“It was magical,” Brian Culbertson said.
The jazz musician was describing his 2017 Jazz Getaway in Napa Valley, and, in particular, what happened when a freak thunderstorm rolled in, in the midst of his outdoor concert.
This was the the fourth year for the sold-out festival, and the first where Culbertson decided to hold performances in the Oxbow Commons in downtown Napa.
Previously, he’d alternated shows between the Lincoln Theater in Yountville and Jameson Canyon Winery in the south valley.
“But I was coming out of the Kitchen Door (at Oxbow Public Market in Napa) one day and I noticed all this beautiful green grass in front of me,” ,” he said, “and I thought — wait a minute, this is a natural amphitheater.”
The Oxbow Commons, a quarter-mile-long and 300-foot-wide greenbelt, was completed completed in 2015, as part of the downtown flood control project.
Culbertson had high praise for city officials who eased the way for him to move his jazz performances to the Commons, setting up his stage for more than 4,500 fans, in the shadows of the Napa Valley Wine Train.
“I love Napa,” said Culbertson, who lives in Chicago, but spends so much time in the valley, he admitted, “some people do think I live here.”
He first visited Napa 10 years ago, celebrating his 10th wedding anniversary. The friendships he made then were part of what lured him back, and led him to launch his Jazz Getaway.
“The first year, we had 450 people,” he said. “This year, it increased to 4,500. They were from all over, every state in the U.S., I think, and Canada, the U.K., Korea, Japan, China. And locals too.”
Culbertson has also performed at Blue Note Napa, a connection that came in handy on Sunday, the final day of his four-day festival.
“It was slamming,” he said when his Chicago roots kicked in as he noticed ominous dark clouds forming in the north. “We’re always constantly monitoring the weather,” he added. “I’m always on the weather apps.”
The Chicago jazzman most likely recognized an incipient thunderstorm before most Napans did. “You can’t do an outdoor show in lightning,” he said. “Then I got a report of hail in St. Helena.”
Emails were flying back and forth between the Culbertson’s staff and Ken Tesler at Blue Note Napa; and they packed up and moved the show.
“Everyone came together,” Culbertson. “It was an amazing team effort.”
While Tesler, managing director of Blue Note, made the necessary security arrangements, he said, “hundreds of people who wanted to continue the party,” began lining up down Main Street.
Meanwhile, Culbertson improvised an impromptu jazz session in the downstairs while his team set up his equipment in the upstairs ballroom.
“There were some stressed-out bartenders,” Tesler added. Jam Cellars and Bob Almeida’s Lagniappe Peak Vineyards sent over back-up cases of wine.
“It was magical,” Culbertson said. “I’m still on a high.”
Tickets are on sale now for the 2018 Jazz Getaway at www.jazzgetaway.com/.
There is, however, no guarantee that Mother Nature will perform — and try to steal the stage — again, next year.