Marcus Shelby takes helm at Healdsburg Jazz Festival

The festival is known for its hospitality and its respect for what founder Jessica Felix called “real jazz,” not muted pop versions.|

San Francisco jazz bassist, bandleader and composer Marcus Shelby has been a player at the annual Healdsburg Jazz Festival for more than a decade, and in more ways than one.

But now that’s he been named the festival’s new artistic director, he wants everyone to know he’s only just begun.

“I like the idea of stepping into this role,” he said. “I’m definitely up for working with an international festival in beautiful Wine Country. I plan to make the Healdsburg Jazz Festival my artistic home.”

For the first time since the festival was founded in 1999, this year’s event was canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic, but the organization has continued with online performances.

“We’re giving you a little taste of how the festival is rolling with our monthly Zoom concerts,” Shelby said.

The festival will present its hourlong “virtual gala,” publicly introducing Shelby as the new artistic director, at 6 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 7, for a minimum donation of $15. The event will include performances by Shelby, vocalist Tiffany Austin, Latin sensation Mónica María, poet laureate Enid Pickett and pianist Tammy Hall.

Next, jazz organist Joey DeFrancesco performs live on Zoom from 5 to 7 p.m. Nov. 22, with guest artists drummer Billy Hart and tenor saxophonist Jerry Weldon. Free registration required, and donations are welcome.

For more information, go to

Beyond the online events, Shelby has ambitious ideas for the future in spite of, or even because of, the pandemic.

“This gives us the opportunity to expand the festival outdoors, to wineries and parks and downtown Healdsburg, with all its nooks, crannies, courtyards, side streets and rooftops,” Shelby said.

Shelby, 54, has brought his big band to the festival four times over its 21-year history and has joined in performances by other acts there. But that’s not nearly the sum total of his involvement.

He has known the festival’s recently retired founder, Jessica Felix, for 30 years. He has served as music director and conductor of the 100-voice Healdsburg Freedom Jazz Choir and Youth Choir and Ensemble for the past eight years.

Since 2012, he also has headed the festival’s annual Black History Month program in February for students in grades three through six. For the future, he wants the festival’s educational efforts to reach even further.

“I look at Black history and the history of the music through the lens of social justice,” Shelby said. “Black History Month is fine, but we will program for the whole year. We might celebrate Juneteenth.”

Juneteenth, celebrated June 19, commemorates the emancipation of slaves in the United States.

The Healdsburg festival is known for its hospitality to musicians and its respect for what founder Felix called “real jazz,” not muted pop versions.

“That won’t change. I’m an artist, so I’ve been on the other side,” Shelby said. “That’s going to be our core vision: the authenticity of this music. I’m very committed to my musical ancestors. I just want to do right and do good work. I want to lift up my musical community and the community of Healdsburg.”

Born in Alaska in 1966, Shelby has been a major player in the San Francisco Bay Area jazz scene for nearly a quarter of a century. He is best known for his leadership of the Marcus Shelby Jazz Orchestra, a 16-piece big band that performs his original compositions.

His work includes several oratorios, suites and concert-length programs inspired by African American history, including “Port Chicago” (2006), “Harriet Tubman” (2007) and “Soul of the Movement: Meditations on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.” (2011).

Shelby has served as Artist in Residence at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and Composer in Residence at Intersection for the Arts. In 2013, Shelby was appointed to the San Francisco Arts Commission.

Now his professional focus is on Healdsburg.

“I love Healdsburg,” Shelby said. “When the festival comes, everybody’s excited. I’ve spent a lot of time there. I feel a kinship with the town.”

You can reach Staff Writer Dan Taylor at or 707-521-5243. On Twitter @danarts.

Dan Taylor

Arts & Entertainment, The Press Democrat

Do you take fun seriously? I know I do. Tell me what you want to know about arts and entertainment in the North Bay to make the best use of your leisure time and money. As a longtime local arts journalist, I have learned where to look and who to ask.

UPDATED: Please read and follow our commenting policy:

  • This is a family newspaper, please use a kind and respectful tone.
  • No profanity, hate speech or personal attacks. No off-topic remarks.
  • No disinformation about current events.
  • We will remove any comments — or commenters — that do not follow this commenting policy.