Exit O Jazz Festival

Remember the old Dick Gibson Jazz Party? Back in 1963 a jazz-loving Colorado-based businessman named Dick Gibson began importing a couple dozen or so great jazz musicians to perform a sort of rotating, marathon jam session at a hotel in Aspen, which became a hotel in Denver, over Labor Day Weekend. For 30 years this was one of the annual jazz gatherings, reported enthusiastically by jazz writers such as Ira Gitler and Gary Giddins. Jazz being many things to many people, Gibson’s proclivity veered towards the swing side and his audience loved the organized jam session atmosphere. Musically-speaking the Gibson Jazz Party was anything but pan-stylistic; it had a particular stylistic wheelhouse and operated solely within that turf. From all accounts I read down through the years, if Dexter Gordon had attended one of these events it could well have inspired his famous phrase “Bebop is the music of the future.”

Fast forward to the 21st century and such gatherings, which during the 70s and 80s seemed to proliferate a bit in the wake of Gibson’s happy success, have morphed into jazz festivals to varying degrees. DC-area vocalist Ronnie Wells spawned a similar tradition with her former East Coast Jazz Festival, which three years ago was reincarnated as the Mid-Atlantic Jazz Festival every February. The idea in that instance was to host a weekend-long potpourri of jazz and jazz education activities in a hotel in Rockville, MD (formerly the Doubletree, now the Hilton home of MAJF), thus encouraging traveling jazz fans to cozy up to great jazz under one roof in their place of lodging (we’ll have info on the 2013 MAJF for you shortly). Stylistically the boundaries have broadened from the Gibson Jazz Party, but the basic idea was the same.

A similar off-season, weekend event flourished for a good while in the resort town of Cape May, New Jersey. But alas, reportedly done in by internal squabbling within the producing entity, the Cape May Jazz Festival vanished. Clearly such an off-season happening made good business sense for the largely boutique-based Cape May economy (one which is refreshingly devoid of chain businesses) and independent hotel community of Cape May, so the festival has been reincarnated as the Exit 0 Jazz Festival (Cape May, which was spared the heavy-duty wrath of Sandy that befell many of its Jersey Shore brethren towns to the north, is located at the southernmost point of the Garden State Parkway – literally at Exit 0.)

I had the good fortune of being invited to Cape May to MC some of the sets by the producer, old friend Michael Kline whom I’d known from his New Orleans days on WWOZ (more from him in a moment), and left there impressed on a number of levels. Not least of those was the relaxed atmosphere; like its predecessor, the Exit 0 Jazz Festival could well be described as a 2-1/2 day jazz pub crawl as the venues were all easily accessible joints, all within a 4-block expanse of Ocean Drive on the shore. The lone exception venue was the ballroom of Cape May’s spiffy new Convention Hall. Two of the venues were in fact adjoining spaces in one club, which led to a humorous sound bleed only noticeable in between selections from one room to the next, but neither the audience nor the musicians were bugged by that because the vibe was so cheerful all weekend.

Drummer Ulysses Owens boasted a brass-proud frontline of trumpeter Freddy Hendrix and trombonist Mike Dease, with Ben Williams on bass and Christian Sands on keys

The lineup skewed younger than I remember the posted lineups of its predecessor festival (and certainly younger than those classic jazz parties that sprang up in the wake of the Gibson soiree). NEA Jazz Master Ramsey Lewis and octogenarian vocal hipster Mark Murphy were the vets in the house, otherwise such younger artists as drummer-banleaders Henry Cole, Ulysses Owens, Antonio Sanchez, and Pedrito Martinez, bassist Ben Williams & Sound Effect, vocalists Claudia Acuna, Sachal Vasandani, and Marianne Solivan, trumpeter Brandon Lee, plus saxophonists Marcus Strickland and Dahi Divine delighted healthy audiences, generally for two sets over the course of two matinee and two evening sessions. Still youthful-but-approaching their jazz middle age contributors Nicholas Payton (notably with Lenny White on drums), Christian McBride, Bobby Broom with his fellow groove merchants the Deep Blue Organ Trio, and Orrin Evans (Captain Black Big Band) led exceptional bands as well, McBride and Evans – ala Ramsey – at the Convention Hall. Proving that once you get immersed in New Orleans you never truly leave, Kline imported NOLA’s The Stooges Brass Band for two raucous party nights at Cabanas, the Joe Krown Trio (with Walter “Wolfman” Washington on guitar), and the sublime spins of DJ Soul Sister (straight outta ‘OZ) to put a hump in the dancer’s hips. Pass holders moved freely from venue to venue sampling the artistry.

