When the curtain goes up on another edition of the Exit Zero Jazz Festival, all eyes will no doubt be on the incomparable musicians on stage.
The schedule is always a veritable who’s who of musical heavyweights: Grammy award-winning vocalist Dianne Reeves, trailblazing bassist Marcus Miller, vibes master and 2018 Doris Duke Artist award-winner Stefon Harris are just a few of the jazz luminaries.
But despite the obvious star power, it’s a group of area high school students who may shine the brightest.
“They do it all,” says Exit Zero festival director Michael Kline.
Kline is referring to his Krewe – a tireless group of students from the MUSIC CONNECTS program who light the lights, raise the curtain and more.
The students, all of whom attend school in Cape May County, are the non-stop engine that makes this largely volunteer effort purr. They move equipment on-and-off stage, work the lights, handle ticket sales and dibble and dabble into all corners of festival set-up and production. All done in an effort to get a taste of what life is really like in the music business
“It’s like a dozen or so kids, working 12-to-14 hours a day and getting real, practical hands-on experience,” said Kline.
Amanda Rosenzweig, a 17-year-old senior at Lower Cape May Regional High School, has been a Music Connects participant since the beginning. Her initial involvement came from being a member of her high school stage crew. The Exit Zero Jazz Festival was her first large show, and her involvement has grown over the years.
“I started out following the sound techs and doing load-ins and outs,” said Rosenzweig. “I (later) got a job at Convention Hall through the (Music Connects) program doing lights. While I still get to stick to being a stage hand, I also now work with VIP members and help organize [jobs for other members of the program].”
Students also have the opportunity to perform in the MUSIC CONNECTS Big Band, a county wide Big Band under the direction of Lower Township High School Music teacher, John Drechen. Students from Middle, Lower, Ocean City and Wildwood are currently involved. Students from outside Cape May County who are inspired to take on the challenge are also welcomed.
This year’s Music Connects artist-in-residence is the renowned trumpeter, composer and arranger, Bria Skonberg. As the 2019 Music Connects artist-in-residence, Skonberg will work with this year’s student big band, assisting with all facets of musical performance, as well as showing them what life is like as a touring jazz musician.
While the big band performance and training may get all the headlines, it’s the hands-on experience gleaned from working the festival that really separates the Music Connects program from other immersive arts initiatives.
That’s been the case with Rosenzweig.
“I love getting to work all aspects of the shows to get a full understanding of what goes into it,” said Rosenzweig. “[I’m] grateful to have such amazing people to work with. I definitely have a lot of respect for the organizer of jazz fest for doing what he does with this program.”
It’s the closest thing to an arts vocational program this area has to offer.
This effort doesn’t exist without the generous support of area music fans and local businesses.
On Thursday, November 8 at the Cape May Convention Hall, the annual Music Connects gala provides those interested in learning more about the program with a little ‘Lagniappe.’ It’s a night of rump stompin’, hip shakin’ good music, featuring son of New Orleans Kermit Ruffins and his Barbecue Swingers. As the sounds of the bayou swing through the room, those attending will not only enjoy some delicious tunes, but proceeds from the gala help provide the resources for this invaluable program.
For kids interested in joining the Krewe, Amanda’s advice is simple: All students can benefit from the many opportunities the Music Connects program has to offer.
“Even if it's something like coiling a wire, learning proper technique is important. You're not going to learn how to run a sound system in one show. It takes time, but you can pick up little things.”
As for the tunes:
“Take advantage of being able to see these amazing concerts and appreciate the chance to take in the music.”
That’s music the festival director Kline’s ears.
“It’s not just about playing an instrument. What we’re really doing through the program is turning these kids onto the possibilities that exist within the musical world,” he said.
There’s no better way to learn than by doing.
MUSIC CONNECTS is an affiliate program of the non-profit Cape May Forum, providing musically inspired programs to youth in Cape May County. The Krewe is open to all high school age students in Cape May County. Those interested in getting involved should reach out through their high school music, art, or theater teachers. For more information on this program or to become a sponsor, contact Michael Kline at Michael@exitzerojazzfest.com