If the Cape May Jazz Festival is an economic barometer, things are turning around as the U.S. creeps out of its recession and the festival continues to overcome financial challenges that pre-dated the downturn.
The April 16-18 edition, the 33rd semi-annual festival in 17 years in New Jersey’s southernmost city, drew the largest crowd I’ve seen in more than two years. And the music was strong and diverse both in style and the demographic range of its artists.
“This is the best attendance since before our economy went south,” the festival’s executive director, Sal Riggi Jr., said Saturday as he visited the Saturday afternoon jam sessions in three clubs within a 100-foot stretch of Beach Drive. He estimated total weekend attendance would top out at about 7,000.
It’s an idyllic festival, with events scheduled in a series of hotel ballrooms and restaurants, a state-of-the-art high school performing arts theater a couple of miles away, and the three clubs: Carney’s Main Room, Carney’s Other Room and Cabana’s (the latter hosting most blues acts).
There was music for most every conceivable jazz-tinged taste except traditional Dixieland, with healthy doses of bop, mainstream, contemporary and progressive jazz, Latin and rock tinges and a lot of blues.
The festival opener, Spyro Gyra, packed the Lower Cape Regional High School Theater on Friday evening for its first Cape May appearance. The band, which is in its fourth decade, has been performing contemporary jazz since before the genre had a name… and it didn’t disappoint. Saxophonist/leader Jay Beckenstein wove a soulful rendition of Charles Mingus’s “Goodbye Porkpie Hat” into the first set, while the band’s newest member, drummer Bonny B, added a funk element to the band particularly on his own tune, “Ice Man.” The only vintage Spyro song in the opening set was Spyro Gyra’s “Catching the Sun” as the band focused more on newer material.
Saxophonist Tim Warfield heated up the Grand Hotel ballroom with a quintet performance inspired by his association with bluesy and hard-swinging B-3 player Shirley Scott. His late show drew more than a few hangers on from the first set. Warfield’s quintet, featuring Pat Bianchi on B-3, Byron Landham on drums, Tim Thompson on trumpet and Daniel Sadownick on percussion, included Warfield’s tribute tune “One For Shirley” and a unexpected yet fiery extended improvisation vehicle – Sonny Bono’s “The Beat Goes On.”
Guitarist Monnette Sudler and saxophonist Bootsie Barnes, two mainstays in the festival’s Philly connection, were featured Friday at Carney’s Main Room. Singer-guitarist Marta Topferova – scheduled Friday night for Carney’s Other Room – was stuck in a Paris airport because of the volcanic-ash plane groundings in northern Europe. Singer-conguero Jainardo Batista, co-leader of the New York-based band Nu D’Lux, subbed with Topferova’s band (fortunately for Cape May, the two groups have a bit of overlap).
The clear festival highlights came on the second evening. Shemekia Copeland stunned her audience at the high school with a wide-ranging set that was drenched with the blues for which she is best known, but also touched on folk, gospel, funk and honored her father, Johnny Clyde Copeland, with a soulful version of “Ghetto Child” and Koko Taylor (“Has Anybody Seen My Man?”). The folk tinge came on her rendition of Joni Mitchell’s “Black Crow.” Other treats: “Never Goin’ Back to Memphis,” “Salt in My Wounds” (from her first album 13 years ago), and “Stand Up and Testify.” It was a Cape May highlight for the ages.
Equally thunderous a couple of hours later was pianist Chuchito Valdés’ Afro-Cuban version of jazz as he blended intoxicating rhythms with power and delicacy with his trio’s take on originals, an “A-Train”-rooted Ellington medley, and a few American Songbook standards. His solo version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” was a contrast in delicacy. You could even hear the flutter of bluebirds flying away.”
Other Saturday offerings include the jazz-rock of guitarist B. D. Lenz, the straight-ahead sound of the Mid-Atlantic-based Shook Russo Quartet, and the blues of Georgie Bonds and Ray Schinnery at Cabana’s, where Mississippi Heat was featured on Friday.
The great thing about Cape May – if one particular style or band isn’t cutting it for your ears, you don’t have to travel far to check out another simultaneous offering. Some fans wander all night, dipping in here or there for a few tunes and then move on. Others camp out for every set of a band they particularly like.
The Cape May Jazz Festival is in an ideal location. America’s oldest seaside resort, as the city bills itself, is about 2 1/2 hours from metropolitan New York, northern New Jersey, Philadelphia and Baltimore, the areas from which it draws the bulk of its attendees. (Cape May began hosting Philly-area vacationers in the mid-1700s.)
The ambience is enhanced by Cape May’s historic nature. It undoubtedly has more Victorian architecture buildings per capita than anyplace else in the northeast – and it boasts more than 50 Victorian gingerbread B&B’s, along with its smattering of resort hotels and guest houses. And don’t forget its scores of quaint boutiques. The festival, held in mid-April and mid-November each year, extends to local tourist season. According to state studies, the event brings about $3 million annually into the local economy.