Heart & Soul

Marcus Shelby's journeys through Healdsburg, Pixar and beyond

Near the start of Disney/Pixar’s latest animated film Soul, the character Ray Gardner encourages his son to appreciate live music: “Black improvisational music,” he says. “It’s one of our great contributions to American culture. At least give it a chance, Joey!”

PHOTO COLLAGE COURTESY OF MALIK SENEFRU
HOME BASS: Marcus Shelby is a Bay Area musician, bandleader, composer and educator.

“This is where it all started! This is the moment where I fell in love with jazz!” says actor Jamie Foxx, playing the now-grown-up Joe Gardner.

It’s a small moment in a big film. Soul was one of the two most-watched motion pictures across streaming platforms in December 2020, and its box office earnings hover around $7.5 million. Six seconds, the time it takes Ray Gardner to change his son’s life, isn’t long. But Nielsen ratings are calculated in time spent, and Soul tops the most-watched list over the 2020 Christmas weekend: Americans watched Soul for over 1.66 billion minutes.

The voice of Ray Gardner is Bay Area musician, bandleader, composer and educator Marcus Shelby, who is also the artistic director of the Healdsburg Jazz Festival. For Shelby, the three lines are a cool moment in a big life.

On a cloudy day in early 2021, Shelby has just wrapped up the Festival’s annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day performances. In the event video, he appears a calm, commanding presence, watchful from behind a flawlessly polished, mahogany-hued standup bass. Over the phone, he says he got the role the old-fashioned way: a Pixar casting director called him. Having done a little voice acting in Los Angeles in the past, he was ready, if a bit baffled. Why him?

“There’s 15,000 voice actors between here and New York, right?” he asks.

But off he went, to Emeryville.

“I was not improvising,” Shelby says, laughing, but also serious. “I went in there thinking about my colleagues, about Margo and Rhodessa [Hall and Jones, who also appear in Soul] and Intersection for the Arts and Campo Santo and Sean San Jose,” he says, ticking off Bay Area giants of independent theater. “They’re very disciplined about these things, so I went in there with that mindset.” He recorded the lines two or three times, and that was it.

“About a month later—it seemed like a year—I got a call: ‘We need your W-9.'” And he was in.

The lines resonated with Shelby immediately. “This is a natural way I’m always talking to kids anyway,” he says. “And I refuse to just call myself a jazz musician, or even contain music that way anymore. I think the great Black musicians in our music, that created this—they never adhered to this nomenclature. Charles Mingus, Nina Simone, even Duke Ellington—did they have to?” he asks.

As for his own kids, “Have I tried to convince them to like jazz? No, no. I mean, yeah.” Shelby’s more interested in what he learns from his two daughters, 11 and 18, than in what he’s taught them. The eldest studies “something they call” World Jazz at UCLA, he says, and she loves hip-hop and pop, and makes him playlists. “My 11-year-old is part of the TikTok nation,” he says. She likes Billie Eilish, ABBA and the Hamilton soundtrack. He values musical conversation with both of them, profoundly.

“If you work with kids, you want to be able to understand how they’re expressing themselves,” he says. “And perhaps how to meet them there. Music carries so much information and communication, I don’t think it hurts to get to know it a little better.” He laughs. “Not saying you have to like it.”

His youngest can’t stop watching Soul. “I think she’s seen it five times,” Shelby says. “I’ve only seen it once!”

Skylaer Palacios is an expert on Healdsburg. She grew up there, lives there, won the Miss Sonoma County pageant and is the first Latinx and the first Black person to serve as City Councilmember. She has stories. Among them is a vivid memory of the Healdsburg Jazz Festival’s programming from her first year in junior high school.

“They came to the Raven theater, and they did a show, and some kids got to hold instruments or play instruments onstage,” she says by phone.

“I remember, to this day, someone talking about rhythm & blues. And they told us what the blues was, and how most music comes from that form of blues. And that’s stayed with me,” she says. Her voice sounds every bit as young as her 25 years—sweet, yet steady and confident.

“On a cultural level, I also connected with it, being the only ambiguous, and usually, the only Black student in my grade. There was a certain sense of ‘This is a part of me,'” she says. “I was probably 12 years old.” The music history she learned through the Healdsburg Jazz Festival stayed relevant through college, she says, and remains important to her as a musician herself.

As Councilmember, Palacios has worked with Shelby (she appeared in the Healdsberg Jazz Festival’s MLK Jr. Day show) and recounted her memory to him. His response? “That was probably me up there!” Palacios was shocked, but the now-artistic director developed many of the festival’s programs, and has been part of them for years—standing on the Raven theater stage, metaphorically encouraging young listeners to “At least give it a chance.”

Healdsburg Mayor Evelyn Mitchell headed home from Santa Rosa one afternoon in late January, and took a small detour.

“I don’t have to go through downtown to get to my house, but I drove through downtown on purpose to see what it looked like,” she says over the phone, describing the pandemic-induced emptiness of the town’s historic plaza. The tables in the rain, the closed umbrellas.

Not one to be kept down by a mere virus, she begins speaking about the Jazz Festival cheerfully and in the present tense. “It’s a great opportunity for all of us to hear music, but also to get educated on jazz, and the African American community’s role in jazz, and the history of it.”

Like all mayors, she’s also the Mayor of Boostertown.

“Plus, it brings a lot of people to our community; we’re a tourist-based town,” she says. “It’s a vibrant, exciting time when it’s going on!” She’s aware, as all Healdsburgers seem to be, that the festival’s previous artistic director, Jessica Felix, was greatly beloved.

“Jessica’s shoes are big shoes to fill,” she says. “But I think she’s really laid such a great foundation for [Shelby] to pick it up and create a little more innovation—he’s integrating some poetry and whatnot; it’s a nice, natural progression. He’s doing great!”

“It’s interesting: My relationship with Healdsburg goes back to the ’80s,” Shelby says. He talks about his Sacramento-area high school years; they were lean times. “We never went anywhere. Never. Our parents didn’t have money to travel.” The Highland High basketball team, however, played tournaments for two years running, tournaments held “in, of all places, Healdsburg.”

“There would be families in Healdsburg that would volunteer to put up this basically all-Black basketball team to be part of this tournament,” he says. “So I always had this amazing, welcoming memory of this place. We looked forward to this trip, when we got to go to Healdsburg!”

He doesn’t discount or ignore the racial inequities or the problems the town has had, notoriously, recently.

“I haven’t had any problems or issues or incidences,” he says. “Not that they don’t exist.” Characteristically, he’s interested in spinning the issue into ways he can serve the community through art, and launches into a detailed set of plans for the future of the Healdsburg Jazz Festival. They will continue with the innovations the mayor mentioned, it seems, and with a focus on the local Latinx community and its inherent musical possibilities. How can the festival be an artistic voice, and an extension of the often-overlooked roughly 30 percent of the town? He lists cumbia, Afro-Puerto Rican forms, Afro-Brazilian music, mariachi and more.

“In a community that diverse, and large, in Healdsburg, it can play out in so many different ways,” he says. “With just a little consciousness in how we communicate—by translating our information into Spanish, and just being real intentional in our programming. And we’ve already started that process.”

He goes on outlining plans: artists-in-residence, the all-yearification of Black History Month and his own intention to become ever more part of the fabric of the community. It’s as if he’s speaking to the town that has welcomed him, challenging it to see things in a new way, to follow his lead and to appreciate new things about itself and others. “At least give it a chance, Joey!”

Ultimately, Black improvisational music has found a warm welcome in Healdsburg. Thanks to Marcus Shelby and to a humble, earthy Northern California town, art continues to be given more than just a chance.

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