Out of the ashes of the Cape May Festival, that biannual jazz party run by Carol Stone and Woody Woodland from 1994 to 2010 (when they finally called it quits), came the Exit Zero Jazz Festival. So named by festival founder Michael Kline -- a former resident of New Orleans and on-air host at radio station WWOZ -- because Cape May is located at the very end (Exit 0) of the Garden State Parkway on the southern tip of the Jersey Shore, it has been a focal point for jazz fans throughout the tri-state area of Jersey, Delaware, Pennsylvania as well as music lovers as far away as Baltimore, New York City and Washington, D.C.
Kline escaped Hurricane Katrina in 2005, leaving his beloved Crescent City behind and returned to Cape May, N.J., where he had spent summers while growing up in Reading, Penn. He launched the Exit Zero Jazz Festival in 2012, the same year that Hurricane Sandy ravaged much of the Jersey shore. “Cape May was very lucky,” Kline recalled of that inaugural Exit Zero event. “There was a lot of sand on Beach Avenue, but for the most part, Cape May came out of Hurricane Sandy unscathed, unlike every other beach town in New Jersey. However, we took a hit with our audience in New Jersey who were dealing with the aftermath of the storm and not able to get to Cape May. We had a full lineup of artists for that first one and a few committed fans.”
In the ensuing years, both the Spring and Fall editions of the Exit Zero Jazz Festival were held indoors at such seaside venues as Carney's Pub, Cabana's, Althea's and the massive Convention Hall in the picturesque national historic landmark city of Cape May. All that changed with the pandemic of 2020. Shifting from indoor venues to two outdoor stages on the grounds of the Exit Zero Ferry Park, located at the Cape May Ferry Terminal, Kline and his resourceful crew were able to bring the festival back for the Fall edition of 2020. "In October of 2020 and again in April of 2021, the Exit Zero Jazz Festival was the only jazz festival to go live in North America," he said. "We were able to send all attendees and participants back to their homes and communities healthy because of of our attendees and participants respected the safety protocols and regulations that were in place. To ensure we are able to move forward with the Festival in the safest manner possible, we are requiring all participants-artists, staff, volunteers and attendees age 12 and older to show proof of full Covid-19 vaccination or proof of a negative Covid-19 test administered no more than 72 hours prior to entering the Festival gates. Those under the age of 12 will be required to wear a mask at all times, and we encourage all attendees to wear a mask regardless of vaccination status in any in-door facilities on the Festival grounds."
And so it was on the first weekend of October as jazz-hungry fans flooded the open green expanse of Exit Zero Ferry Park, where they heard such great bands as Buster Williams & Something More (with pianist George Colligan, saxophone great Bruce Williams and legendary drummer Lenny White), the Nicholas Payton Trio featuring bassist Ben Williams and drummer Bill Stewart, the Revive Big Band featuring guest guitarist Mark Whitfield, Orrin Evans' sensational Captain Black Big Band, Big Chief Donald Harrison's Congo Nation (led by the veteran alto saxophonist former Jazz Messenger, current member of The Cookers and bona fide New Orleans Mardi Gras Indian chief) and the 12-piece multi-culti percussion ensemble Phillybloco, which rendered everything from Stevie Wonder's "Sir Duke" to Deee-Lite's infectious 1990 hit "Groove Is In the Heart" to the Dixie Cups' 1965 hit "Iko Iko" with an authentic Brazilian batucada feel.
Guitarists Lionel Loueke and Raul Midon held the crowd in awe with their individual virtuosity, combining extended six-string techniques with otherworldly vocal gymnastics (the Benin-born Loueke incorporating the 'click singing' of the Xhosa people of South Africa, a la Miriam Makeba, and Midon scatting up a storm while resorting to 'mouth trumpet' to double his cascading guitar lines). Singer Dee Dee Bridgewater charmed with her rootsy return to her Memphis roots, performing tunes by Ann Peebles, Al Green, B.B. King and Bobby Blue Bland from her latest album, Memphis...Yes, I'm Ready. And powerhouse alto star Kenny Garrett played potent, pulse-quickening material from his latest release, Sounds From the Ancestors. Robert Randolph brought a Hendrix-like quality to the pedal steel guitar in his searing set with his Family Band and new vocal sensation Samara Joy summoned up comparisons to legendary jazz singers Sarah Vaughan, Betty Carter and Carmen McRae in her classy, swinging set with guitarist Pasquale Grasso, bassist Ari Roland and drummer Keith Balla.
But the award for swinging-est set of the festival went to Hammond B-3 organ burner Pat Bianchi and his trio of guitarist Paul Bollenback and drummer Byron Landham, performing hard-charging material like Chick Corea's "Humpty Dumpty" and soothing ballads like "Never Let Me Go," from their upcoming Savant Records release. Bianchi also introduced a version of the funky "Pay It Back" by the late, great B-3 maven and mentor Dr. Lonnie Smith by telling the crowd, "It's my way of saying thank you to the great Dr. Lonnie." But perhaps the most compelling set of the entire three-day festival was turned in by Terence Blanchard's E-Collective featuring the Turtle Island String Quartet, who performed adventures new arrangements of Wayne Shorter compositions like "The Elders," "When It Was Now" and "Fall" from their new Blue Note album, Absence.
So much music, performed under blue skies and ideal mid-'70s temperatures in the idyllic seaside surroundings off the coast of Cape May...it's hard to top for jazz fans. Stay tuned for the Spring edition of the Exit Zero Jazz Festival in May, 2022.