Marcus Shelby Takes the Lead at a North Bay Jazz Institution

After more than two decades running the Healdsburg Jazz Festival, founder and longtime Artistic Director Jessica Felix recently announced her retirement effective at the end of September.

When she leaves, Felix will welcome acclaimed composer and bandleader Marcus Shelby as the festival’s new artistic director. Shelby takes over the role on Oct. 1, with an eye towards the community.

“I believe that Healdsburg jazz, through Jessica Felix, has built one of the strongest foundations possible with a commitment to the art form,” Shelby says. “I want to bring to the table my strengths; part of that is my love for collaborations, and bringing musicians together with other artists. I’m looking forward to being a part of the Healdsburg community, not just as a musician or artistic director but being conscious about the city and how it’s changing, and then seeing how the festival itself can be a strong community partner year-long.”

Shelby is a beloved figure in the Bay Area jazz scene, having first established himself by leading both the Marcus Shelby Trio and the Marcus Shelby Jazz Orchestra. He’s also a composer-in-residence with the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival and has taken on a variety of roles at SFJAZZ, including a stint as a resident artistic director.

A decade ago, Shelby began working with the Healdsburg Jazz Festival, when Felix hired him to bring his Black History Month programming to local schools. Following that, Shelby created and directed the Healdsburg Freedom Jazz Choir.

“Jessica has created a culture that is very pro-artist,” Shelby says. “Artists love to play at Healdsburg Jazz. I speak as one artist, but I know this from talking to others—Jessica has made that a core value of Healdsburg Jazz.”

Something else that Shelby says will continue at Healdsburg Jazz is a commitment to the art form and the artists who create it, as well as a commitment to education that will match the commitment to presenting performance. Recently, Healdsburg Jazz has offered monthly online Zoom presentations on jazz and jazz history.

For Shelby, taking on the role of artistic director for Healdsburg Jazz Festival in 2020 means facing unprecedented challenges due to the Covid-19 pandemic that already canceled this year’s event, originally scheduled for last June.

Undaunted, Shelby is already working with the festival’s Board of Directors on strategizing for the 2021 festival, as well as working to continue the year-round concerts and education programs that Healdsburg Jazz regularly hosts, such as a virtual world premiere live streaming concert on Saturday, Sept. 26, featuring acclaimed musicians Charles Lloyd, Zakir Hussain and Julian Lage playing together as trio for the first time ever.

“Every challenge presents ways of being innovative,” he says. “Since we’ve gone online, we’ve expanded our borders. We’re in communication not only nationally, but internationally. With that, when we are able to bring our festival back in person, we’re hoping that this is one way we build a larger audience that will come to this beautiful place and enjoy the music and culture we provide.”

Healdsburg Jazz presents the Lloyd-Hussain-Lage Trio performing live online Saturday, Sept. 26, at 7pm. Admission by donations of $15 and up.

Sonoma County Library