Marcus Strickland on tenor, Orrin Evans on keys

WWOZ’s DJ Soul Sister brought her educated spins to Exit 0

Proving Cape May’s irresistible off-season allure, there was a sizable contingent of holdovers at Exit 0 from its predecessor event, which enhanced the party/jazz reunion atmosphere. Sharing our table on Friday evening with a couple from Philly and North Jersey for Payton’s rewarding set, Nicholas ambidextrously manipulating his trumpet and picking out tasty chords on Fender-Rhodes (often simultaneously), we were informed that the predecessor festival had gotten a bit stale around the edges lineup-wise and they welcomed this new festival and its “fresher” lineup. One of the benefits of such a format, where the artists arrive by car, stay in town, play multiple sets and breathe for a minute is the opportunity for the patrons to chat and get up close & personal with the musicians in a relaxed atmosphere.

Chilean songbird Claudia Acuna, with Henry Cole on drums

Clearly some questions were in order for Exit 0 Jazz Festival producer Michael Kline…

What brought a dedicated Crescent City resident like you to live in Cape May, New Jersey?

Growing up I spent a great deal of my time in Cape May. My parents bought a summer house when I was 4 and we traveled from Reading, PA to Cape May every Friday and back home on Sunday. I lived in Cape May for 9 years following graduation from Albright College and moved to New Orleans in 1992. We came back to Cape May after Katrina as my parents had retired and moved to Cape May permanently. It was a safe landing place after Katrina.

I first met you as a radio guy at WWOZ, then later you opened your own shop as a jazz booking agent. What’s the genesis of your producing this festival?

I watched with dismay as the Friends of Jazz tore themselves apart with in-fighting and other nonsense. I took it as a challenge to take on producing a new Festival upon the demise of Cape May Jazz in November of 2011. Seemed to me that a Festival here in Cape May makes a lot of sense and I can’t help but think there is the potential for this Festival to become an iconic festival because of the qualities that are unique to Cape May – an unbelievably beautiful seaside town, monster population within a 3 hour drive, and a community that is receptive to the arts.

Obviously this is an off-season activity for a resort area. How does that factor into the presentation of this festival?

Cape May is much different than other resorts in that it is for all intents and purposes just about a year round resort. Because of the architecture, beach, birding and other activities most businesses in town are able to remain open throughout the year. The business community is receptive to an event like the jazz festival because obviously, if it is marketed correctly, the Festival can greatly increase hotel occupancy rates in the fall and generate a nice economic boost for the town as it begins to enter the slower months. From the point of view of Festival production, the time of the year makes it more likely to get some great help in the areas of hotels, meals, venues,. etc.

Often festivals of this nature often feature older artists. Yours skewed younger; what went into that thinking?

Jazz has to get younger. You hear that all the time but I really thought we had a very good opportunity to do this by using the personality of the club venues to present artists that skewed younger. Why would the Festival change the vibe of a club that 11 months out of the year caters to a young audience? I thought we could present artists like the Stooges Brass Band, Pedrito Martinez and Henry Cole and the Afrobeat Collective – all bands that get played on stations like WXPN in Philly and bands that have performed at festivals like Bonnarroo- to accomplish the goal of skewing younger. And if I can sneak in the Marcus Stricklands, Ben Williams, Marianne Solivan’s, and Brandon Lee’s in the club next door, I had to tackle that. I think it was successful.

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