had Kanye and Lupe Fiasco on stage at the same time for like 30 minutes, bro.”
And good friend and supporter, comedian Dave Chappelle also brings friends. “The Foo Fighters were at the Madison Square Garden the same week I was at the Blue Note in March and Dave went to their show,” Glasper says. “I’m watching him on Instagram at their show and Dave texted me like ten minutes later and was like, ‘Yo, we’re coming to your show’ [laughs]. And he brought the fucking Foo Fighters to the show. And my assistant was like, “Rob you’re sold out, Dave just called in and said that he’s bringing 20 people with him.” [laughter]. The club never knows what’s gonna happen at any time.”
What do Bradley Cooper, Susan Sarandon, Angela Davis, P-Diddy, Sarah Silverman, Anthony Anderson and so many others have in common? They hit the Blue Note in Robtober.
A rough estimate of the gross revenue of Robtober may help explain the economic motivation in transforming Robtober into its own festival: 440 people paying an average ticket price of $50 x 30 nights is roughly $660K for a month-long stint. Of course, that doesn’t include F&B and merch as well as expenses for musicians and production, but it’s a still a nice haul and surely helped build the Glasper-Blue Note Entertainment collaboration.
“By the third year, we were thinking that they were like, ‘Yo, we should make a festival. We should do something else, that’s jumping off from this,’” Glasper recalls. “So Vincent, my manager and Steve and Alex came to me and presented the idea. They already have a Blue Note Club in Napa. which is why they thought of doing a Napa Valley festival, beause they know Napa. They know that area and they’re like, ‘Yeah, there’s a festival grounds we could use and do a big thing outside with three stages and blah, blah, blah, blah.’ I was like, ‘Oh, let’s do it.’ And that’s pretty much how it happened. That was the conversation in March at the Blue Note [laughter]. So that happened pretty quick.”
Quick is also how the first two days sold out in minutes, and a third day with the legendary Chaka Kahn headlining added in weeks later, fared the same. So much of Glasper’s success begins and ends with his expansive definition of jazz, which is increasingly being embraced by a larger and larger audience as artists like Thundercat plays stadiums with the Chili Peppers, Kendrick Lamar wins Nobel peace prizes and Shabaka Hutchings plays some of the most lauded sets at Bonnaroo.
“The true tradition of jazz is that it’s always changes, it’s supposed to,” Glasper said. “The true tradition of jazz is that you’re supposed to grab from your surroundings. The true tradition of jazz is that you’re supposed to be relevant and play from the now. Charlie Parker, Lester Young, John Coltrane and Miles Davis, they were playing their now. So we have to play our now and use our influences and that’s what this Napa Festival represents, the now.”
To say that Glasper has a lot going on in this moment would be an understatement. In addition to a festival that literally revolves around him and as this story was going to press, he released a new single, “All Masks” featuring Masego, announced a deluxe version of Black Radio III and he’ll once again be holding court at the Blue Note for the month of Robtober.
“Robert has great intent with everything he’s doing,” says manager, Vincent Bennett. “He’s really aware of what he’s putting out. When you see him on IG and in person, you might think it’s all laid back and easy but that’s part of the beauty and infectious part about him, too, is that he makes it look so easy, but Robert is the hardest working person I know.”