The Healdsburg Jazz Festival is back. And so is Jessica Felix.
After the outpouring of support for Felix, the current Board of Directors of the Healdsburg Jazz Festival has voted unanimously to reinstate Jessica Felix to the Board and to elect her Chairperson. All five members of the current Board are resigning, effective immediately. Felix will book a jazz festival in 2011, and will form a new Board.
This isn’t just great news—it’s incredible news. How rare is it that an entire Board of Directors resigns over public outcry? Over a small little town’s jazz festival?
I called Felix, who’d just returned from signing papers and putting her name back on the bank account. “I’m so glad,” she told me. “I’m just overwhelmed by all the support. It’s been heartwarming to know how much people care.”
As reported earlier, Felix was fired five weeks ago from the Healdsburg Jazz Festival, which she founded in 1999, and the Festival Board announced a hiatus for the 2011 season. Multiple media outlets covered the actions taken by the Board, including this one, and comments protesting the decision piled up at the festival’s website. The Board bluntly erased them all, apparently oblivious to Google cache; this only prompted more online comments from fans and musicians alike, including George Cables, David Weiss, Charlie Musselwhite, Bennett Friedman, Adam Theis and many more.
Key among the responses were those from Kathy Martin of Santa Rosa Systems, pledging to cancel her annual $25,000 sponsorship, and Babatunde Lea, who vowed without Felix not to participate in the Operation Jazz Band program in area schools, the only activity the Board had planned for 2011.
Felix said she heard the news by email.
“We have a victory—we’ve got a festival back with a tremendous debt,” she laughed. “It was a fight for jazz, and jazz won, and we haven’t won the battle yet, but jazz really won out here.”
Winning the economic battle means erasing the $30,000 debt that the festival faces, and to that end, Felix is planning the 2011 Festival as a benefit. She also says she’ll increase her outreach to area restaurants and wineries. “Now people realize finally that this festival cannot be taken for granted, and that it meant something,” she said. “That’s what shocked me. How much it meant to people.”
As reported earlier, the Healdsburg Jazz Festival’s Board of Directors last month fired festival founder and artistic director Jessica Felix. And guess what? People were mad! Musicians who played the festival vowed to return only if Felix was back on as artistic director, sponsors who contributed $25,000 per year pledged to cease their financial support in Felix’s absence, and fans lamented the very plain and obvious fact that firing Felix is tantamount to ripping out the heart of the festival.
All this happened in the comments section of the Healdsburg Jazz Festival’s website. It was a lively forum of voices—mostly smart, some funny, all of them upset—but apparently, it was too much for the Board of Directors to handle. All the comments were removed from the site yesterday. Says the home page: “For further comments, please email us at [email protected]”
I’ve made my opinions on the matter of Felix’s firing pretty clear so far, but this latest action of erasing people’s public comments is completely atrocious. So with the aid of Google cache, here’s the collected 46 comments that were taken down from the Healdsburg Jazz Festival’s site. Click through below to read them all, and feel free to continue to comment below.
[UPDATE: It worked! Felix is back and so is the festival. Read here.]
In a shocking, upsetting announcement, the Board of Directors for the Healdsburg Jazz Festival announced today that there will be no Healdsburg Jazz Festival in 2011.
What’s more, festival founder and Artistic Director Jessica Felix has been voted out by the Board, and will no longer be a part of the Healdsburg Jazz Festival she started 12 years ago.
Citing the poor economy, the Board says they’ll focus instead on their music education program which for 10 years has brought jazz to area schools. “There also seems to be a more limited audience for pure jazz in the community as evidenced by lower ticket sales,” Board president Pat Templin says. “There may be an opportunity to broaden the offering in the future. We need to find a winning model that will interest more people and businesses in the community to get involved, provide financial support and to attend a revised music festival.”
A “revised music festival.” A “limited audience for pure jazz.” An “opportunity to broaden the offering.” These are not good harbingers of things to come.
I called Felix to find out what happened. She said she couldn’t comment until she spoke with a lawyer, a bad sign. “I was totally surprised,” she said.
Reached by phone, Board president Pat Templin told me that there are “no plans” to reinstate Jessica Felix in 2012, adding that it was decision not made lightly, and one borne of finances instead of artistic vision (the festival, she stresses, will not move in a smooth jazz direction).
“She’s an amazing person, she’s done an amazing thing, and we’re trying to build on her legacy,” Templin says. “We’re committed to jazz, and to maintaining that reputation. And we’re also interested in some of what the community has told us, that there might be other genres that support the kind of jazz we do.” What other genres might those be? “One is blues,” Templin says.
If Felix can’t comment, then I will: The Healdsburg Jazz Festival as we know it is committing artistic suicide.
As a journalist, I’ve butted heads with Felix a couple times, but one thing I’ve never, ever questioned is her top-quality booking for the festival. I assume this so-called “limited audience for pure jazz” wasn’t part of the sold-out crowd this year for Ravi Coltrane and Charlie Haden, the sold-out crowd for Esperanza Spalding, or the full crowd for Jason Moran and Bill Frisell.
And that’s just in the last year alone. Previous festivals have hosted, to great acclaim, Joshua Redman, Billy Higgins, Andrew Hill, Bobby Hutcherson, Jim Hall, Dave Holland, McCoy Tyner, Pharoah Sanders, Jackie McLean, Joe Lovano, Kenny Garrett, Frank Morgan and Dave Brubeck. Look at those names—and then find me another jazz festival booker in a town with a population of only 10,000 who can attract such stature.
The community needs the Healdsburg Jazz Festival, but in particular it needs the festival as booked by someone well-connected, passionate and knowledgeable about jazz. That someone is and always has been Jessica Felix. She’s taken creative risks that have paid off—such as two sold-out shows with the decidedly avant-garde Trio 3 last year—and that’s because over the last 12 years she’s cultivated an audience for jazz in Sonoma County. She’s even saved the festival money by putting up musicians in her home, and finding other local hospitable jazz fans to do the same.
As for ticket sales? The slump isn’t just in Healdsburg—concert ticket sales have been down significantly nationwide; Templin admits she’s aware of this too. So sure, a scaling back on the festival makes sense. A focus on music education is good for attracting new sponsors. A one-year hiatus in 2011, painful as it may be, may be necessary.
But in reorganizing, there’s one thing the Board shouldn’t overlook, and that’s the respect Felix has earned from the artists and fans in the jazz world. Every musician playing the Healdsburg Jazz Festival who I’ve interviewed for the Bohemian in the last six years has praised Felix’s devotion, without my asking. The national reputation of the festival speaks to her great work.
If she wants to continue booking the festival she founded—and it seems like she does—I can’t think of any reason to stop her from doing so.
[UPDATE: The Board of Directors have removed all public comments from their website. I’ve reposted them here.]
[UPDATE: It worked! Jessica’s back and so is the festival. Read here.]