Ramsey Lewis was just 11 years old when he first sat down with his second piano teacher, Dorothy Mendelson, and prepared to show off. Instead, Lewis was about to learn a lesson - one that would eventually make him part of jazz history.
"I was rather proud of the fact that the 88 (piano keys) were no danger to me," says Lewis, 77. "So when I went down to play for her the first time, I thought I'd dazzle her with a little (piano) footwork. She said, 'Oh, you have a lot of technique, wonderful. Now let me hear you make the piano sing.'
"And there was silence," Lewis says. "I didn't know what the hell she meant. So she sat down and played a couple bars, and it was just gorgeous."
It was Mendelson, Lewis recalls, who taught him to "think in terms of phrases" and "listen with the inner ear." He began practicing late into the evenings, learning to slow down and focus on the melody.
Now, 80 albums and three Grammy Awards later, the lessons still ring true, he says.
"Even now, with my group, you know, music is not unlike talking to people in an assembly hall," says Lewis, a recipient of the National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters Award. "You can take a half hour and get into details and technical stuff, and people will go to sleep. Or, you can take 5 to 10 minutes and simplify it into beautiful sentences - and people will give you a standing ovation. It's not the length of what you write. It's the meaning behind it."
Lewis will bring his Sun Goddess tour with his Electric Band to headline the inaugural Exit 0 International Jazz Festival, a three-day jazz event kicking off Friday, Nov. 9, and running through Sunday, Nov. 11.
Lewis and his band will play two shows - 7:30 and 9:30 p.m. - on the Main Stage inside Cape May Convention Hall on Saturday, Nov. 10. More than 100 internationally known musicians will be playing at various venues in Cape May over the weekend, including Philadelphia native and Grammy Award-winning jazz bassist Christian McBride and his quintet, Inside Straight.
Other confirmed artists include Captain Black Big Band, Henry Cole's Afrobeat Collective, Ben Williams & Sound Effect and DJ Soul Sister.
For the Friday and Saturday night shows at Convention Hall, the Main Stage will be set up in the style of a 500-seat jazz bistro, with table service for drinks. For the Saturday afternoon session, theater-style seating will be set up in Convention Hall.
The festival will mark the second time Lewis has played in Cape May, after appearing many years ago as a headliner with the original Cape May Jazz Festival.
Lewis, who spoke by telephone from his home in Chicago, says jazz fans can expect one thing this weekend - great music.
"I'm in heaven because I have a quintet of some young guys - well, young to me - they're in their 30s," Lewis says. "Not only are they proficient in their instruments, but they're very creative. We become one unit up there."
Lewis says he likes to take his fellow younger bandmates "on musical curves" while they're on stage performing.
"It's fun to see how they handle them," Lewis says.
One curve Lewis may throw is aimed at his percussionist Charles Heath.
"There may a time - I won't give it away - where I have the band leave the stage and see how long he can hold people's interest," Lewis says. "He's a very rhythmical player. He thinks in terms of melody ... very interesting soloist."
Lewis is known for his unique sound that allowed him to cross over several times between pop and R&B charts. Lewis is perhaps best known for his cover of Dobie Gray's hit "The In Crowd," which earned him his first gold record and a Grammy award for best jazz performance in the 1960s. He had follow-up pop hits in 1966 with versions of "Hang On Sloopy" and "Wade In The Water." His latest album, "Ramsey, Taking Another Look," was released last year.
Over the decades, Lewis says his music has matured.
"There used to be a time when I'd think too much about what I have to play," Lewis says. "I'm sure I left a lot of good ideas on the floor. Now, in my mature age, it's more fun to speak in terms of starting with a melody and see how I can develop it - turn it upside down, change keys."
In the wake of the recovery from Hurricane Sandy, Lewis knows many people who plan to attend the festival will likely still be dealing with the storm's disastrous effects.
"The amount of damage and property loss and financial loss, loss of life is astronomical," Lewis says. "It's hard to even put it into words."
Still, Lewis says he has seen how music can heal. He recalls a concert he was scheduled to play in Washington D.C. the week President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. When he was told the show would go on, he wondered what to expect.
"And you know what - everybody showed up," Lewis recalls. "People wanted a period where they didn't have to think about material loss, where they can get lost … and go someplace in their minds where they could not think about what was actually going on. So I'm looking forward to the Cape May concert quite the same."
"Although major damage in that area was avoided, people have relatives and friends up and down the coast affected," Lewis adds. "I think the couple hours they spend with me will be, I hope, well founded."