What an amazing ride for Carol Stone and her husband, Woody Woodland, who founded the Cape May Jazz Festival 17 years ago to bring jazz fans to their quaint seacoast resort town - and help extend the length of the tourist season at New Jersey’s southernmost point.
Seventeen years - and 33 festivals so far, building a loyal fan base from essentially a two-hour drive radius: Philly, New York City, northern New Jersey, Baltimore and Wilmington are all within easy reach. The festival drew thousands of fans, which was great for local tourism - from the quaint Victorian B&Bs and resort hotels and motels to countless little boutiques and restaurants.
In its heyday, the festival was a regular November and April stop for many regional talents - Philadelphia’s Bootsie Barnes and Frank Bey among them. And quite a few national players - Oscar Brown Jr., Herbie Mann, Clark Terry, Jimmy Scott to name a few - frequented Cape May multiple times. When it was on the grow during its first decade - the number of venues also grew like topsy.
Music could be found in the (now-condemned) Cape May Convention Hall on the beach, a string of bars and restaurants and hotel ballrooms. Even a grammar school gymnasium and a nearby yacht club got into the mix. Some nights, musical choices were bubbling in up to 12 rooms around town. The state-of-the-art theatre at a regional high school a few miles north of town has been the headliner venue in recent years.
The loyal fan base was key - particularly in lean years that were caused by over-expansion, a souring economy - or both. It also helped them overcome the internal bickering that often besets many a nonprofit group. Stone (who was Artistic Director/Program Chair) was always a strong taskmaster - and got her way with things.
Problem with the loyal fan middle-aged (or older) fan base was that it got older – and lost some participants. Stone and Woodland worked hard to book younger talents in hopes of drawing a younger crowd, but that never seemed to make a significant difference. And it went through a lot of financial pain in the past few years.
And now, there are more pressing challenges for the festival - such as whether it has a future. If so, for how long?
Co-founders Stone and Woodland have resigned and plan to move north a bit into Pennsylvania as soon as they get their affairs in order and sell their Cape May home.
“There was a long, well-planned conspiracy which got nasty… no cooperation or teamwork and we lost all confidence in our executive board and staff,” she wrote.
Several years ago, someone in an executive role launched a coup while they were on vacation. Stone got wind of that one and re-exerted control. Now, apparently, the fight is gone. And the board will have to regroup - or revitalize itself.
Some would say the festival’s future is in doubt. They may be right, but only time will tell.
The 34th semi-annual event is scheduled November 12 to 14. Listed headliners include Les McCann with Javon Jackson, and Yellowjackets.
The festival has had strong sponsorship support from many companies over the years, with Bank of America and the New Jersey Division of Travel and Tourism its title sponsors. The State Council on the Arts also has been a key backer.
The Cape May Jazz Festival will need that continued support - and more - if it is to have a sustained future.
And Cape May Jazz Festival fans and supporters owe Stone and Woodland a round of thanks for making it happen for so long - despite the bitter taste that may now hover over some things right now.