Cape May Jazz Festival Up for the Count

Ravi Coltrane
Count Basie

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With its Victorian style hotels and traditional beachside promenade, the sleepy Jersey shore town of Cape May may seem like an unlikely spot for a jazz festival, but come November 6, that quaint resort will come alive with performances by the Count Basie Orchestrea, Houston Person, Richie Cole, Ravi Coltrane, Dominick Faracci, Barbara King and other noted jazz performers. The 32nd edition of the Cape May Jazz Festival is dedicated to the memory of Count Basie. The festival is the brainchild of Carol Stone, an energetic woman who raves about the location, calling it a place with a great reputation. “When you mention Cape May to people, either they say that they know it and love it, or they say they’ve always heard about it and want to come here. And it’s so safe that people can feel comfortable walking around at any time of night”

Ironically, Stone said she and co-founder Woody Woodland started the festival back in October 1993 as much because she was bored with her quiet life in the idyllic little town. She had moved there to start her own travel agency after living and working in the Philadelphia area for many years. Stone and Woodland would frequently see DC-based saxophonist Tim Eyermann perform at a club called The Shire in Cape May and at some point he suggested that they check out a jazz festival across the Delaware Bay in Rehobeth, Delaware.and it was there that her own festival was born. “At Rehobeth, we met a bunch of people, including [pianist] Steve Rudolph who really helped us to get started,” said Stone. “I got back and realized that I had an office, a phone, a fax, so why not?” Their first festival featured Eyermann and fellow saxist Kenny Blake, who also hosted a jam session. “I borrowed $5,000 from my mother. She later told me that she never expected me to pay her back, but in fact I paid her back right after the festival.”

Despite the festival’s modest beginnings, it has grown gradually over the years into a top-notch event that draws a mix of national and regional artists. One of the more unique aspects of the festival is that it occurs twice a year-in the fall and spring. Stone said that the regularity has allowed them to develop a better cadre of staff and volunteers. The shows take place at a variety of venues in the area, though Stone bemoans the loss of the town’s historic Convention Hall as a venue. “The mayor condemned the building a few years ago and he did it about two weeks before our festival. Oh boy, we had to scramble.” Larger shows are now held in a local high school auditorium, but the majority of shows are within walking distance of each other. The festival also provides a shuttle bus that takes fans from venue to venue.

Stylistically, Stone makes no bones about her taste and that of the festival. “We stick with mainstream jazz, although I like to do blues too. We host blues shows at a local blues club. Shemekia Copeland has been here a few times.” A keen observer of audience response, Stone said that when a performer doesn’t bring or keep a crowd, they don’t get invited back. And this year she’s added a new programming wrinkle with a Jazz Dinner featuring Person, who is beloved by festival regulars..

The festival brings its audience from all over the region, with some folks traveling a fair distance to see a shore town transformed into a jazz mecca. Members of the local community pitch in as volunteers and that includes the “Coasties,” the self-described members of the U.S. Coast Guard who are stationed at a base nearby. “They collect tickets and watch the doors. They’re not like our volunteers. They don’t let anyone in free.” Yes, maam.

For more information about the festival this fall or next spring, visit their site.