In putting together the 26th edition of their swinging seaside clambake, co-founders Woody Woodland and Carol Stone came up with the theme “New Orleans Comes to Cape May” as a way of showing support for the Crescent City in these post-Katrina times of renewal and rebuilding. And by bringing an assemblage of New Orleans musical ambassadors up to the Jersey shore, Woody and Carol not only guaranteed a good time but also helped spread the word to festivalgoers that N’awlins, as emcee Woodland pronounces it, is indeed coming back, if at a much slower rate than anyone had anticipated.
Blessed with sunny skies and temperatures that climbed into the 70s, jazz fans from nearby Philadelphia, from distant New York City and New England and the surrounding area encompassing New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland and Pennsylvania let their collective hair down and celebrated the infectious toe-tapping music and insinuating second-line grooves that prevailed throughout the weekend. Many sported Mardi Gras beads, some waved white handkerchiefs, and others danced in the aisles whenever the band would strike up “When the Saints Go Marchin’ In.” And no one in this gathering of New Orleans jazz aficionados needed to be instructed on how to clap on two and four. For this one festive weekend, the charming and historic town of Cape May, with its landmark Victorian hotels, inns and quaint bed & breakfasts, was transformed into the hippest community on the Jersey shore.
Friday night began with a rousing set at Convention Hall from the New Orleans All-Stars led by drummer Herlin Riley and featuring a stellar frontline of clarinetist Dr. Michael White, tenor saxophonist Victor Goines, rising trumpet star Christian Scott and the tailgator-styled trombonist Corey Henry from the Lil’ Rascals Brass Band (who is also a longstanding member of Kermit Ruffins & the Barbecue Swingers). Along with Roland Guerin on bass and sensational new piano discovery Jonathan Batiste (who turned all of 20 the day after this concert), this exceedingly tight yet flexible ensemble alternated between classic New Orleans numbers like “Royal Garden Blues” and more bop-informed fare like Ellis Marsalis’ “Swinging at the Haven.” While Goines and 22-year-old Scott, with his upturned Dizzyesque horn pointing skyward, paired off for the modernist fare, the distinguished Dr. White and the rowdy young Henry dug into the early New Orleans material with old school gusto. Riley exhibited hip time displacement and a sly sense of syncopation behind the kit throughout the set and also offered up a real-deal parade beat on an infectious rendition of Paul Barbarin’s “Second Line.” Riley, a charter member of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, was also featured on an extended solo drum intro to “Magnolia Triangle,” a piece composed by the late, largely unsung New Orleans drummer James Black, who was a colleague of Ellis Marsalis’ from their days together in the American Jazz Quintet during the late ‘50s. Dr. White also premiered a new post-Katrina piece entitled “Optimistic Blues,” which conveyed all the buoyant, upbeat spirit and positive attitude that the clarinetist-educator-historian is carrying on with in life after having lost everything when the levy broke just a block away from where he lived in New Orleans. White escaped to Houston, where he currently resides, but the eight feet of toxic water that remained in his home for three weeks basically disintegrated all of his prized possessions, including 50 vintage clarinets, thousands of albums and CDs, reams of original scores and stacks of taped interviews with New Orleans musicians who lived at the turn of last century and recounted tales of playing side-by-side with Louis Armstrong himself. That Dr. White could write such an uplifting tune in the face of such overwhelming adversity is a testament to his courage, strength and overriding belief in music being a healing force.
Pianist Batiste, currently a sophomore at Juilliard and a member of Abbey Lincoln’s touring band, played with uncommon maturity and taste while comping behind other soloists and with dazzling virtuosity when soloing himself. Flaunting a thunderous left hand, a lightning right hand and a sly soulfulness in his phrasing, the gifted young pianist combined aspects of McCoy Tyner, Bud Powell and Horace Silver--not a bad trifecta to emulate. The dynamic blues and jazz diva Topsy Chapman, a star in Europe though lesser known to Stateside audiences, also appeared as a special guest with the N.O. All-Stars on a spirited, swinging rendition of “Them There Eyes” and on Louis Armstrong’s jovial “Butter and Egg Man.”
Over at Aleathea’s, an intimate restaurant located inside the charming Victorian-styled Inn of Cape May, singer Stephanie Jordan cast a spell over listeners with her dramatic delivery and highly expressive voice. Laying back behind the beat while enunciating clearly in a style reminiscent of vocalist Jimmy Scott, Jordan imbued “You Don’t Know What Love Is” with deep feeling before turning Abbey Lincoln’s “The Folks Who Live on the Hill” into a stirring, cathartic vehicle. With her brother, trumpeter Marlon Jordan, echoing and shading her beautiful voice, Stephanie crept into Dinah Washington territory on a profoundly blue reading of “Stormy Monday” then interpreted Billie Holiday’s signature piece, “Good Morning Heartache,” with a rare balance of vulnerability and deep soul. Already a seasoned performer, the daughter of New Orleans musician and renowned educator Kidd Jordan is a singular interpreter of ballads and blues whose profile has been on the rise since her “coming out” appearance last year at the gala Katrina benefit held in Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater. Clearly, this gifted young singer is on a fast track to jazz stardom.
