She Brought the Music – Now She’s Ready to Smell the Roses

It’s official. Jessica Felix, the founder and artistic director who created the Healdsburg Jazz Festival 22 years ago through grit and an all-consuming love for America’s greatest original art form, is calling it quits at the end of September (2020).

“I want to relax, travel, socialize and make my jewelry again,” announced Jessica, the force of nature who took a Russian River town known for fine winemaking and bucolic bike tours and turned it into an international jazz mecca. “It’s time to be in the audience. It’s time to just enjoy my life.”

The Healdsburg Jazz Festival may be the capstone of Jessica’s journey in jazz curation, but she had a long and brilliant career before it. For over 40 years Jessica has been one of the most innovative jazz bookers in Northern California. “I love this music deeply and feel very proud of the vast and diverse array of incredible artists I have presented over the years, bringing many to the West Coast for the first time,” Jessica said.

No one could have predicted 22 years ago that a small California town 70 miles from the nearest major city would become a renowned jazz destination, enticing the art form’s leading practitioners, people like Charles Lloyd, Randy Weston, Abbey Lincoln, Fred Hersch, Bobby Hutcherson, Jack DeJohnette, Geri Allen and dozens more. But Jessica Felix came in with her love of this music, and through charm and some measure of magic made the entire culture of Healdsburg fall in love with it as well, from the vineyards to the restaurants, hotels, bars, schools and citizens, many of whom became festival volunteers, others who were festival angels providing financial support, and some of who offered up their guest homes to the musicians. This jazz project became the entire town’s project.

It has not been easy. Through the years the Healdsburg Jazz Festival has survived difficult challenges but Jessica and her helpers always managed to pull the festival through. Her departure could be the biggest test Healdsburg Jazz has ever faced though she feels confident that the operation will continue without her at the helm. “I have a strong board and staff, and with my artistic director successor – who we’ll be announcing soon – the festival will flourish,” she said.

Charles Lloyd and Jessica Felix

The story starts with a Los Angeles girl just out of high school who was really into Dylan but got ahold of a new jazz record that became one of the genre’s bestsellers, Forest Flower by Charles Lloyd, released in 1967. “Listening to it I opened up to new music, a new feeling, a new form. It opened a door to my soul,” said Jessica of the gateway album that drove her pursuance of jazz. What she of course could not envision was the role Charles Lloyd would end up playing in her professional and personal life.

Fast forward to 1978 when Jessica, having taken up jewelry making, moved to San Francisco and eventually got a part-time job minding the door at the legendary Keystone Korner jazz club. At first “I didn’t have a lot of money, so I started making these necklaces with the words ‘Bright Moments,’ which are lyrics to a song by Rahsaan Roland Kirk. I traded these necklaces for tickets with the club owner, Todd Barkan, so I could get into the club and hear the music.” It was there she began meeting the musicians who became lifelong friends — George Cables, Charlie Haden, Dave Holland, Jessica Williams, Billy Higgins and a host of other jazz stars among them.

After purchasing a condemned house in Oakland with her boyfriend and fixing it up, she got a call from George Cables, one of the great hard-bop pianists on the scene, saying that his friend Dave Liebman, a magnificent saxophonist, was in town and they were wondering what to do on New Year’s Eve. “We had a piano at the house, so I said why don’t you guys come over and play a duet,” Jessica said. She put the word out, “and we had a full house.” That New Year’s Eve show became an annual tradition, always built around the charismatic George and his impeccable playing.

George later became a mainstay at Healdsburg, playing nine festivals. He almost didn’t make the 2018 edition because he had undergone a partial leg amputation resulting from diabetes. As George was racking up medical bills, Jessica stepped in with a solution – a GoFundMe drive. “I didn’t think I was gonna see much money,” the pianist said. “Next thing I know, it was so far over the top – like $90,000!” He did make it to the festival that year, and his playing, always joyful, was incandescent.

Jessica and George Cables

Jessica did that because that’s what she does. She goes the extra mile for people she considers her family.

Drummer Billy Hart, who holds the record for Healdsburg Jazz Festival dates at 14, was deeply impressed by Jessica’s act of kindness. “He could have died at least three times in the last 10 years,” Billy said of George. “SHE came up with the GoFundMe. It’s because we’re all personal friends of hers. We don’t talk about it; it’s just a shared love and appreciation – and a respect for this music.”

