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March 31, 2023

‘From Africa to Coltrane’ in Schools

Healdsburg Jazz celebrates Black History Month

At Alexander Valley School on Tuesday morning, Destiny Muhammad filled the new multipurpose room with the ethereal sounds of her harp as over 100 K-5 students listened quietly to an instrument it’s probably safe to say most of them had not heard before: They are too young for New Age music or the Marx Brothers.

As she played a series of evocative hymns and jazz meditations, Muhammad took time to mention that the oldest representation of a harp is in Egyptian hieroglyphs of the building of the pyramids—making a harp, like the banjo, a descendant from African instruments. 

Then she turned to the assembly of youngsters in the room and answered their questions on everything from the weight of the harp, to how many strings it has, to how does she keep it tuned, to its name (Paloma, answered the musician). 

“The important thing is to get them engaged,” said Gayle Okumura Sullivan, current executive director of Healdsburg Jazz, of the Tuesday morning assembly at the school. “The students got so much from it. I loved the quote from, I think it was a first-grader, ‘I am so inspired!’”

Muhammad is presenting “From Africa to Alice Coltrane” to primary school students from Cloverdale to Roseland this week. She’ll reprise the program in a free family matinee at the Raven on Feb. 25, this time as a trio with drums and upright bass. That same night, two more concerts round out Healdsburg Jazz’s February offerings. 

Few local groups have given as much attention over the years to Black History Month as has Healdsburg Jazz, the 25-year-old old education and performance nonprofit. “For all these years, I’ve been trying to introduce kids to eloquent and charismatic Black musicians—all they mostly know is athletes and actors,” said Jessica Felix, the festival’s founder. 

In about 2010, Felix, impressed by bassist and bandleader Marcus Shelby’s ability to connect with kids, asked him if he’d like to help create a Black History Month program in Healdsburg. 

Shelby did several week-long music education swings through local schools, until COVID shut down school assemblies, among other things. Now he’s the festival’s artistic director, and has too many other roles to handle as well.

Yet his voice as an educator has not abandoned him. “Imagine a world without swing,” he wrote in a recent newsletter. “Imagine a world without music that changed the course of history during the civil rights movement… Without these contributions from Black artists who taught us as a nation how to creatively reflect our unique and emotional experiences using the language of the blues, we are left with a world muted in its potential.”

On Feb. 25, Shelby will lead his 12-part musical suite, “Soul of the Movement: Meditations on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.,” starting at 6:30pm at the Raven. His 45-minute program will be followed by a concert from blues singer and bandleader Terrie Odabi, on the theme “Blues of Resistance.” Her performance will cover a range of music from the Civil Rights era, including songs by the Staple Singers and others. 

‘Blues of Resistance with Terrie Obadi’ begins at 7:30pm on Feb. 25 at the Raven Theater, 115 North St., Healdsburg. Tickets $18-$35, available at healdsburgjazz.org or from a link on the raventhreater.org website.


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