Festivalgoers who wanted to keep the party going late Friday night had the option of heading over to the funky juke joint Cabanas for a raucous set of two-steppin’ by Dwayne Dopsie and the Zydeco Hellraisers or checking out the sultry stylings of jazz singer Jeanie Bryson at the more upscale Cafe Promenade at the Montreal Inn. Dopsie, the son of the late zydeco great Rockin’ Dopsie, was ably assisted in his all-out party mission by the outrageously entertaining washboard player John Robinson, while Bryson had a similarly theatrical foil in the exuberant tenor player Jerry Weldon, proving that good music and a little bit of show can go hand in hand.
Saturday night brought the Louis Armstrong Summer Jazz Masters to spacious Convention Hall for two shows. An amalgam of renowned New Orleans musicians (and one New Yorker), this versatile aggregation had one foot in straightahead jazz and one foot in the avant-garde camp, which proved disorienting for some members of the audience. On the one hand you had the Crescent City’s regal jazz singer Germaine Bazzle alternately scatting up a storm and resorting to some startling mouth trumpet solos on swinging renditions of George & Ira Gershwin’s “But Not for Me” and the Lerner & Loewe nugget “Almost Like Being in Love.” Bazzle’s loose, free-flowing delivery and uninhibited phrasing recalled the late, great Betty Carter and her superb scatting ability was positively Ella-esque. But on the other hand you had free trumpeter Clyde Kerr Jr., adventurous flutist Kent Jordan, renowned educator and clarinetist Alvin Batiste and "out" tenor saxophone titan Kidd Jordan, a Vision Festival regular and one of the great post-Albert Ayler practitioners on the avant-garde scene today. Blowing with typical unbridled ferocity and over-the-top intensity on provocative free vehicles propelled by the turbulent rhythm tandem of drummer Alvin Fielder and bassist William Parker (a Vision Festival co-founder), Kidd was a daunting presence for some in this Cape May crowd. Several people in the audience got up to leave during the band’s free-jazz onslaughts, which were genuinely brilliant and would’ve no doubt elicited standing ovations at the Vision Festival. Then at one point, as if trying to reel them back in as they headed toward the exits, Kidd and company launched into a rousing rendition of “When the Saints Go Marchin’ In.” But it was too late, at least for the less adventurous listeners in Convention Hall. The damage had already been done by harsh dissonance, undefined time signatures, high-register tenor squealing, frantic bowing on the upright bass by Parker and Cecilesque stabs at the keyboard by Darrell Lavigne--manna to the Vision Festival crowd back in New York City’s Lower East Side but poison to this more mainstream crowd. But as Kidd himself had pointed out at a public press conference earlier in the day, it’s all a choice. “You may have a girlfriend that you think is beautiful and I may think, ‘Man, you couldn’t pay me to be with that bird.’” In this case, you couldn’t pay some of the people in Convention Hall this night to be with these Louis Armstrong Summer Jazz Masters when they decided to take the freedom trail. (One interesting footnote on this provocative set: When was the last time you saw William Parker reading charts and walking bass lines on “Surrey With the Fringe On Top” or “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore”?).
Later Saturday night, trumpeter Maurice Brown blended post-bop chops and hip-hop rhythms for an affecting, modernist set at the Grand Hotel. And bassist Brian Bromberg stunned the packed house at Carney’s Other Room with his virtuosic two-handed tapping, slapping, sliding and popping on Duke Ellington’s “Caravan,” accompanied by his brother David on drums and Andy Laverne on piano.
Another highlight of the festival for locals was a memorial service on Saturday afternoon at Convention Hall for pianist Brian Trainor, a regular participant and friend of the Cape May Jazz Festival for 12 years who was fondly referred to by associates as “the white Thelonious Monk.” Friends and family gathered to give him a real New Orleans-styled send-off.
There were roughly twice as many gigs at this Cape May Jazz Festival as any one human could possibly attend, given that the venues were spread out up and down quite a long stretch of Beach Drive being serviced by a continuous supply of free shuttle buses for festivalgoers. Chuck Mangione even put in an appearance with his current sextet at Lower Cape May Regional High School, but one had to drive out to Route 9 in Erma to attend that gig.
The Cape May Jazz Festival is a twice-a-year affair. There’s an April session and a November session and each carries a musical theme, decided on by Carol Stone and Woody Woodland. Past themes have included tributes to Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Miles Davis, Clark Terry, Herbie Mann, Ray Charles and Jimmy Scott. I don’t know whether or not Carol and Woody knew what they were in for in booking Kidd Jordan, Alvin Batiste, Clyde Kerr, Jr. and Alvin Fielder for this November edition of the 2006 Cape May Jazz Festival. But these exceptional musicians--upstarts all--are as much a part of the fabric of New Orleans as Dr. Michael White, Herlin Riley or even Wynton Marsalis. We don’t normally associate New Orleans with the avant-garde. But then, we don’t necessarily associate New Orleans with bebop either. And tell that to Ellis Marsalis and devotees of James Black.
The Crescent City, still immersed in the ugly business of digging out from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, remains a beautiful mosaic of music styles from brass bands and trad jazz to Mardi Gras Indians and beboppers, from funksters and hip-hoppers to fusion heads and avant-garde mavens. And perhaps Woody and Carol were actually hipper than most in having the little known avant-garde aspect represented, if only in some small degree, in their New Orleans-themed bash on the beach.