From the house concerts, Jessica jumped to creating two series – Jazz in Flight, featuring local jazz talent Monday nights at Yoshi’s in Oakland, and the Eddie Moore Festival, an annual week-long bash at Yoshi’s dedicated to the great Bay Area drummer who died performing onstage at Yoshi’s in 1990. Legions of top jazz players touched down at that festival, including including Lester Bowie, Clifford Jordan, Don Cherry, Tootie Heath, Dewey Redman, Chico Freeman and many more.

And then, another act of profound kindness that cemented Jessica’s status as a member of the jazz family — a benefit concert in 1996 for the revered drummer Billy Higgins to pay for his liver transplant. A huge crowd swarmed Kimball’s East in Emeryville for the event, which feature a stream of artists jamming away on two stages —  among them Bobby Hutcheson, Joe Henderson, Tony Williams, John Handy, Julian Priester and the pianist Cedar Walton, who flew in from New York. “You couldn’t get guys of this caliber to turn out anywhere else in the world,” Cedar told jazz critic Phil Elwood at the time. The event was a smashing success, with a recuperating Billy surrounded by loving friends, smiling all the way.

Jessica and Billy Higgins

Jessica and Billy formed a deep bond, and the great drummer later became extremely helpful in starting the Healdsburg Jazz Festival. He instilled in Jessica the importance of teaching kids about jazz, which is really America’s classical music. Jessica put this new-found commitment to work in the Oakland program Children in Flight, led by percussionist Tacuma King, who later brought his gifts as an educator to the Healdsburg Jazz Festival.

Charles Lloyd also played at the benefit for Billy, meeting Jessica there for the first time in person. The connection they made led to the saxophone legend performing a duet with Billy in Healdsburg in 1997, a couple of years before the debut of the Jazz Festival in 1999. Charles relays how it came together.

“When Jessica first contacted me it was to do a benefit concert for Master Billy Higgins in 1996 at Kimball’s East. We had a brief encounter at that time – there was a lot going on. When she reached out a year later to invite Billy and me to Healdsburg to give a duo concert, I called Billy and asked him if he wanted to do it. ‘She’s good people,’ he said. And so, we agreed to go there, just the two of us at the Raven Theater in November 1997.” Over the years the bond deepened. “I came to understand and appreciate not only how deep Jessica’s love for our indigenous art form is, but how committed she is to expanding the experience and knowledge of her community,” Charles continues. “After creating the Healdsburg Jazz Festival with so many great artists year after year, she also brought us into the schools so kids can have a direct experience. She is a true friend, and has been a great gift to the Healdsburg Jazz Festival.”

The Charles-Billy duet was one of several Jessica promoted around Healdsburg, like seedlings of jazz, leading to the sprouting of the festival. She moved to Healdsburg in 1994 after taking a break from jazz promotion to work on her jewelry. She had graduated college at Sonoma State University in the early ’70s, so was familiar with Healdsburg, always keeping it in the back of her mind as a place she might someday live.

When it came to pass in 1994, Jessica opened up a jewelry shop on the central square and dubbed it “Art and All That Jazz” (artandallthatjazz.com).  In addition to her jewelry creations, she offered CDs for sale and kept jazz playing on the speaker. She was happy to talk up the music with anyone who wandered in. She hosted a jazz listening club, and then started presenting occasional shows in a local coffee shop then called the Dancing Goat (now the Flying Goat) and at an earlier version of the Raven Theater. Charles and Billy’s show was one of the first; others featured George Cables, Jon Jang, James Newton, John Handy, Renee Rosnes – members of her extended jazz family. Jessica thought about starting a festival but didn’t want to deal with running another nonprofit organization. But, she said, “People kept telling me that if I don’t start a festival soon, someone will start a smooth jazz festival!”  Egads.

And so the Healdsburg Jazz Festival was born in 1999.

The first four years of the fest were only four days each, but not lacking in talent. Billy Higgins performed in the first two and was scheduled for the third, but sadly passed away weeks before the start. Jessica managed to lure Fred Hersch, Pharoah Sanders, Bobby Hutcherson, Cedar Walton, Abbey Lincoln, Pete Escovedo, the Heath Brothers, Jackie McLean, Curtis Fuller and Randy Weston in those early years, plus Charles Lloyd, whose quartet performance in 2000 is legendary for allowing a 12-year-old Sonoma guitarist named Julian Lage to sit in. Now close to being a jazz superstar, Julian ended up playing at 12 Healdsburg festivals.

By the time the fest grew into its full 10 days in 2005, certain things became apparent about Jessica’s approach. She would only hire great players. She would involve area restaurants, hotels and especially wineries, which provide beautiful outdoor settings for shows and keep the libations flowing. She would always have an educational component, which became year-round in the city’s schools. And – most importantly – she would treat the musicians like the world-class artists they are and deserve to be treated. This was really her secret sauce.

