After producing 28 jazz festivals in 14 years, Cape May Jazz Festival Co-Founder Carol Stone and her team found themselves at a bit of a turning point when they began planning this spring's 29th edition. The festival has featured weekends each April and November that extend the tourist season in New Jersey's historic southernmost city.
Over the years, the festival built a substantial audience draw by offering schedules filled with top-name, primarily older musicians who became festival favoritesand regularsover the years (Herbie Mann, Jimmy Scott, Oscar Brown Jr. and Clark Terry, as well as regional perennials such as Philly saxophonist Bootsie Barnes and blues singer Frank Bey.
Stone said attendance that had grown to nearly 10,000 per weekend some four years ago was down as much as 1,000 to 1,500 per weekend for the last few years. Credit it to the economy, the price of gas, more musical choices closer to homeor perhaps the festival's somewhat mainstream reputation.
So for 2008, there was a dramatic programming shift to focus on "The Next Wave," consisting younger talents that Cape May regular attendees should get to know and hear up close, or that might appeal to younger people who will become the festival's future audience.
Many Saturday jam session perennials from the Philly-South Jersey corridor, including Barnes, Bey and guitarist Jimi Odell, were absent this year as the festival focused on the youth movement.
The festival had a decidedly different and not all uncomfortable feel from this change. Regulars were more caught off guard by venue shifts required after the city shut down the festival's principal venue, the Cape May Convention Hall, just two weeks before the festival due to structural concerns.
The 29th Cape May Jazz Festival opened not only with a younger flavor, but a contemporary jazz flavor on Friday, April 18 with The Rippingtons at the Lower Cape May Regional High School's acoustically and visually excellent Performing Arts Center, absent percussionist Steve Reid and with Paul Taylor subbing for Jeff Kashiwa on sax.
Music could be found at venues up and down Beach Avenue all night Friday, as well as other venues a few blocks away, such as the Latin quartet of pianist Chuchito Valdes (son of Chucho, grandson of Bebo) who carried on his family's Afro-Cuban piano legacy at Star of the Sea Auditorium.
Trumpeter Christian Scott, featured with pianist Courtney Bryan's trio at Carney's Other Room, provided one of the festival's most poignant moments with "Litany Against Fear," which he wrote after a conversation with a confused and fearful young boy in New Orleans on a trip home after Hurricane Katrina.
On Saturday afternoon, a time the festival devotes to jam sessions in four venues, trumpeter Ray Vega's New Generation Orchestra was featured in a Latin jam at Aleathea's Restaurant at the Inn of Cape May. Valdes sat in on "Descarga Cubana" at the end of the first set. During the second set, trumpeter Christian Scott joined Vega's excellent horn line for a crowd-pleasing version of Dizzy Gillespie's "A Night in Tunisia."
Tenor saxophonist Javon Jackson was Saturday evening's headliner, drawing a packed house at the high school's Performing Arts Center. Jackson's quartet, with guitarist David Gilmore, bassist Kenny Davis and drummer Rudy Royston, opened with John Coltrane's "Impressions" and quickly segued to a series of original tunes that built on its intense spirit.
Pianist Rachel Z and saxophonist Tim Price teamed up for a wonderful three-set evening at the Marquis de Lafayette's Victorian Gardens room with funk- and hip hop-influenced drummer Bobbie Ray and Maeve Royce, an exceptional young upright bassist. Royce is a versatile timekeeper and soloist to keep an eye on well into the future. Their music, drawing from both jazz and rock, was superb.
The festival also afforded major spotlights to pianist Robert Glasper's trio; Somi, a singer born in Illinois to East African parents, who blends her beautiful, crystalline flowing voice with jazz and African rhythms and traditions; West Coast singer Kim Nalley; Sila and the Afrofunk Experience; blues singers Anthony Gomes and Chris Bergson; drummers Neal Smith and Winard Harper; and trumpeters Leon Jordan Jr. and Eleazar Shafer.
April 2008 attendees were able to hear some great younger talent, and enjoy the warmest weekend of the spring.