Marcus Shelby Big Band with Tiffany Austin and the Freedom Jazz Choir, plus special guests James Newton and Ruth Naomi Floyd
Sunday, June 10, Noon
Event patron – Beth Berkson and Rob Das
In the early 2000s, Marcus Shelby, already an esteemed bassist and bandleader in San Francisco, got a notion use music to highlight periods of struggle and uplift in American history. He composed several suites for jazz orchestra, including one about escaped slave and abolitionist Harriett Tubman, and another about Martin Luther King Jr., that were widely embraced on disc and in live tours around the country.
When Marcus started working with the Healdsburg Jazz organization he got another idea: Why not try to include area residents of any age or experience level in the professional performance? His insight was that this could be done with the power of voices – huge numbers of them – in collaboration with professional musicians. In 2013 with help from a grant from the James Irvine Foundation, Marcus and Healdsburg Jazz christened the Healdsburg Jazz Freedom Jazz Choir, putting out the call and over a 100 joined up to come and sing, under the guidance of musicians such as himself, soul-jazz singer Tiffany Austin as co-director, and with the Joyous Noise Community Baptist Church Ensemble of Santa Rosa.
The result was something of a miracle. After several rehearsals, the immense chorus came together. Using material from Marcus’ Dr. King album “Soul of the Movement “along with spirituals like “There Is a Balm in Gilead” and “We Shall Overcome,” the orchestra, chorus, and soloists put on three concerts around Sonoma County, galvanizing the community with the power of song.
The process was repeated for three years, with different collaborators and guest singers, and now, for the Healdsburg Jazz Festival’s 20th anniversary, it is happening again. The Raven Theater will be the venue for Lift Every Voice and Sing featuring the Marcus Shelby Big Band, the 100-piece Freedom Jazz Choir, and special guests Ruth Naomi Floyd (at right) and James Newton (below left). Suffice it to say, the grace and healing force that this concert will provide is needed more than ever after tragic fires that ravaged so much of the area last fall.
Ruth, a jazz and gospel singer from Philadelphia, possesses a spine-tingling mezzo-soprano that lifts her songs of devotion up to a lofty place. James is a distinguished composer, conductor, and professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. Marcus is especially delighted to be working with James because the bassist studied with him at Cal Arts Valencia and considers him a musical and spiritual mentor. James and Ruth have worked together at previous Healdsburg festivals, but never with Marcus. In addition to assembling the Freedom Jazz Choirs, Marcus has long been involved with Healdsburg Jazz’s music education efforts, including conducting bands and choirs at local schools involving 800 students each year.
The centerpiece of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” will be the song of the same name, written in 1900 as a poem by James Weldon Johnson and put to music five years later by his brother, John Rosamond Johnson. With multiple movements, tricky melodies, and sophisticated harmonic variations, the song sounds remarkably current, and its lyrics are wholly appropriate to our time. Marcus’ 20-piece jazz orchestra will undoubtedly find much to engage with in this song, and it is thrilling to imagine Ruth taking it on with her Olympian voice and inspiring presence.
A powerful singer in her own right, choir co-director Tiffany will also have some moments in the spotlight. Once the 100 voices of the Freedom Jazz Choir kick in, the sky’s the limit. The Healdsburg Jazz Festival is grateful for the opportunity to again bring the community together for songs of exultation, sung powerfully, that touch the human heart and lift the spirit.