Let the Music Play: Exit Zero Jazz Festival in the time of COVID

Text by David LaPuma / Spring 2021
Aerial view of the Jazz Festival. Photo: David LaPuma

Prologue

Upon my arrival in Cape May in 2014 I learned of the Exit Zero Jazz Festival, produced by Michael Kline’s Spy Boy Productions. I immediately offered volunteer sweat equity in exchange for an opportunity to experience all the festival had to offer. I’ve worked it each year since the fall of 2015 with no intention of stopping. Until now, I’d only fretted over scheduling conflicts with work or my children’s dance recitals. Until a year ago, we hadn’t even considered the storm-a-brewing. Hurricanes? Sure, we expect them every few years. But a pandemic? Okay buddy; have another drink.

JAZZ in the Time of COVID

By now we all realize the enormity of the pandemic, which continues to wreak havoc on communities worldwide. The March 2021 issue of Jazz Times published over 20 “In Memoriam” pieces paying tribute to jazz musicians lost in 2020, many of them falling to complications of COVID-19. Even more dire was the editor’s note explaining the pain and difficulty in choosing which ones to highlight, and which to only mention. Over 50 names were listed in order of the date of death so that no musician was left unmentioned. It’s a troubling statistic; one of many that are becoming all too common in our daily news feeds.

Despite the losses to the music community, musicians seemed to be among the first people during COVID-19 to carve out a path to reach audiences in non-traditional ways. Singer Norah Jones regularly streamed live sets on Facebook from her living room, a webcam trained on her piano, couch in the background. Musicians, including many Cape May locals, posted placards with PayPal, Venmo, or CashApp information so online donations could be made to support them, as so many were out of work. In many cases musicians used their live-streaming platform to raise awareness and funds for various causes: Meals-on-Wheels, homeless shelters, musician support foundations, Black Lives Matter, and others. The late Chick Corea regularly streamed his practice sessions live via Facebook and answered questions from fans in a segment he called #ASKCHICK. In a weird way, these remote experiences provided a unique form of intimacy, with musicians improvising in real time in what felt like proximity through the magic of live streaming. Even the famous New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival was cancelled for the first time in over 50 years. Instead, New Orleans radio station WWOZ streamed an event they called “Festing in Place,” playing some of the most iconic sets recorded over the last 50 years in a format similar to the festival. Folks tuned in from around the world, and photos of people dressed in their festival best, drinks in hand, masks donned, on porches, balconies, or in their kitchens, streamed across social media. It was something of a lifeline between the end of April and early May, as lockdown set in around us.

But something was still missing. So, despite lockdown, mask mandates, and many other restrictions, local visionaries found a way to keep live music live, making the case that it’s not only important, it’s downright essential.

When Reality Sets In

For Michael Kline the reality of the pandemic hit on March 11, 2020, during the Utah Jazz vs. Oklahoma City Thunder game, when Utah’s Rusty Gobert tested positive for COVID-19 and the NBA made a startling announcement. “I was stunned. I mean, I’m watching live basketball and just 10 minutes before tipoff they walk off the court and cancel the game? And then three hours later the NBA announces that the season was being suspended? For me, that was like ‘okay, we’re in this for the long haul.’ And then pretty quickly after that I started making phone calls.”

It didn’t take long for Kline to realize he wasn’t the only one scrambling in Cape May. In our tourism-driven economy we take disruption seriously, and folks at the city level were already hatching plans to minimize the impact on our service industry while also protecting residents and visitors. For Kline, it was the spring Exit Zero jazz festival hanging in the balance, just two months away. But something bigger loomed as well; something familiar, and frightening. Having lived through Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and witnessing the impact of a natural disaster that sent shockwaves through the music community still tangible 15 years later, he saw that this was a bigger threat than just the economy. “I got on the phone and called each of our festival partners and said, ‘I think now more than ever, music is really going to have value. And I think that it’s really going to be an essential thing to do as soon as it’s safe to do it.’”

