A three-day festival. More than half a dozen venues. A line-up of performers that’s guaranteed to strike a chord (like what I did there?) with all types of music lovers. Taking place in a town that boasts a distinctive style, charm and history, and a reputation for good old-fashioned fun.
I’m talking about Exit 0 Jazz Festival, Cape May’s two-a-year music celebration that is happening on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, November 11, 12 and 13.
And, if the variety of acts and the three-day weekend, multiple-venue arrangement puts you in mind of other events, most notably the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, that is no coincidence.
I mentioned that notion to Michael Kline, the festival producer, when we talked recently, and learned that Kline had spent several years living and working in NOLA.
“I was lucky enough to be able to really immerse myself in that culture for many years,” he said. “When I first moved there, I volunteered for WWOZ (the city’s outstanding public radio station), and did a show on the station for ten years. Music and WWOZ were my entrée into the whole thing,” he said.
While in New Orleans, Kline also started his own booking agency. And, when he and his family returned to NJ in 2005, Kline still had NOLA performers he was working with.
“When we got back, the old [Cape May Jazz] Festival was still going on,” he said, “and I was hoping to book my guys there.”
But, as is a common story with nonprofits, the festival experienced financial hard times and eventually went under. Kline felt this was unfortunate, not just for the festival, but also for the town. “It was a popular event. It put a stamp on Cape May.”
Kline’s connections to the shore town went way back to his childhood. “Every Friday night, my family would pack the car and we’d drive to Cape May for the weekend.”
So, later, as an adult, Kline felt the pull of that connection again. “Here I am, living in Cape May,” he said, “and I realize that this festival is important to preserve.”
That idea took shape at a Thanksgiving dinner with a table full of friends. “We’re all eating, and drinking, and talking,” he said, “and we decided to go for it.”
The Exit 0 Jazz Festival is now in its fifth year, and presents two weekends of music – one in April and one in November – each year. The festival is run by a small staff and a devoted group of volunteers, and receives strong sponsor support from the business community and Cape May County.
And, as I said, presenting an assortment of performances in a multi-venue format originates from an established model.
“We borrowed liberally from festivals all over the world,” Kline said, “with an eye toward our own setting and the way we would do it.”
Audiences not only have the opportunity to see and hear a variety of performances, they also can see and hear them in different types of venues – from Convention Hall and the ballroom at Congress Hall, to more intimate spots like Iron Pier Craft House or Cabana’s.
“The places are an important part of the experience,” said Kline. “You are able to create your own vibe around the fest.
“We have a quite sophisticated, straight-ahead core jazz audience, and many of them come for that,” he said. “But most people are not familiar with many of the performers. We see the festival as an opportunity to expose them to new artists.”
Another interesting aspect of the festival is the fact that some of the performers don’t seem to fit a strict definition of “jazz.” Kline concurs.
“I talk to a lot of people during the fest who tell me they didn’t think they were ‘jazz fans,’ or who say they don’t understand jazz or know how to listen to it,” he said.
“It’s just American music,” said Kline. But, if you go back and look at its origins, there really is nothing complex or mysterious about jazz.
Kline contends that presenting younger musicians is a good way to break down barriers and expand musical awareness.
“They (young artists) are fresh and creative,” he said. “They draw from many influences, but they also bring in their own experiences, which are dramatically different from those of generations before them.”
As I said, the entire line-up is outstanding and features more than a few big names, like Wynton Marsalis, Pat Martino, Squirrel Nut Zippers and Red Baraat. But I wanted to hear, straight from the producer’s perspective, about a couple of MUST-SEE acts.
“One of those young guys I mentioned is Jamison Ross,” Kline told me. “He is in his 20s, and is a vocalist and drummer from the South. He brings a really soulful, R&B flavor to what he does.
“Another is Cécile McLorin Salvant. I love her approach, and how musical she is,” he continued. “She is an incredible vocalist, and her band is really amazing.”
The fact that Cape May is a resort town brings to another, almost non-music-related feature to the festival.
“There are people who just happen to be here,” Kline said. “And we want to figure out how to bring them in and have them be part of the energy and the experience.
“Cape May has a particular feel – its own style and architecture and history. It is unlike any other Southern New Jersey beach town.
“And Cape May has always welcomed artists and the arts,” Kline added.
“We share a commonality with other unique places around the world, but we work from the palette of Cape May.”
For an Exit 0 Jazz Festival audio preview, Log in here to the Spotify playlist.