The jazz scene has been on the periphery of mainstream music’s collective unconscious since its heyday in the 1940s and 50s. It blazed briefly back into the spotlight with the popularity of “La La Land,” as millions watched Ryan Gosling give a somewhat controversial sermon about the virtues of jazz. Even so, it remains a musical genre the average person keeps at arm’s length.
That is, unless you’re at Cape May’s Exit Zero Jazz Festival. Running this year from Friday to Sunday, April 21 to 23, Exit Zero is a biannual coalescing of some of the best jazz acts in the world. It spans multiple venues throughout Cape May, and attracts scores of jazz fans to the Jersey shore.
Two of the headliners this year are Maceo Parker and Robert Glasper. You may know Parker from his work with James Brown, whose summon “Maceo, I want you to blow!” earned him worldwide recognition. He remains one of the foremost jazz musicians working today, and will pay tribute to Ray Charles at his Exit Zero performance 8 p.m. Friday, April 21, at the Schmidtchen Theater, called “To Ray with Love” featuring the Ray Charles Orchestra and The Raelettes. Parker will dedicate his incredible talent on the sax to honoring Charles’ legacy and croon all of his best-known songs like “Busted” and “Hit the Road Jack.”
Glasper, who will perform 7 p.m. Saturday, April 22, at the Schmidtchen Theater, is a king of the keys, known for his fusion of jazz with genres like hip-hop and R&B. A leader of contemporary jazz, he will perform as the Robert Glasper Experiment, accompanied by a band adept at blending electronic elements with a classic jazz sound.
Before Parker and Glasper head to Cape May, we chatted with them about their music, the state of jazz today and their upcoming performances at Exit Zero.
Storytelling with Maceo Parker
At the Shore: When did you first become enamored of Ray Charles?
Maceo Parker: When I first heard him. I’ll never forget, this must have been when he first recorded “What’d I Say.” I’ve always been interested in music, it’s always been part of my life. My mother and father had a piano around all the time. They would rehearse church music and choirs at our house. We were born into this. My brother had a band with instruments, drums and horns. So there was music, music, music since day one … We wanted to hear everything that was recorded and played. Now, my momma made sure we did our chores, and we’re climbing around, cleaning and we hear “What’d I Say” come on the radio. When he finished the song, we didn’t know there was a part two. We kept cleaning and messing around. We went absolutely bonkers when we heard part two — we tore the house back up again. I was already in love with Ray Charles. Back then I didn’t know I had a voice that could imitate him.
ATS: How has it been working on this tribute to him now for your performance at Exit Zero?
MP: Like heaven. It’s really close to heaven. Sometimes I can’t believe it. I feel so honored that somehow my career evolved where I am doing it. My brothers and cousins had a little musical group coming up. And we had seen Ray Charles and James Brown a few times before we graduated from high school ... So then I graduated and I went to college. I’m there as a freshman, and Ray Charles is coming to perform. I go to see the show, and during his break I make my way to where I shouldn’t be, and, I don’t know why, but I’m talking to the air and I’m pointing to his door and I literally say, “Mr. Ray Charles, one of these days you’re going to know me.” I’m a freshman in college, but I have a strong conviction that he’s going to know me. That was maybe 1961. Now in 2003 I opened for him over in Europe — three weeks we played with a big banner over our heads with our names on it. During that tour he allowed me to come on stage, and I can’t even remember what song we played together, I was so stoked.
ATS: You’ve been an active member of the jazz world for years now, so how have you seen it change since the ‘50s and ‘60s.
MP: It hasn’t changed. It’s almost like a soft drink. You put whatever in it to make it what it is, and that’s up to me to do. It’s just different players, almost like football. Now you do have the hip-hop and people doing different stuff with their voices. But for me, you just learn your instrument and you put it in your mouth and you play it.
ATS: How do you keep your music relevant in a world that’s somewhat disinterested in jazz?
MP: I’m not really jazz. That’s not really me. My thing is really like James Brown, and to me there’s a difference between jazz and the James Brown-style. That style we call funk. That’s kind of how I got my name out there, because of James Brown. I’ve noticed that when families have get togethers, they’re eating and all that, and someone’s going to imitate James Brown, then someone rolls up a newspaper (to imitate a saxophone) and they’re going to be Maceo.
ATS: Obviously, jazz fans are over the moon about Exit Zero, but why do you think people who aren’t jazz fans should come to the festival?
MP: James (Brown) had a thing where one time, they said, “Why do you like soul music?” and he said, “Because it makes me haaaappy.” And that just came to my mind when you asked me that. In the midst of chaos and negative things, you have to have room for something that makes you smile. It’s like going to a play. That’s what we do. It’s live entertainment, positive stuff, and at the same time remembrance. Everybody’s got stories. We have to “love up” life; let’s keep love in the forefront. If you love people, you have some more common courtesy. That’s all it is. I love to say love throughout my concerts, “We loooove you.” People pick up on it and feel good. I was born on the 14th of February. I’ve got a cupid thing.