It was almost immediately clear that the spring festival was going to be cancelled or moved to a later date. In recent years it had moved almost exclusively indoors, night after night filling clubs on Beach Avenue, as well as Cape May Convention Hall and Schmidtchen Theater at the Lower Township Performing Arts Center. Roughly 10,000 people would descend on Cape May between the spring and fall events, a number that was just not sustainable given the restrictions on the horizon.

“Basically, I’m watching my business evaporate before my eyes, like a lot of people were, back in March,” said Kline. He wondered about the viability of music promotion given the uncertainty of COVID. What kind of investment would it take to make something work? Would it be viable to continue moving forward, or make more sense just to take a loss and wait it out? Economically, it would be devastating to wait it out, Kline calculated.

The catalyst for the next chapter came in May 2020, when a national music industry group published a guide to reopening in light of COVID, providing a paradigm for presenting live music and producing events. It was just the blueprint needed to get started. Putting the pieces together, some thought that developing novel operating procedures and a little investment in PPE would make live music possible in Cape May. “It was never going to be lucrative, but as long as we could break even over the summer, to me it was more important than ever to bring music to the people,” said Kline.

With the spring festival officially cancelled, and indoor gatherings all but eliminated, attention turned to outdoor spaces. Michael reached out to folks with outdoor properties, including Elaine’s, Hawk Haven Winery, and the Physick Estate, to gauge interest. The response was unanimously positive. Working with Hawk Haven Winery, Michael modified protocols to continue their popular summer Rootstock series. Elaine’s, already moving to outdoor dining, provided another venue for an outdoor stage, and working with the Physick Estate, Kline launched the Sunset Jazz series, which brought Joanna Pascale, Keyon Harrold, and others out under the stars.

At each venue specific protocols were drawn up; this meant social distancing and flow control among venue staff, production crews, the performers, and the audience. Before COVID the focus was on providing the best listening and viewing experience and creating intimacy between audience and performer; now the emphasis shifted to keeping all parties separate enough to minimize any transmission of a disease we were still just learning about. The stakes were obviously high. “If the musicians didn’t feel safe, they wouldn’t be coming here to perform, and if the public didn’t feel like their safety was being honored, we wouldn’t sell enough tickets to make it worthwhile,” said Kline.

Things are Different

In the music event production world, there’s a standard chain of command for booking gigs. Typically, the event producer makes an offer to the musician’s agent. This offer is brought to the band leader, who makes the decision on whether to take the gig. The band leader doesn’t take the deal to each band member and negotiate; they basically give it a thumbs up or down. But suddenly there was so much more at stake; band members who live with or care for an elderly family member, or like so many of us, formed a ‘bubble’ with a group of people to whom they are now responsible to and for. So, each opportunity now requires a significantly greater level of scrutiny and attention, in addition to an enormous leap of faith that the person booking you is going to follow through at the level you expect.

In normal times bands travel to gigs together, often in one vehicle, but that too had changed. Now bands might show up to a gig having not seen each other in person, much less a live audience, for over six months. Stage layouts needed to be modified to provide enough space between musicians, even erecting physical barriers to reduce the chance of transmission both between band members and band and audience. The audience areas had to be properly spaced to provide the requisite six feet between members, with additional room to walk between the audience and other parts of the venue, like the bathrooms or bar. Kline and his production team devised a system to grid out the audience space with 6’x6′ squares, each able to accommodate a party up to four people while still providing six feet of buffer between occupied spaces. On the day of the event, production leader Joe McLaughlin laid down a 6’x6’ frame, and, pushing his makeshift paint sprayer across the Physick Estate lawn, ensured every available square foot was accounted for as either reserved space or buffer. Mask mandates were enforced for those moving to and from public areas. Given the restrictions following the March lockdown, the freedom to experience live music again in Cape May made the changes all worth it. “I don’t think there was one time where anyone on the crew or myself had to argue with an audience member about wearing a mask or getting their temperature taken or any of those protocols that we had in place. Just to be able to hear live music again, it was just really a visceral experience. Hearing Joanna Pascale and Larry McKenna on the first night of the Sunset Jazz Series hit me so hard; the realization of how [music] elevates your spirit; the bright moments it brings to your life,” recalled Kline.