Gloria Hersch, who was president of the Healdsburg Arts Council when it helped the jazz festival get off the ground and who later became chair of the festival’s board, noticed this special tack of Jessica’s early on. “She created a world for the musicians. She didn’t just throw them into hotels. She went out of her way to find really special residences for them, people’s homes.”

Jessica and Billy Hart

Billy Hart noted that Jessica’s largesse meant inviting not just the musicians but their families. “Healdsburg festivals were around the time of my daughter’s birthday, so Jessica made sure the whole family came up. And she would come by to help us celebrate. You have to understand that being a touring musician puts a strain on families,” Billy continued. “So being able to have your family with you is a special thing. And it wasn’t just me she did that for. Plus, she would find these beautiful homes for us to stay in, peoples’ second homes, where we could have privacy. And had restaurants that gave us great food.”

It went much deeper than special courtesies, though. “Jessica sort of loves the music like a musician loves it,” Billy said. “She has some kind of way of communicating with us that shows she understands the creative aspects of what we’re doing.  That makes her important to musicians, especially improvising musicians. It makes her very important to me.”

Joe Lovano, the acclaimed tenor saxophonist who performed at a couple of fests and got a chance to sit in with Abbey Lincoln in 2003, emphasized Jessica’s generosity and compassion. “She’s not just behind the scenes like a lot of promoters you don’t even meet. She’ll come to the hotel with a couple of bottles of wine and sit with you in the lobby. It’s like a family thing with her.  And she creates so many opportunities for cats to play, going back to the Jazz in Flight days.” He’s got a bunch of Jessica’s jewelry, too. “She makes these beautiful whistles, little medallions, bird calls. I have a beautiful ring she made for me. She has a lot of love and gratitude and compassion. Real proud.” You can see her jewelry on her website, artandallthatjazz.com.

It must also be said, though, that Jessica is not all sweetness and light. If she’s not happy about something, she’ll let you know it. James Newton invokes a French word to describe a characteristic of Jessica’s: tetu. “It means hard-headed, stubborn,” he said. “To get things done sometimes you have to be very tetu. Genius does not occur without tetu. Because you’re creating something that does not exist, whether you’re Duke Ellington, Einstein or Billie Holiday.”

“Jessica is a warrior,” James continues. “She fights for the music, and ‘no’ is rarely in her vocabulary. You need people like that.”

Former festival board member Gloria Hersch agrees. “She’s not always easy. But great people are not always easy.”

A fresh example of Jessica’s doggedness is how she reacted to the cancellation of the 2020 festival. Instead of throwing up her hands, she threw herself into the online world, utilizing Zoom and streaming tech to present jazz to adults and kids.

“In two weeks we had a new section on our website, ‘Staying Connected,’ offering videos created by George Cables, (guitarist) Romero Lubambo and more,” Jessica says. “Then Marcus Shelby and I created the first Zoom presentation on Duke Ellington in April, and since then one a month. I also commissioned 15 online music education classes for K-5 that are free, and now we are hiring Bay Area and local musicians to play real-time live stream concerts every Friday. COVID never slowed me down, but I did have to learn new technology.” Talk about making lemonade out of lemons. (For more information on these programs, check healdsburgjazzfestival.org.)

Marcus Shelby, the marvelous bassist, bandleader and recording artist who quarterbacked massive choir projects involving hundreds of Sonoma County amateur singers for the festival over several years, is already acutely feeling the loss of Jessica. “Not only has Jessica Felix been a true inspiration to me, but she is also one of my very best friends,” he says. I met Jessica 30 years ago through Billy Higgins when I was a young musician in L.A. … She is a treasure to our community and will be missed.”

When asked the impossible question of what her favorite memories of the festival are, Jessica singles out two special tribute events – one in 2013 dedicated to the prodigious bassist Charlie Haden, who performed at four Healdsburg festivals, and the other in 2016 to Billy Hart, the festival stalwart who got the full spotlight when three of his bands from the ’70s and ’80s, respectively, were revived and presented along with his current Quartet.

Jessica, Ravi Coltrane, Ruth and Charlie Haden, and Geri Allen

Charlie Haden was there for the tribute to take in revivals of his bands Quartet West, the Haden Family (with Bill Frisell) and the Liberation Music Orchestra along with shows by Lee Konitz, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Chris Potter and Geri Allenwho had recorded with him. It was an evening drenched with beauty and feeling – two pre-eminent qualities of Charlie’s playing. Though Charlie was ill, he was inspired enough to get up on stage to play each night. It was his last big concert; he died a year later. Not long after, Jessica went to New York and helped Charlie’s wife, Ruth Cameron Haden, produce a very large tribute to him at Town Hall.

