Healdsburg Freedom Jazz Choir celebrates the legacy of Louis Armstrong

By Kat Gore

On Friday, March 4, the Healdsburg Freedom Jazz Choir, sponsored by the Healdsburg Jazz Festival (HJF), will perform in a special Black History Month concert with the Marcus Shelby Ensemble at the Raven Theater in Healdsburg. The free show will focus on the music and legacy of trumpet player and singer Louis Armstrong and his classic song, “What a Wonderful World.” Armstrong found his musical inspiration at juvenile hall at age 11, then went on to become an influential jazz figure in the world of music.

The choir is directed by composer, bassist, educator and activist Marcus Shelby, who has worked as a professional musician for 25 years.
“I can’t say enough how fortunate our area is to have Marcus so dedicated to working with our students and adults. He’s a great treasure to the world, as an educator, human and teacher,” said Healdsburg Jazz Festival Executive and Artistic Director Jessica Felix.

Shelby is writing original arrangements and orchestrations of Louis Armstrong music that will be performed at the show. “It’s a good way to come see people in your community participate in this multi-artistic project,” Shelby said about the concert. “We always choose a theme that is captivating and intriguing, not only from an entertainment aspect but from an educational aspect.”

The choir had four rehearsals in January and February to get ready for the March 4 performance. The choir is free to join every year and is open to anyone who wants to sing.

The Healdsburg Freedom Jazz Choir began in 2013. The idea for a community-based choir came from HJF’s Black History Month Education Program, a school workshop and concert series that Shelby teaches in the month of February.

“Out of these education visits was birthed the idea of creating an adult choir that would be based in the Sonoma County area and open to everyone,” Shelby said.

The music that the choir learns correlates with themes and key figures that students learn about during Black History Month. Shelby credits Felix with the idea and Felix said the choir wouldn’t be possible without Shelby.

“With the choir, for me, it’s a long-term vision. What we’re trying to accomplish is learning the great vast repertoire of our music that has come from the likes of people such as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Nina Simone, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and so forth,” Shelby said.

Shelby said that the choir is continuing its journey of learning music. “This year, we’re taking on the music of Louis Armstrong, a great trumpet player and great singer. In a way, he’s the father of this music because he brought such a unique approach that set the standard for how this music has been played… He had such a big influence on the music that it’s hard to imagine it without his presence.”
Shelby brings a historical perspective to the choir. “We talk about the history and learn the music. It’s one way that the various communities in Sonoma County can get to meet each other,” he said.

The concert will showcase the choir performance, instrumental pieces by the Marcus Shelby Ensemble, spoken word and possibly other art-related features. A student choir and band will perform before the Healdsburg Freedom Jazz Choir comes on stage. “We do our very best to put on a spectacular concert featuring the choir, soloists, great musicians from the Bay Area and our young people. It’s a very interesting collaboration between an institution, creative artists and the general population,” Shelby said.

“It’s a great experience and great music. The energy is amazing and it’s steeped in history and ties together the Black History Month programs. What’s not to like?” Felix said.

More Shows & Classes
March 6: A parlor jazz show with the Claudia Villela and Vitor Gonçalves Duo will celebrate the music of Elis Regina, plus originals, some sambas and more. 7 p.m., Paul Mahder Gallery, Healdsburg.
Two Classes: “Oral History with Billy Hart.” Jazz drummer and educator Hart will take people on a tour of his musical history from his early years until the present day. April 21, 1-3 p.m., Sonoma State University; April 23, noon-3 p.m, in Healdsburg (site TBD).
Live Jazz at The Hotel Healdsburg, every Saturday, 6:30-9:30 p.m. in the hotel lobby. No cover charge; presented by The Healdsburg Jazz Festival and Hotel Healdsburg.   SD
Visit headsburgjazz.org for details and ticket information.