The success of producing music at three outdoor venues in Cape May throughout the summer of 2020 set the tone for a new twist on the Exit Zero Jazz Festival for the coming October. Indoor venues were still off the table, but strong relationships forged in the summer brought music back to the Physick Estate as the main venue, with outdoor stages at Nauti Spirits Distillery, Hawk Haven Winery, and the Cape May Brewing Company allowing for expanded offerings throughout the three-day fall festival. Still, the longest discussions revolved around production protocols. COVID-19 has not been particularly sparing of musicians, a fact driven home by Wynton Marsalis’s “Deeper than Dreams,” a piece he crafted as part of hisThe Democracy! Suite, and which he performed during the fundraiser for the Cape May Jazz Festival Foundation (the new non-profit arm of the festival). The piece is a heartbreaking and haunting dedication to the lives lost, one of which was Marsalis’s father, the late, great Ellis Marsalis. The 2020 fall Exit Zero Jazz Festival brought Grammy Award-winning pianist Eddie Palmieri, 84 years old, to the main stage. The festival drew an eclectic crowd of many over-65 audience members from around the country. Everyone, from staff, musicians, and audience, had a family to go home to. Kline was adamant: “We couldn’t be cavalier about this—we really have to think this through and then stick to it all the way. We have to send everyone home from this festival healthy.”

The October festival accomplished many things, including honoring the commitments to both musicians and audience members affected by the cancelled spring festival. “I felt it was really important that we follow through with contracts, and if deposits were due, we paid them and didn’t ask for the money back. Instead, we would reschedule as many of those shows as we could in October, and for audience members, we’d honor the spring tickets for use in the fall, or even 2021 if necessary,” recalled Kline. “It was important that if an audience member was going to feel uncomfortable, or if a band was going to feel uncomfortable, we let them know, please make the decision to not come; we’re going to have another festival, so we want you here when you’re comfortable.”

Even locals struggled with whether to attend live music during the summer, or even in the fall. The festival has become a major event for so many of us, and decisions on how to proceed were not easy. Since moving to West Cape May in 2012, Pete and Lorraine Baldwin have attended every Exit Zero Jazz Festival to date. “That first year we brought my uncle, who’s a musician and music teacher, and we spent the whole weekend just in awe of what we were hearing and seeing. To see it through the perspective of a music teacher, though, was impactful, and really drove home the significance of this festival in our backyard,” said Lorraine. Now they live on Washington Street, walking distance to the Physick Estate and Beach Avenue club venues. The Baldwins keep the spring and fall festival dates clear on their calendar, having gone so far as to reschedule a family vacation. In 2015 I missed what would have been my first Exit Zero Jazz Festival because of a commitment, and in doing so forfeited my opportunity to see the late Dr. John. I could say that I’ve also missed Dr. John on countless other occasions at the New Orleans Jazz Festival, where he was a regular, but that festival is not located a mere bike ride from my doorstep. No, when the music comes to your town, the stakes are indeed higher.

The Baldwins, like many other residents, have introduced numerous friends and family to the Festival, housing them in their home or those of local family and friends. “Our festival usually starts with Pete and I going alone to the Thursday night fundraiser, so we can have some time together before the craziness ensues.” Once Friday comes though, they lay out a spread, from cocktails to appetizers to dinner, and then it’s feet to pavement as they head out for the night with their throng of guests. Lorraine describes a common thread among festival goers: “We often bring different people each year, so that we can expose more of them. Then they come back on their own and bring their friends.” And in case you’re wondering who these people are, the diversity might surprise you. “We brought our daughter down two or three years ago, and she brought her college friends down, and now they all want to come back each year. Their favorite was Brother Josephus. Those kids had a great time,” said Peter.

