In 1998, when Jessica Felix first booked jazz pianist George Cables for a concert at a small coffee shop in Healdsburg, little could she have known that she was planting the seeds for a world-class festival. Sure, she’d once hosted jazz parties at her Piedmont house in Oakland, cooking dinner for guests while greats like Pharoah Sanders and Dave Holland played in her living room. But a full-fledged festival? In Healdsburg?
It turned out that Healdsburg needed jazz, and what’s more, the jazz community needed the Healdsburg Jazz Festival. Over the past 12 years, Felix has cultivated a diehard audience of music lovers in the county, tirelessly bringing a who’s who of jazz royalty to our unlikely little Newport of the West: Joshua Redman, Billy Higgins, Ravi Coltrane, Andrew Hill, Charlie Haden, Bobby Hutcherson, Jim Hall, Dave Holland, McCoy Tyner, Pharoah Sanders, Bill Frisell, Jackie McLean, Joe Lovano, Kenny Garrett, Jason Moran, Frank Morgan and Dave Brubeck, to name just a few. For this, Jessica Felix is an obvious— and overdue—recipient of a Boho Award.
Historically, performing jazz has been an unrewarding endeavor. If the walls of nightclubs around the country could talk, they’d speak of music played by incredible artists who died destitute, their talents only respected in postmortem legacy. Felix has continually treated the living musicians at her festival with respect, humble hospitality and dignity, and for that, they keep returning. Many find that Healdsburg represents the true spirit of jazz much more than institutions such as the Monterey Jazz Festival.
And yet this Boho Award was almost a bittersweet honor. Earlier this year, Felix was ousted from the very festival she founded by her own board of directors, who cited lower-than-expected ticket sales as reason to cancel the 2011 event, to fire Felix with no intent to hire her back and to “broaden the offering” beyond a “limited audience for pure jazz.”
But in an inspiring local story about a community rising up and fighting for what they love, the many fans of the Healdsburg Jazz Festival fired back. Over 45 comments quickly piled up on the festival’s website protesting the decision, and news outlets well outside the North Bay took note. The board of directors removed the comments, but they were reposted (by us, among others) and added to elsewhere. And each comment, letter, email and editorial contained the same sentiment: Felix is the Healdsburg Jazz Festival.
When musicians such as David Weiss, Charlie Musselwhite, Adam Theis and Bennett Friedman wrote to side with Felix, the façade of the “new” festival, with board members talking about booking blues acts, began to crack. When famed percussionist Babatunde Lea vowed not to participate in the Operation Jazz Band program in area schools, the only activity the board had planned for 2011, the cracks widened. And when the festival’s major sponsor wrote to cancel its annual $25,000 sponsorship in protest, the chances of a newly “revised” nonjazz jazz festival were officially toast.
The result has been one of the rare instances of the will of the people coming out on top. This month, after overwhelming public outcry, the board of directors handed the festival back to Felix and reinstated her as board chair. What’s more, all five members of the board swiftly and collectively resigned.
“It was a fight for jazz,” Felix told me the next day, “and jazz won.”
And though she’s still more of a fan of the music than an organizer—her license plate, after all, reads “JAZZICA”—Felix’s love of the music above all else has struck a chord with those who feel the same way. “There are a lot of people who don’t understand jazz,” she told me once. “I guess ’cause it’s not easy, toe-tapping background music. But it’s a great art form that has expression and feeling and so much emotion. It can take you somewhere.
“It can transplant your feelings.”