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Exit Zero Jazz Fest to continue as planned
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Exit Zero Jazz Fest to continue as planned

For live events, 2020 has been a raging flop. The beach concerts never got off the ground. Stadiums that would normally be roaring with fans have remained eerily silent. World tours from major artists have been scrapped entirely. That has been the sad state of affairs just about everywhere when it comes to big shows in 2020, but one music festival right here in South Jersey is prepared to attempt to move forward, despite the obvious hurdles in their path — the Exit Zero Jazz Fest.

The Exit Zero Jazz Fest takes place Thursday through Sunday, Oct. 1-4, in various locations throughout Cape May. Social distancing and mask requirements have been put in place to ensure the safety of those attending and performing. Of course, all of these are standard COVID-age restrictions that you might see at restaurants or other places where people gather, but so far very few have pulled the trigger on a full-on festival. So what made the folks at Exit Zero confident that they could pull off something like this?

“We began presenting smaller live music events in Cape May in mid-July,” says Michael Kline, producer of Exit Zero Jazz Fest. “The whole purpose of those shows was to try and get back into the idea of presenting live music again. So we really had to look closely at everything we did production wise to make sure that what we were doing was safe. And what we found was that patrons were really receptive to it. We had no hassle at all from anyone about having to wear masks or have their temperatures taken. The cooperation from everyone was just fantastic. So at that point, I began to think it would be possible to do the festival, moving it from our usual November dates to the first weekend in October in order to try and take advantage of some good weather and be able to utilize the outdoor venues.”

Despite only having a short amount of time to put it all together, Exit Zero managed to land some big names, including the Eddie Palmieri Jazz Sextet who will headline Saturday night. Night one kicks things off with a live show from the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra Septet with Wynton Marsalis, one of the most respected jazz artists in the world.

“This is the first time that those guys in that band will be together onstage since March,” Kline says. “For them to have the confidence in us to pull off the production says a lot,” he adds.

In addition to Marsalis there will be a myriad of other artists from the worlds of jazz and blues, all performing at various outdoor venues such as the Emlen Physick Estate, Hawk Haven Vineyard, Nauti Spirits Distillery, and Cape May Brewing Company’s Brewtanical Garden. Performances will take place throughout each day, with most days starting at noon. Many of the artists who will perform this year are locally based, a result of travel restrictions and quarantine rules that are currently in effect in various states.

“In the past we had a pipeline of musicians from Louisiana to New Jersey, but you won’t find that this year. But there will be plenty of wonderful music,” Kline promises.

Three questions with Billy Walton

One Jersey Shore-based act that will appear at the festival is the Billy Walton Band. Walton is something of a local legend in the world of blues rock, as his blistering guitar solos and soulful vocals have earned him a devoted following in recent years. Fresh off the heels of his latest record “Dark Hour,” the band will appear both Friday and Sunday at Exit Zero.

Atlantic City Weekly: Has the band been playing live much recently? How have you adapted to COVID?

Billy Walton: We’ve been very fortunate to be able to play out as many times as we have in contrast to a lot of our fellow artists. We had a weekly outdoor gig at a beautiful venue right on the beach at Laguna Grill in Brigantine. It was an awesome location with plenty of outdoor space for everyone.

We also were able to play at a number of other outdoor venues. So while it certainly hasn’t been our normal summer of festival dates, we feel lucky to have been able to play together as a band as many times as we did.

ACW: How does your brand of blues rock go over with the very jazz-oriented audience at Exit Zero?

BW: The jazz/blues audiences are usually very open-minded. Sure there are the traditionalists, but the majority of people are up for it. Plus, our music has a lot of bluesy and soulful elements, so whatever label it’s under, it’s fine with me. I always say blues and jazz had a baby and it’s called rock ‘n’ roll! Music always evolves, and if it has heart and soul, people are gonna like it. I’m just really looking forward to bringing songs from our new record to them, not to mention the rest of the catalog. It’s going to be awesome.

ACW: The festival is obviously very different this year. What are your expectations for it?

BW: The festival is going to be fantastic! Yes, there are new rules and the new normal, I get it, but the bottom line is people still want to go out and listen to music, feel normal and have a good time. If it takes a little more social distancing, that’s fine, let’s be safe. But the fact that there’s a festival and music being played is a positive. Music is a thing that brings people together. That’s really what we all need right now.

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