When jazz lovers Carol Stone and Woody Woodland moved to Cape May, N.J., full time in 1991, they were bored — until they attended a jazz festival in Rehoboth Beach, Del., in 1993 and realized that they could do the same thing in Cape May.
They formed an executive board in January 1994, and the first festival took off at the Marquis de Lafayette Hotel in April of the same year.
"Now, of course, there's so much activity going on [in Cape May], and I would say it comes on the heels of the jazz festival," said Woodland.
The festival starts today and continues through Sunday. Woodland and Stone expect about 6,500 attendees over the weekend, with most guests coming from Philadelphia, Washington, Baltimore and cities in New Jersey. But hometown, age and other factors don't matter to the festival founders — it's all about the music, the community and the change that they can bring.
"If you've heard of Cape May Jazz Festival, then that means that you must come up here and see it!" Woodland said. "I believe you'll be mesmerized by what happens here. And this is indicative of what jazz, and music, can do to people."
Stone estimates that 80 percent of the festival attendees each year are returning guests, but she and Woodland are always hoping for newcomers of all ages, as artists, audiences and styles differ a little each year.
"With this change has come our need to look for another direction … to keep this whole thing called ‘jazz' alive," Woodland said. Opening act Spyro Gyra is a perfect example of this type of change.
"They've been performing for 30 years, and they've stayed on top of their game all of 30 years, and they keep changing so that they remain contemporary," Stone said. This year, Spyro Gyra is adding a little bit of Latin to its overall blend of funk, jazz, blues and more.
The band will kick off the festival at 8 p.m. today after an opening ceremony featuring Woodland as master of ceremonies. Artists through the weekend include Mississippi Heat, Georgie Bonds, Chuchito Valdes and more, with blues artist Shemekia Copeland as the main act Saturday.
Copeland, who also performed at the Cape May Jazz Festival in 2000 and 2001, is eager to share her music with festival guests again. "They know they're going to come out and hear good music. It's consistently good music every year," she said. "It'd be worth the trip; definitely come out, and you'll love it."
The three-day festival includes free workshops led by musicians who are also trained music educators, and memorable jam sessions, which close the festival.
"The jam sessions we have are unlike any jam sessions you may witness anywhere else. It's just absolutely unbelievable. You've got to see it to really feel it," Woodland said.
"People stand on the bar and on the tables, and they wave white napkins in the New Orleans style. Some of the musicians parade around the bar, and the horns parade around through the crowd," Stone said. "People are very excited, and also sad to see the event closing, because it's a lot of fun and they've developed close friends over the years."
If you go
The Cape May Jazz Festival starts at 8 p.m. today and continues through Sunday at various venues in Cape May, N.J. Tickets are $25-$150. Call 609-884-7277 or go to capemayjazz.org for a complete schedule of events.