Nov. 18 marks the U.S. release date for “Bella Vita,” a gypsy jazz CD that is the culmination of a unique musical collaboration between Dario Napoli, an Italian musician and DePaul MBA alumnus, and Steven Briggs, DePaul business professor emeritus and founder of Blue Night Records, a jazz/Americana music label.
In this Q&A, Napoli and Briggs talk about the origins and results of their musical partnership, which began 15 years ago when Napoli was a student at DePaul’s Kellstadt Graduate School of Business.
How did you first meet?
Napoli: So, in 2005 I began my MBA at DePaul and Steven taught a negotiations class that I took. I noticed right away that his approach to teaching was unconventional and creative and it truly was my favorite class even before I knew anything about Steven’s involvement in music. One of the assignments in the class was discussing our passions and our desires in life, and of course, that’s when Steven found out that music had been my No. 1 passion, ever since childhood. That prompted Steven to inquire more about me and so one day after class we chatted a bit and he invited me to bring my guitar so we could jam.
When did you start playing as musicians together?
Briggs: At my suggestion during our after-class discussion the first week, Dario brought his guitar to the second class session. Mine was in my office. We found a spot in the lobby after class and the notes began to fly. I was shocked at his musical knowledge and improvisational skills. We started jamming every Friday night until we got a few duet gigs here and there, sometimes on Chicago’s North Shore, and sometimes in my neck of the woods—Galena, Ill. My wife, Barbara, is a great singer, so she joined us for the Galena gigs. Collectively, we were called “Swing Shift” and we had a blast playing in various Galena venues.
Napoli: After that first post-class jam, we got a lot closer and the jams became more frequent. Then Steven invited me to his beautiful house in Galena and there was more jamming. Since we had so much fun, we then started playing regular shows at a beautiful local restaurant in Galena, One Eleven Main.
Dario, why did you decide to focus on music as a career?
Napoli: On and off, I had always been involved in music since my high school days, at times more seriously (like in college in Louisiana), at times more as a hobby. Nonetheless, I basically never took time off from music since about the age of 12. After I met Steven, the idea of dedicating my life entirely to music grew stronger and stronger in me, as a result of the activities in his class and then as our friendship developed. He was a huge reason I made the leap in that direction and don’t regret it to this day. Steven helped me realize that life is so much better when you’re truly spending time doing what you love. Everything in life requires a tremendous amount of work, sacrifice and dedication; it might as well be toward something you genuinely enjoy doing.
A huge aspect of music is also the business side of it. The MBA at DePaul helped me greatly in always looking at things not only with the musician hat on but also with the management, booking, promoting and marketing hats on as well, (which are) vital in sustaining a career.
Steven, how did you found Blue Night Records?
Briggs: In 1996 I was the “arrangements chair” for the National Academy of Arbitrators’ 50th Anniversary Conference in Chicago. Part of my job was to hire musicians for several events. Among the cats I hired was Don Stiernberg, a Chicago jazz mandolinist and guitarist. He and I became friends and I offered to finance/produce a CD that featured him. The result was “About Time,” Blue Night Records’ first release, in 1998. “Bella Vita” by Dario and his trio, Modern Manouche Project, is our 16th CD release.
How did “Bella Vita” come about?
Briggs: Dario has been living in Italy for at least 10 years, and we’ve kept in touch the whole time. While he has a strong following across Europe and beyond, he had never released a record (yes, we still call them that) for the U.S. market. He sent me a nine-track demo he had recorded with Modern Manouche Project, and after some additional mastering and revised packaging it became “Bella Vita.”
Napoli: In January 2020 I recorded the demo with “Modern Manouche Project,” a trio I sometimes lead. As with all my previous recordings, one is always automatically reserved for Steven. A few weeks after I sent him a copy, Steven reached out and to let me know he was impressed with the work and wanted to release it as a CD, releasing it in the U.S. under the Blue Night Records mantle. The rest is history!
What’s next for each of you?
Briggs: Dario and I have already begun discussions about the next Blue Night Records’ release. I want to feature him again, but this time all of the tracks will be his original compositions.
Napoli: Before March and the advent of the coronavirus, we (Modern Manouche Project) had just completed a northern European tour. Things were really looking promising as we had a schedule full of exciting tours and concerts. That came to a bit of a halt, but we are still optimistic about being able to tour and present “Bella Vita” both here in Europe and in the U.S. I’m also writing new music and will look to record the new Blue Night Records album sometime in the next year, if the world returns to some semblance of normalcy.
Anything you would like to add?
Napoli: I suppose life grants you a certain number of crucial encounters, mentors or significant people that somehow inspire you and guide you toward a path you were likely bound to take. Steven was one of those people for me, someone whose integrity and personality just stood out for me. I’m honored to this day to have met him and more than once, listened to his advice and followed his example. And none of it would have likely happened without my experience at DePaul University.
- See and hear Dario Napoli performing live with the Modern Manouche Project at the Bimhuis in Amsterdam
- Click here to view Napoli, Steven Briggs and mandolinist Don Stiernberg jamming together.
- Get your own copy of “Bella Vita” (available after Nov. 18, 2020).
Q&A conducted by Robin Florzak | Photos courtesy of Dario Napoli and Steven Briggs