Acclaimed Composer & Bandleader Marcus Shelby As New Artistic Director

We are happy and honored to announce the appointment of acclaimed composer and bandleader Marcus Shelby as our new Artistic Director. Shelby will lead the organization and our flagship Healdsburg Jazz Festival into its next generation of dynamic and innovative programming. Shelby takes over the new role Oct. 1, 2020, from the festival’s founder, artistic director and guiding spirit, Jessica Felix, who launched the festival in 1999. Shelby has worked closely with Felix over the past decade and looks towards the future to maintain and elevate the spirit of the festival.

“Jessica did an incredible job building the Healdsburg Jazz Festival with first-class talent, including national and local artists,” said Shelby. “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.”

“We are so fortunate to have Marcus Shelby on board as artistic director to help guide Healdsburg Jazz as it enters a new chapter in its history,” said Jack Raineault, Board Chair of Healdsburg Jazz. “He has contributed so much to the educational component of the organization and is passionate about our mission. He knows the music scene both locally and nationally and brings the perspective of a musician to the artistic director role. Marcus has also focused on social justice issues and building community in his music and in the organizations he has been a part of. We are excited at the prospect of what new directions Healdsburg Jazz will take both artistically and in its commitment to promoting social and cultural connections under Marcus’s leadership.”

Shelby is taking the helm at a moment of unprecedented challenges for the performing arts due to the COVID-19 global pandemic, and he’s already working with the festival’s Board of Directors on strategizing for the 2021 festival. Beyond the lauded spring jazz festival, he’s ideally suited for running the nonprofit organization’s year-round concert series and education programs. Shelby has a strong track record in the picturesque Sonoma County town near the Russian River, which is one reason why Felix is so confident that Shelby is the right person for the job. “He’s done a lot up here already and everybody loves him,” Felix said. “He’s really endeared himself to this area. He believes in the festival and believes in me.”

Felix first met Shelby about 30 years ago, when Los Angeles drum legend Billy Higgins, a close friend of hers, recommended that she book Shelby’s band Black/Note at the Eddie Moore Jazz Festival. Higgins had mentored the young group at the World Stage, the performance space he co-founded in LA’s Leimert Park neighborhood, and on his advice Felix hired the quintet sight unseen. Though Shelby relocated to San Francisco a few years later it wasn’t until a decade ago that he started playing an important role at Healdsburg, when Felix hired him to bring his Black History Month programming to local schools. A prestigious grant the festival received from the James Irvine Foundation enabled Shelby to create and direct the Healdsburg Freedom Jazz Choir, a 100-piece community choir that has continued over the years, perform in various settings with his big band and small group.

“Jessica and I have become good friends and we’ve worked very closely together on these projects, like working out ideas for the choir,” he said. “She built the festival from scratch and she’s leaving her life’s work in my hands. We’ve spent countless hours talking about these things.”

Shelby has deep roots in the San Francisco Bay Area arts scene. He’s a composer in residence with the Yerba Buena Gardens Festivaland has taken on a variety of roles at SFJAZZ, including a stint as a Resident Artistic Director. He’s a teacher at the San Francisco Community Music Center and has served on the San Francisco Arts Commission since his appointment by the late Mayor Ed Lee in 2014. That’s all on top of his regular gigging as a leader and a sideman.

On his decision to become the Artistic Director of Healdsburg Jazz Festival, Shelby comments, “Leading a major jazz festival supports and enriches my professional practice in many ways. Some colleagues who are much better known are part of organizations they lead, Wynton Marsalis at Jazz at Lincoln Center, Jason Moran at the Kennedy Center, and Christian McBride in several organizations. That inspired me to think bigger and really embrace the possibility of working with a large community of artists, and influence how this music is curated. I need to keep evolving and growing.”

Creative growth has been the hallmark of Shelby’s career. Born February 2, 1966, in Anchorage, Alaska, he grew up in Sacramento and first gained attention on the burgeoning LA scene in the early 1990s as a co-founder of the hard-bop band Black/Note (which also launched top-shelf New York drummer Willie Jones III). He earned the Charles Mingus Scholarship to study at Cal Arts in Valencia, where he also worked closely with flutist/composer James Newton and bassist Charlie Haden (both artists closely linked to the Healdsburg Jazz Festival). Black/Note recorded four albums, including 1994’s Jungle Music (Columbia) and 1996’s Nothin’ But the Swing(Impulse!/GRP).

Relocating to San Francisco in 1996, Shelby quickly established himself as an essential creative force on the Bay Area arts scene. Leading both the Marcus Shelby Trio and the Marcus Shelby Jazz Orchestra, he earned increasingly prestigious commissions from dance companies, theatrical productions, and presenters such as Intersection for the Arts, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, and the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival. No one has a closer view of his determined growth than Kate Dumbleton, his manager and co-founder of his label Noir Records.

“In all the years I’ve known Marcus he’s always been poised to take the work that he does in multiple directions at any given moment,” says Dumbleton, Executive and Artistic Director of the Hyde Park Jazz Festival and Associate Professor at the Art Institute of Chicago. “He’s a conceptualizer. He knows how to connect history to musical ideas and storytelling. He thinks in really interesting ways about narrative. When I first met him he was really interested in working with dancers, choreographers, theater artists, and filmmakers.”

Shelby started exploring history and narrative in his own work with the release of 2006’s Port Chicago (Noir Records), a suite for his jazz orchestra inspired by the World War II miscarriage of justice that saw 50 young black seamen convicted in the largest mutiny trial in U.S. naval history (a story that unfolded in the Bay Area). Since then he’s focused his creative energy on a series of hard-swinging works exploring key historical events and personalities, like 2008’s two-disc Harriet Tubman (Noir Records), 2011’s Soul of the Movement: Meditations on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (Porto Franco), and 2018’s Black Ball: The Negro Leagues and the Blues, a suite commissioned by the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival.   

In recent years, he’s also served as a musical foil for playwright and actor Anna Deavere Smith throughout the interview-driven creation of her one-woman show about the school-to-prison pipeline, Notes From the Field. “Her process is genius,” he said. “As much as I can absorb from her, I’m just trying to find ways that I can use blues and swing to tell these different stories.”

In many ways, Shelby has turned his orchestra into an exemplar of the kind of equitable society he advocates for off the bandstand. It’s an ensemble that embodies the diversity that makes the Bay Area such a creative hothouse, where the horn section features veteran masters sitting next to rising teenagers. Over the years, he’s become increasingly proactive in making sure that women are well represented in the band.

“I’ve thought a lot about how an ensemble can create an overall expression and the diversity of the band can really enhance that,” he said. “A big band looks like a village, with good young players, older players who can serve as mentors, and everything in between.”

The Healdsburg Jazz Festival offers a larger forum for his ideas and Shelby is committed to continuing the festival’s track record as a binding force in the town. With the support of Emeritus Artistic Director Felix, who will be on call for advice, he sees a bright, innovative future for an event that has earned universal respect for uncompromising standards.

“One of my goals is to maintain a strong local and Bay Area presence,” Shelby said. “I realize you can’t book everybody. 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.”