Healdsburg Fest ‘Spiritually’ Important for California


Kenny Garrett performs during the 2017 edition of the Healdsburg Jazz Festival in Healdsburg, California.

(Photo: George Wells)

Artistically successful jazz festivals offer a point of view that reflects both geographic locale and, when possible, the aesthetic of the programmer.

As the Healdsburg Jazz Festival marks its 20th anniversary June 1–10, its setting in California’s wine country and the vision of founder Jessica Felix are worthy of celebration.

“I can’t believe we made it,” Felix said. “For the 20th anniversary, I decided that it’s going to be a bigger festival than we’ve ever had.”

For opening night, guitarists Bill Frisell and Julian Lage—a native of Santa Rosa, about 15 miles southeast of Healdsburg, who has been playing the festival since his days as a tween prodigy—will perform a pair of shows as a duo.

A double bill on June 2 with the Fred Hersch Trio and Trio da Paz features guest clarinetist Anat Cohen and vocalist Claudia Villela. The opening weekend concludes with tenor saxophonist Charles Lloyd performing a concert to mark his 80th birthday alongside tabla maestro Zakir Hussain, pianist Gerald Clayton, bassist Harish Raghavan, drummer Eric Harland and “surprise guests.”

“If you hold a mirror up to a sign saying ‘Healdsburg Jazz Festival,’ you will see the image of Jessica Felix staring back at you,” Lloyd wrote in an email. “Jessica Felix’s passion for great jazz is palpable and her hospitality is incomparable.”

Lloyd’s first concert in the California city was in a duo with the late drummer Billy Higgins during 1997, when Felix was testing the waters by booking shows prior to launching the event in 1999.

The lineup this year reflects that kind of history. Included amid the festivities is a mid-week concert by bandleader and Santa Rosa native Adam Theis, who will be performing with his Costa Nostra Strings project. The ensemble will be complemented by guest vocalist and spoken-word artist Emcee Infinite.

A young Theis participated in and helped promote the inaugural festival, Felix said: “I had a truck, and we put Adam’s band on the back and went around town going, ‘Come to the festival.’”

Geri Allen originally was booked for a June 8 performance. The program, initially planned with saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, bassist Dave Holland and drummer Terri Lyne Carrington, has been reimagined as a tribute to the recently deceased pianist-composer. There’s a double bill the following night with the George Cables Trio and a Festival All-Stars group that includes alto saxophonist Bobby Watson, drummer Billy Hart and percussionist Babatunde Lea.

“I had a lot of festival family that I wanted to book this year, so this was one way to include as many as I could,” Felix said.

A pair of high-profile events also is scheduled. “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” a free morning concert, will showcase the Marcus Shelby Big Band with flutist James Newton, vocalist Ruth Naomi Floyd and the 100-member Freedom Jazz Choir. And Dr. Michael White’s Original Liberty Jazz Band makes a rare West Coast appearance as well.

In the past, California’s wine country made the news for a rash of fires and mudslides: “It’s very important that people realize that we’re OK and that coming here will actually benefit us, because all the businesses have taken a very big hit after people stopped coming,” Felix said. “We were all hard-hit, and this festival’s going to be important spiritually and economically for the area.”

A Los Angeles native, Felix said she grew up on the late-’60s jazz of Lloyd, John Handy and Pharoah Sanders. She graduated from Sonoma State University and eventually settled in the East Bay, founding the Eddie Moore Festival, before relocating to Healdsburg. A longtime friend of drummer Higgins, she embraced his vision for jazz education and has incorporated that into the festival through local efforts.

“Little by little, she has taken the town of Healdsburg by the hand and elevated their experience and knowledge of America’s indigenous art form, jazz,” Lloyd wrote. “She has teamed up with area schools to introduce it to every age group. This has been a beautiful thing to witness.”

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July 2022
Sean Jones
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