Marcus Shelby Named New Artistic Director of Healdsburg Jazz Festival, Replacing Jessica Felix

Marcus Shelby (L) will replace Jessica Felix (R) as the artistic director of the long-running Healdsburg Jazz Festival. (Shelby photo by Peter Varshavsky; Felix photo by Mel Felix)

Marcus Shelby, the composer, bandleader and bassist whose projects often intersect with politics and social issues, has been named the new artistic director of the Healdsburg Jazz Festival.

Shelby replaces festival founder Jessica Felix, who announced her retirement in early August after 22 years.

“Jessica did an incredible job building the Healdsburg Jazz Festival with first-class talent, including national and local artists,” Shelby said in a statement. “She never dumbed down the programming to get more people to come. I’m looking forward to expanding her extraordinary legacy and also develop a fresh vision that reflects my interests and strengths."

Indeed, Felix was such a passionate supporter of jazz that, 10 years ago, when the board of directors removed her in an effort to steer the festival toward more commercial programming, the outcry from musicians and fans was so great that she was soon reinstated.

But now, the lifelong jazz fan who got her start hosting living room concerts in her East Bay home said, “it’s time to be in the audience.”

A woefully incomplete list of the artists who have performed at the festival includes Pharoah Sanders, Charlie Haden, Bobby Hutcherson, Jackie McLean, Ravi Coltrane, Kenny Burrell, Esperanza Spalding, McCoy Tyner, Jack DeJohnette, Geri Allen, Randy Weston and Billy Hart. It also served as a launch pad for Julian Lage, the famed jazz guitarist who was just a local 12-year-old when he first performed at the festival with Charles Lloyd.

Jessica Felix with drummer Billy Higgins during the 1999 Healdsburg Jazz Festival.
Jessica Felix with drummer Billy Higgins during the 1999 Healdsburg Jazz Festival. (Courtesy Healdsburg Jazz Festival)

It’s hard to imagine a better successor for the festival than Shelby, who has worked with Felix for the past decade, frequently performing at the festival and developing special programming for local schools and choirs as part of its education and community outreach programs.

“He’s done a lot up here already and everybody loves him,” Felix said.

Shelby is also a composer-in-residence with the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival, a longtime collaborator and one-time artist-in-residence at SFJAZZ, and a teacher at the San Francisco Community Music Center. He was appointed to the San Francisco Arts Commission in 2014, where he still serves.

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As a composer and bassist, Shelby’s recent musical projects have covered such social issues as the school-to-prison pipeline, and historical figures such as Harriet Tubman and Martin Luther King, Jr. In 2018, he premiered Black Ball: The Negro Leagues and the Blues in San Francisco.

Shelby knows he has big shoes to fill.

“I realize you can’t book everybody,” he said. “I’m really committed to making the most diverse festival possible, with the highest degree of talent. That’s always going to be my goal.”