Healdsburg’s Artist-First Vision at 25


Locale and creative programming have become touch points of the Healdsburg Jazz Festival, celebrating its 25th anniversary.

(Photo: George Wells)

The ideal jazz festival showcases its locale while presenting thoughtfully conceived concerts and events. Since 1999, the Healdsburg Jazz Festival has produced live music in California’s picturesque Wine Country that’s reflected the aesthetic points of view of founder Jessica Felix (1999–2020) and artistic director Marcus Shelby (2020–present).

For its silver anniversary, which runs June 17–25, HJF continues to offer music by locally, nationally and internationally based artists, including a special tribute envisioned and realized by Felix. Over a brunch of Cajun and Creole cuisine at Brenda’s Oakland in early March, she reflected on the history of the festival while delving into her contribution to this year’s edition and looking to its future. The interview, conducted on her 74th birthday, reflected the 2023 HJF’s “Past, Present and Future” theme.

As co-founder of the Oakland-based Jazz in Flight organization, Felix presented house concerts for a decade starting in the late ’70s and co-produced the Eddie Moore Jazz Festival for another five years after that. Relocating to the small town of Healdsburg (population around 11,000), she planned to focus on the jewelry she designed and created for the Art and All That Jazz studio.

“I did it because I lived here,” she said, of the inaugural HJF. “I didn’t move to Healdsburg intending to start another festival.”

In its first year, the festival began modestly with four shows over four days, including quartets led by Bobby Hutcherson and Billy Higgins. Since then, it’s had enough of a legacy to feature artists such as Hutcherson, Charlie Haden and Geri Allen and, poignantly, later pay tribute to them with special memorial concerts.

For June 25, Felix has assembled organist Brian Ho, tenor saxophonist Azar Lawrence and alto saxophonist Gary Bartz to honor both Pharoah Sanders (a veteran of the 2000 HJF) and Joey DeFrancesco (who performed in 2019). It’s a double bill with vibraphonist Joel Ross’ group that also pays homage to DeFrancesco’s 2019 album In The Key Of The Universe (Mack Avenue), which featured Sanders.

A connection to both In The Key Of The Universe and the late DeFrancesco’s sole HJF appearance is Billy Hart. This year will be his 14th Healdsburg appearance, making him the de facto house drummer. Hart’s first HJF was in 2003, and he was on the bandstand when The Cookers played their first-ever concert in 2007. He was also the subject of a 40-year retrospective in 2016 where he performed the material from four of his albums with many of the original sidemen.

“Jessica, she’s an angel — a jazz angel,” Hart declared by phone from Boston. “It’s undeniable how much she loves the music. And that comes across, especially to the musicians.”

By contrast, clarinetist/multi-reedist Anat Cohen has only participated in one HJF. But that 2016 duo concert with Fred Hersch has become part of history. “I remember how charming the whole area was,” Cohen recalled, in a phone interview from her home in Brooklyn. “And Jessica was enthusiastic, as always, even as she was trying to take care of a million things at once.”

With the headliners’ permission, the concert was recorded by live sound engineer Steve Moon. It was subsequently released in 2018 as Live In Healdsburg (Anzic Records).

Then, at the end of August 2020, it was announced that Shelby would take the reins from Felix. “He’s the right person to follow me,” Felix said of the well-regarded double bassist, bandleader, composer and educator. “I’ve admired what he’s been doing.”

“We had a good transition, and Jessica’s work continues to be foundational to the organization,” Shelby said. He was first introduced to her in the ’90s when he was a member of Black/Note, and she booked the young Los Angeles area supergroup for the Eddie Moore Festival at Higgins’ suggestion.

A decade later, “I had been pitching her an educational program about Harriet Tubman, and that turned into 10 years of educational programming at Healdsburg Jazz,” Shelby revealed.

“Marcus was very good in helping me put on a two-hour Evolution of Contemporary Jazz Drumming Zoom presentation” that streamed early into lockdown, Hart said. “He’s knowledgeable about the music and interested in the history.”

“Healdsburg Jazz, under Jessica, was a model festival,” Shelby said. “Our festival flows a little bit differently. My experiences in the arts have been in the multi-artistic universe where music intersects with theater, dance, film, poetry and other art forms.”

The HJF now has a Poet Laureate (Enid Pickett) and will screen the 2022 documentary (John) Santos–Skin to Skin, followed by a performance by the Bay Area conguero and his group.

“Since Jessica was based in Healdsburg, she had a very personal perspective as a local,” Shelby said, when asked about maintaining the festival’s local flavor. “I’ve been going up there for 10 years. And when I became artistic director, I started spending more time there with different goals — to find community partners, whether the schools, small businesses or local government.”

One through-line between Felix and Shelby is forward-thinking booking. HJF had Esperanza Spalding’s quartet in 2009 and Joey Alexander’s trio in 2016. This year, vocalist Samara Joy will perform at the festival’s Father’s Day concert — a booking secured before she became a surprise double Grammy winner in February.

“Jessica maintained a commitment to bringing high-quality acts to Healdsburg, and she was also very pro-artist,” Shelby said. “The way she curated the concerts — making sure that the music was respected and heard in the right venue and that there was a sort of educational aspect to it — I’m keeping all of that.” DB

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September 2023
Kris Davis
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