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The Merion Inn: A Jazz Gem in Cape May, New Jersey

Budd Kopman By

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Cape May, New Jersey is one of the oldest resort towns in the United States. Dating back to the Victorian Era, it has, over the past few decades hosted jazz festivals in April and November.

The Merion Inn, on Decatur Street, is one of the oldest bar/restaurants in Cape May. It is a place for adults who value a good (real) martini, good food and good vibes created by top-notch jazz pianists playing daily from 5 PM, and a jazz trio performing at 8:30 PM, usually on Tuesdays. The Merion has effectively become "jazz central" for the town.

The piano chair was held down for years, until his untimely death, by George Mesterhazy, who was well known for his encyclopedic song list, quirky sense of humor and an exquisite musical sensibility.

Since Mesterhazy's death in 2012 (see here and here for a celebration of his life), many very fine pianists have continued the tradition, including Barry Miles, Dean Schneider, Bob Albanese, Rich Siegel and Jon Pruitt

During the peak season, the bar will be three-deep, and tables in the lounge room are at a premium. Of course, Cape May is a tourist town, and earlier in the evening requests for say, Beatle or Billy Joel tunes are not uncommon. But later, around 8:30 or 9:00 PM, after the early bird rush when the crowd has thinned out, those present, many of whom are local regulars, are there for the music. At these times, the magic can, and often does happen—the pianists get more adventurous and the requests more jazz worthy, creating a strong sense of camaraderie and appreciation of the musicianship.

This writer schedules stays in Cape May around Tuesdays because everything stated above intensifies when the trio plays. Anchored by the very sensitive drummer, Bob Shomo, and currently, bassist Andy Lalasis, the pianist of the evening can really let go knowing he can turn on a dime if he wishes, and that those who are there will be listening. To top things off, many times other musicians (like guitarist Rick Hannah, saxophonist Robert Rawlins or vocalist Gabrielle Stravelli) who happen to be in town will stop and join in.

At these times, the lounge becomes an intimate music gallery; some wonderful personal experiences include a stunning fifteen-minute "Footprints" (Wayne Shorter) with Miles leading the trio and a set with Albanese at the piano, virtually stolen by Lalasis (who has taken the bass chair long held by Tim Lekan, and hence new to us).

Any jazz lover who happens, or intends, to be near Exit 0 on the Garden State Parkway in New Jersey would do well to stop into the Merion Inn after 5 PM for a good drink, good food and excellent music.

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