A conversation with Robert Glasper
At the Shore: How have your musical beginnings, specifically performing in churches, influenced your sound today?
Robert Glasper: The main thing that it got me ready for is performance … I got used to playing in front of an audience, and in church it’s all about the feeling of the music and moving people. It’s never about how fast you can play.
ATS: You’ve pulled inspiration from bands like Radiohead and Nirvana … how do other musical genres play into the music you create?
RG: They keep my music fresh. Even back in the day our forefathers of jazz, they were inspired by musicals and commercials that were not jazz songs. They made them into jazz songs. That’s what I get from other bands. The more you add that’s new, the more contemporary you are.
ATS: Why do you think jazz has declined in popularity?
RG: It’s not the listeners’ fault. It’s the jazz musicians’ and jazz establishment’s fault. Most refuse to allow the newer sound of jazz to take over. We’re still very much engulfed by the past, which will easily make you old-school. You can’t compete with new school R&B, country, folk, because you’re still in the ‘60s. They need to start championing newer musicians coming up, even if their music is different from the past.
ATS: How would you explain jazz to someone who doesn’t know anything about it?
RG: I would let them know that there are different styles of jazz and explain to them the different styles. It’s impossible without going through each genre. I would ask them what kind of music they like and point them in the direction of a style of jazz that may have traces of that.
ATS: What are you looking forward to about Exit Zero?
RG: I like the beachy vibe of Cape May. I’m arriving a day early, so I think I’ll have some vacation time. I’m excited hang out at the beach.
EXIT ZERO JAZZ FESTIVAL FULL SCHEDULE:
Friday, April 21
6 p.m.: Carnett Moffett’s Nettwork Trip with Brian Jackson, Jeff “Tain” Watts and Scott Tixier; Convention Hall
6:30 p.m.: Paula Johns and Paul Sottile; Ebbitt Room
8 p.m.: “To Ray With Love” starring Maceo Parker, featuring the Ray Charles Orchestra and the Raelettes; Schmidtchen Teater
8 p.m.: Stooges Brass Band; Carney’s Main Room
9 p.m.: Daisy Castro; Iron Pier Craft House
9 p.m.: Brianna Thomas; Carney’s Other Room
9:30 p.m.: Philly Gumbo; Cape May Brewery Stage at Cabanas
10 p.m.: Stooges Brass Band; Carney’s Main Room
11 p.m.: Daisy Castro; Iron Pier Craft House
11 p.m.: Brianna Thomas; Carney’s Other Room
11:45 p.m.: Philly Gumbo; Cape May Brewery Stage at Cabanas
Saturday, April 22
12 p.m.: Michael Pedicin; Convention Hall
12:30 p.m.: Stooges Brass Band; Carney’s Main Room
1 p.m.: Philly Gumbo; Cape May Brewery Stage at Cabanas
1:30 p.m.: Brianna Thomas; Carney’s Other Room
2:30 p.m.: Stooges Brass Band; Carney’s Main Room
3 p.m.: Daisy Castro; Carney’s Other Room
3 p.m.: Philly Gumbo; Cape May Brewery Stage at Cabanas
3 p.m.: Kenny Barron; Convention Hall
4:30 p.m.: Daisy Castro; Carney’s Other Room
7 p.m.: Robert Glasper Experiment; Schmidtchen Theater
8 p.m.: Frank Bey; Carney’s Main Room
8:45 p.m.: Charnett Moffett; Iron Pier Craft House
9 p.m.: Christian Scott aTuned Adjuah; Convention Hall
9:15 p.m.: Brian Betz and Denis DiBlasio Quartet; Carney’s Other Room
10 p.m.: PhillyBloco; Cape May Brewery Stage at Cabanas
10 p.m.: Frank Bey; Carney’s Main Room
10:45 p.m.: Charnett Moffett; Iron Pier Craft House
11 p.m.: Brian Betz and Denis DiBlasio Quartet; Carney’s Other Room
11:50 p.m.: PhillyBloco; Cape May Brewery Stage at Cabanas
Sunday, April 23
12 p.m.: Freddie Hendrix; Convention Hall
12:30 p.m.: Daisy Castro; Cape May Brewery Stage at Cabanas
1:15 p.m.: Brian Betz and Denis DiBlasio Quartet; Carney’s Other Room
1:30 p.m.: Christian Sands Trio; Convention Hall
2:30 p.m.: Frank Bey; Carney’s Main Room
3 p.m.: PhillyBloco; Cape May Brewery Stage at Cabanas
3:45 p.m.: Brian Betz and Denis DiBlasio Quartet; Carney’s Other Room
4:30 p.m.: Frank Bey; Carney’s Main Room
5 p.m.: PhillyBloco; Cape May Brewery Stage at Cabanas