Ruth is grateful for the times he had at Healdsburg. “My late husband, Charlie Haden, and I are eternally grateful for all that Jessica has done to raise people’s consciousness to value and enjoy this music,” she said. Jessica treated the musicians like her friends and she provided wonderful venues where the music could be performed. She has been one of the fiercest supporters of jazz and jazz musicians this genre has had.”

Dorothy Darr, the filmmaker and visual artist married to Charles Lloyd who was scheduled to improvise with him at this summer’s festival, certainly agrees. “I have worked with many jazz festival directors around the world and Jessica Felix occupies a rarefied place. She brings integrity and commitment with a deep appreciation of not only the art form, jazz, but is committed to honoring each artist she invites to the Healdsburg Jazz Festival. Her amazing hospitality is unparalleled.”

Helen Sung, a provocative pianist who performed a benefit for Healdsburg Jazz along with a few other concerts produced by HJF, also notes Jessica’s uniqueness among producers. “Jessica Felix built Healdsburg Jazz from the ground up, fueled by love for the music, a passion for her local community, and sheer determination. She and her amazing, dedicated team have made Healdsburg Jazz a jewel in the national network of independent presenters. Congratulations to Jessica on her retirement — she will be dearly missed!”

Jessica’s lasting gift might be summed up most aptly by her colleague Gloria Hersch: “Jessica brought the musicians to Healdsburg, but she also brought Healdsburg to the musicians.”

Healdsburg Jazz is grateful for all of Jessica Felix’s dedication and wishes her the absolute best in her years of retirement. Healdsburg Jazz will announce its new Artistic Director in the coming weeks.

Jessica and All That Jazz

An interview with Healdsburg Jazz Festival founder and crusader

By Rhoann Ponseti, published at the Healdsburg Magazine for Healdsburg Jazz’s 20th Anniversary

She’s a focused force to be reckoned with, a well-known and highly visible local resident, a person many love and some find challenging to love. She is a friend to many of the icons of “pure jazz.” She is driven in a way that few are and she lives, breathes and sacrifices much for her dream. So, who is Jessica Felix and why is she so passionate about jazz, jazz musicians, the town of Healdsburg and the festival she founded 20 years ago? We sat down for coffee at Healdsburg’s Flying Goat, the scene of many Healdsburg Jazz Festival meetings over the years.

Jessica, you always put the festival and the musicians first, so we don’t know that much about you. Tell us about your early life.
I was born in Los Angeles in 1949. When I was 10 my mother tragically died which changed my life.

Was there anything in your childhood that influenced your love of music and jazz?
When I was really young, I was a tomboy and a little outside the box. I went to Dorsey High School where there were a lot of budding jazz musicians and a diverse group of students, many who became well known in different fields. My father listened to Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong a lot, which was the jazz of the time.

So when did jazz take over your life?
My love of jazz started near the end of high school in the sixties. I started listening to a little Cal Tjader and Willie Bobo while I was still loving rock and Bob Dylan. Then I heard Charles Lloyd’s Forest Flower, bought the album and fell completely in love with the music. I played it every morning, even in college. The music opened me up to jazz. It’s hard for me to believe I am now friends with Charles, who has come to the festival many times. Around the the same time I fell in love with John Handy’s Live at Monterey and Pharoah Sanders’ Karma; especially with the tune “The Creator Has a Master Plan.” I had discovered that this was my music and I felt deeply in sync with it.

The sixties were good years. All the music was really exciting and free. I kept listening to more and more jazz. During my first semester in college in LA, we went to the Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach and Shelly’s Manne Hole to hear all the latest. I saw Miles Davis and Nina Simone, among many others. When I went to junior college, I met a lot of jazz fans and musicians. My father wanted me to go to a state college so I went to Arizona State for a year, but drove many times to LA and SF to hear music, including Janis Joplin and lots of jazz. Eventually I moved up to Berkeley where my neighbor was a Coltrane fanatic, so I really got into Coltrane. Later I came up to go to Santa Rosa Junior College, then went to Sonoma State and graduated from there.

Back to your Bay Area era. You met a lot of musicians in the East Bay, didn’t you?
During my time at Sonoma State as I started listening to more and more jazz, I was making jewelry with a friend who was into Coltrane. He had lots of tapes of him and other jazz musicians. There is a fun picture of me and my friend Rick Sill in a history book about the Monterey Jazz Festival’s early days. We were there!