When we talk about COVID, Peter gets sentimental. “I love what we had in the fall, for us it was great because it was right down the street. But as much as this fall was nice, I do miss the cramped intimate venues. But we can’t do that now, and I’m sure someday we will be able to do it again.” The Baldwins attended the Summer Series at the Physick Estate and were grateful for the opportunity to experience live music again. They are looking forward to a whole list of the great acts they’ve seen over the years, some of which will be returning this spring (including Brother Josephus!). Then Lorraine says “the second line. I just love the second line. Now if only they could reroute it right by our front porch…”

Many familiar faces were missed in 2020. Each fall as I organize the box office and print off will-call tickets, I scan for familiar names. One that often catches my eye is the entry for “Hank’s Posse.” That  Hank is one Hank Hucles, of Gloucester, Virginia. Hank has been coming to Cape May each fall, since 2004, even before the Exit Zero Jazz Festival, when Carol Stone and Woody Woodland ran the original Cape May Jazz Festival. Following the entry for “Hank’s Posse” is a list of names of friends and family that ebbs and flows over the years, hovering around 30-something members annually. Hank points out that in 2017, though, the number swelled to 45 members, which most likely included both the youngest and oldest attendees to the festival: his 3.5-month-old granddaughter and 96-year-old Uncle Paul. “Uncle Paul is still at it! But now at 99, he’s pissed off because we couldn’t make it in 2020 and has told us in no uncertain terms that he will be seeing us in Cape May in 2021,” said Hucles, with a serious but upbeat tone in his voice.

At 72 years old, Hucles, like many fans of live music, has found himself putting his travel plans on hold while awaiting vaccination, and biding his time supporting live music online. “It’s going to get better, and I’m hoping that in November with everybody being able to get their shots, that’s what we’re planning on. To get the posse together in November. All I’ve been doing is buying online concerts. It’s just not the same, but it does help out in terms of helping that artist have an opportunity to perform and maybe get a little paycheck.” After a long pause Hank continues, “I miss Cape May. The fact that I could walk at 2:00 in the morning and I don’t feel like I have to look over my shoulder. In Cape May I hardly ever see a police presence, and it feels safe being there. I’ve never had a bad experience. My whole group [including friends and family from Louisiana, D.C., Philadelphia, Virginia, and New York] we talk about this all the time, about how they feel about it, too. The atmosphere and the people who are attracted to this kind of music are great people. They come here with no drama. I’ve met so many different people who I may never see again, but the time we were there we were all family.”

“Thank You; I Didn’t Know How Much I Needed This”

For those who have come out, the reaction has been overwhelming. “Thank you; I didn’t know how much I needed this” was a common sentiment throughout the summer and fall of 2020. If there is a silver lining, it appears to be the realization that Cape May can indeed support year-round live jazz programming. Spy Boy Productions presented more live music during the pandemic than in any previous year. The turnout, even despite the pandemic, was nothing short of inspiring, which again supports the notion that music has intrinsic value; it’s not a throwaway thing relegated to the background but instead it has incredible power to bring people together, even to heal. “There is an incredible experience in the interplay between live music and an audience,” said Kline. “It’s why I never even considered moving the festival online, despite seeing some incredible online presentations. The value of being in that live experience and being able to do it safely, I just think there was so much there that was positive.”

All signs indicate that we are on our way out of this pandemic mess, and while we don’t expect things to return to pre-COVID status right away, it’s clear that people like Michael Kline have identified a path forward for live music, and audiences, local and visitor, have responded positively. Looking ahead to 2021 and beyond, the stage is now set for at least one of the two festivals to remain outdoors, which could eventually draw 7-to-10,000 attendees to a single festival rather than across two festivals during the year. These numbers would put it on par with the likes of the Newport and Monterey Jazz Festivals, among the most successful of our size class.

Continuity and tradition mixed with a healthy dose of improvisation and experimentation: that’s jazz in a nutshell. So it stands to reason that while the pandemic may have forced the hand, the changes we’ve experienced already, and the ones coming this spring, are essential elements of a jazz festival’s DNA. This April, festival attendees will be introduced to several new outdoor venues including the Cape May Ferry Terminal grounds and a new stage beachfront at Convention Hall, as well as Lafayette Park. With the inauguration of the Cape May Jazz Festival Foundation in 2020, the promise of expanding the reach of the festival to a broader audience, bringing more music programming into local schools, and realizing the full potential of music and culture in Cape May becomes a more tangible reality. While the future remains uncertain, the clear resilience demonstrated by our community bodes well for the future of our jazz heritage in Cape May.