Blue Note Napa Valley, a West Coast version of the famed New York jazz club, is on the horizon for Napa in 2016.
The Napa Valley Opera House board is working out the final details in a deal with the internationally renowned Blue Note, which has clubs in New York, Tokyo and Milan.
The plan would create a a Blue Note club on the ground floor of the historic Opera House, while returning the upstairs Margrit Mondavi Theater to diverse programming that includes theater, musical theater, comedy, film, concerts and community events.
The club replaces City Winery, a performance venue and restaurant that opened two years ago, but failed to live up to the owner’s financial expectations. City Winery announced earlier this year that it would end its contract with the Opera House at the end of this month.
Blue Note Club, founded in 1981 by Danny Bensusan in New York’s Greenwich Village, earned international fame by presenting stars including Ray Charles, Dave Brubeck, Dizzy Gillespie, Chick Corea, Tony Bennett and Sarah Vaughan.
In 1988, Blue Note opened another club in Tokyo, followed by clubs in Osaka and Nagoya. A Blue Note in Milan, Italy, opened in 2003.
Steve Bensusan, the son of Danny Bensusan and now president of Blue Note Entertainment, talked to the Register from Hawaii where he is getting ready for the January 2016 opening of a Blue Note Club in Honolulu. His company licenses Blue Note clubs to individual operators he said but carefully oversees the plans and details to keep to the original standards of the New York flagship, and it also handles the booking.
With plans to open three jazz clubs in Beijing in 2016, Bensusan said a Napa location would allow them to “route our talent” through a West Coast stop on the way from New York to Hawaii and Asia.
Both Bensusan and Ken Tesler, a New York producer and promoter, who will be moving to Napa to operate the new club, described their plans in a conference call with the Register. Tesler said he had been talking to Bensusan about Napa as a potential site and had spent the last four years researching the area when news broke last summer that City Winery Napa would be leaving Napa Valley Opera House at the end of 2015.
Tesler said he showed the Opera House plans to Bensusan, who advised him that the downstairs, currently City Winery restaurant, was the ideal place for an “intimate jazz club” for about 150 seats. The downstairs jazz club, which will be open seven nights a week, will become “the anchor” of the Opera House as a diverse performing arts center.
“This is completely different from City Winery, ” said Bob Almeida, chairman of the Opera House board. “It will allow us to return to the best of what the Opera House was presenting for 13 years.”
The Opera House reopened in 2003 after a community effort saved and restored the building, which originally opened in 1880. After 10 years of struggling to stay afloat financially, despite money from the city of Napa that paid off the venue’s debts, the board of the nonprofit that operates the Opera House, signed a deal with New York impresario Michael Dorf, founder of City Winery entertainment venues in New York and Chicago.
Dorf built a restaurant on the ground floor of the Opera House and renovated the upstairs theater, removing the raked floor and rows of red velvet seats replacing them with tables and chairs. Despite his optimistic start, a year and a half into his 10-year contract Dorf asked to be released from it, citing losses that were too great to continue. It was an ongoing struggle to fill the 350 seats upstairs for six shows a week, and the restaurant never gained traction with local patrons. City Winery Napa will close on Dec. 31.
“It’s a smaller venue with a lower overhead, ” Bensusan said, explaining that in New York as well as the international clubs, patrons, both local and tourists, will go to a Blue Note Club not necessarily because of who is performing but “for the experience.” Tesler said that part of their marketing strategy will not only reach out to local residents and the greater Bay Area but to international clients. He envisions tours to Napa Valley that will include a pre-booked night at the Blue Note Napa Valley.
Upstairs, Blue Note Entertainment will share the stage with the Opera House board, who will be guaranteed 75 nights for their own programming. “With City Winery, we had the 75 days a year, but this was limited to Sundays and Tuesdays because they were using the upstairs the rest of the time, ” Almeida said. “Now we are going to be able to do much more.”
Almeida said he is already booking the Napa Valley Film Festival, VOENA children’s Chorus, NapaShakes, and there is a possibility that Latitude 38, producers of Napa’s BottlerRock music festival, may present performers at the Opera House as well.
Blue Notes Entertainment, whose extensive booking network goes beyond jazz to a range of performers presented in other venues, will also “cherry-pick” performers for the upstairs shows that can fill the house.
“Their booking power is incredible — they presented Paul McCartney in an 800 seat theater, ” Almeida said.
While Bensusan could not promise that McCartney will be singing in Napa any time soon, he did say that Blue Note is known for working with “the pinnacle” of performers.
Bensusan and Tesler emphasized that Napa is at the foundation of their plans.
“The local community is extremely important to us, ” Tesler said. “That’s why I’m moving here, to be part of this community. We understand how important the Opera House is to this community.”