I had a jazz musician boyfriend who introduced me to Billy Higgins and a lot of other musicians and it just grew from there. I came back to the Bay Area in late ‘70s when Keystone Korner was going on. Rahsaan Roland Kirk made a wonderful live album called Bright Moments.

I am a jeweler, so I made jewelry with those words as the design and traded them for tickets and then got a job as a bouncer. I got my “Jazz PhD” at Keystone Korners and made a lot of connections. The owner, Todd Barkan taught me about creative booking.

I lived with a man for 15 years who created a concert space in our house in Oakland and we had house concerts three or four times a year. Every year for ten years we had a New Year’s Eve concert with different bands all led by George Cables. We also had a nonprofit organization called Jazz in Flight. We booked a series of shows once a week at Yoshi’s, featuring local bands. One night the great drummer Eddie Moore died on stage, the dream all musicians have of going out while playing. I put on a very large memorial for him at Kimball’s East with musicians coming from all over the country including Roy Haynes, Jim Pepper, Chico Freeman, Joe Henderson, Bobby Hutcherson, and many more. From this I started the Eddie Moore Festival, which grew into an amazing annual event at Yoshi’s. Billy Higgins and Dewey Redman played the first year and Dewey begged me to let his son Joshua play with them and the rest is history for Josh, who is now a jazz star.

How did you ever end up in the little town of Healdsburg?
After five years I left the Eddie Moore Festival and moved to St. John in the Caribbean with my jewelry equipment. I sub-leased a house and continued my wholesale jewelry business. That is what I was and am – a jewelry designer since 1972. I sold to galleries all over the country. I left my employee and main studio in Oakland and was doing my design work in the Caribbean. I loved St. John and still love it there. After a year I decided to come back to keep my business together. I’d gone through Healdsburg many times, and just decided out of nowhere, “I’m going to move to Healdsburg.” I have no idea why, it just came into my head. So I just did it. I quickly met a lot of local people.

Jazz was the background music everywhere I went, making me feel I had made the right choice. I wasn’t planning on opening a gallery, but I saw a sign on a corner store on the Plaza reading, “Selling Our Lease.” I opened a gallery called Art and All That Jazz which I had for 16 years right on the Plaza, with the purpose of showcasing my work, selling jazz CDs and meeting jazz fans. In the back of my mind I wanted to do a jazz festival in the area because of the vision of having music in beautiful winery locations. I kept saying to everyone I didn’t want to do a non-profit again, but rather a for-profit festival.

The gallery opened in October 1994. I decided to do a test concert on January 14, 1995 at the Dancing Goat (which later became the Flying Goat). I did this concert with my good friend George Cables, saying let’s just test it and see who comes. We charged only $8.00 and we sold it out. This showed me there was an audience for jazz up here. I have a lot of history with George which still continues to this day. After four years of small concerts around town, selling jazz CDs out of my store, and talking jazz constantly, people started to believe in my idea of a festival. I had met Elizabeth Candelario who was the executive director of the Healdsburg Arts Council and Dan Zastrow who ran the Raven Theater. In 1998 they urged me to start a festival to get ahead of a rumored “smooth jazz” promoter. So, in 1999 Elizabeth got the first sponsors and Dan got us the venue.

That first year my friends Billy Higgins, Cedar Walton, and Bobby Hutcherson did a few small concerts at what was then Raven Performance Theater in the four-plex. The city had funded a performance space and it was really nice and intimate. Billy Higgins even did a rare solo concert. The next year we had a meeting of interested people and a tall couple, very shy, handed me $10,000 and I knew we were going forward. The community enthusiasm was getting there. In 2011 the Festival was having a financial crisis and we did a benefit for the festival and all the musicians came and played for free, including the late Charlie Haden, Charles Lloyd, Julian Lage, Fred Hersch, and many of the friends that are returning this year. No question that was a turning point for the festival.

That is an amazing history. What do you hope for the future after 20 years that haven’t always been easy?
I love the festival of course, and I want it to continue. I get a lot of credit, but a lot should also go to the great volunteers and the generous patrons and sponsors. It’s a lot of work, more than anyone could imagine, but I have been passionate and driven to keep it going and make the 20 year milestone. The next 20 years I would like to see expanded staff that will make it easier on me. I have given 20 years to build this to what it is today. I see the festival as bringing the gift of music to people here and when they have the quality of the live music experience, learning about many groups they just heard for the first time, they want to keep coming back. So many friendships have resulted. That’s why this 20th Anniversary year is called “Friends Returning.”