Based in St. Louis, Michael Lazaroff is one of the most successful entrepreneurs in jazz. As the director of Entertainment Cruise Productions, he oversees The Jazz Cruise, The Smooth Jazz Cruise and the most recently added Blue Note at Sea cruise. A former attorney, the energetic Lazaroff came into the business in 2000 when Norwegian Cruise Lines discontinued its jazz cruise and his mother Anita Berry, who ran a travel agency that serviced the jazz trips, said that she wanted to start her own jazz-themed cruise. The company, which initially started with the Jazz Cruise, has grown to now host five different theme cruises, including a Star Trek cruise and an 80s music one. Since 2001, Entertainment Cruise Productions has produced more than 70 full ship theme charters, entertained more than 125,000 guests and presented thousands of artists, musicians and performers.
Lazaroff spoke with JazzTimes publisher Lee Mergner about the latest offering – the Blue Note at Sea cruise, which is co-sponsored by Blue Note Records and The Blue Note clubs. The Blue Note at Sea cruise sails January 27 – February 3, 2018. Learn more here.
Lee Mergner: You’ve been doing jazz-oriented cruises for 17 years now. The Blue Note at Sea cruise is a new offering, with its first sailing earlier this year. What was the origin of that new venture?
Michael Lazaroff: I happen to love jazz. We were doing cruises that involved relatively small niches of the world of jazz. We were doing smooth jazz, and we were doing straight ahead jazz. Whereas, if you were to walk into a jazz club anywhere throughout the world, the likelihood is that they would be performing something else. And that is world jazz, contemporary jazz or whatever terminology you want to use, but there’s a whole litany of spectacular jazz performers who really don’t fit into either a smooth jazz or a straight-ahead jazz format. And I wanted to address that and to create something that was a little more contemporary, a little more reflective of the music of the world.
The music is obviously different. What are some of the other differences between the cruises?
The biggest difference between Blue Note at Sea and, say, the Jazz Cruise is that the Jazz Cruise is done festival style; we have almost a hundred jazz musicians, we have multiple venues going at any one time, and we encourage people to basically graze. The performers do four shows during the week, so you can plot out your week. And you could see everybody once or twice, or you could see your favorite people four times. That is up to you. Blue Note at Sea is presented in a similar manner to the way that we do the Smooth Jazz Cruise, which is having two main shows every night, one for each half of the passengers on the ship. And then afterwards, and in the afternoon, we have more of a festival style. You pick what you want to listen to. So those are the biggest differences from a presentational point of view. From a directorial point of view, obviously Blue Note at Sea is a joint production, in terms of the talent and some of the other aspects of the events, with two iconic jazz organizations—Blue Note Records and the Blue Note Jazz Clubs. So it’s really the first time that we’ve ever done a jazz cruise where we need to play well with others.
What do those partners bring to the table?
Working with Don Was is a real pleasure and a real honor. I have been working with him for a while. He actually appeared on our 80s cruise with his group Was Not Was, so Don is a guy who was a funk band guy during the 80s, has produced music by the Rolling Stones, and now is the president of Blue Note Jazz. I just can’t imagine a broader music palette than that. He has an ear for cool stuff and new performers, and also for ways to present them in really fantastic configurations. He is just really very creative. The other thing that he brings to the cruise is that he is just about the best live interviewer that I’ve seen—he asks great questions, and because of who he is there is a sort of a star quality to the interviews.
Steven Bensusan and Blue Note Jazz Clubs have been equally important to what we’re doing. They have great ideas, they obviously purchase probably more jazz talent than anyone. That’s what they do. They are up to date with all of the latest jazz performers and they have terrific reach. They are as close to a global jazz organization as you can be these days. They’ve been terrific at getting the word out about the cruise.
Were you able to collaborate with them in terms of the programming? Were they a part of that booking process?
Yes they were. The way the process worked and has been working, is I sketch out roughly what I’m looking for. And in terms of the larger names, I pick those because that is not terribly difficult. It doesn’t take years of jazz expertise to decide that you want Chick Corea on the cruise. Right? So I’m able to do that. But then, balancing it and finding interesting groups…the best example this year is that Don thought that we should have the Blue Note All Stars. Which is something that I’m not sure that if I sought them out that I’d be able to procure them for the cruise. It’s different if Don does it, and by doing that we wind up with five or six terrific artists who can perform in their own right and in various other configurations on the ship, so we gain lots of music, lots of shows by that.
The joint communal experience of being together on the ship is something that both the musicians and the fans talk about, but it’s a hard thing to get across, isn’t it?
It’s a difficult thing to explain. But once they’re on the ship, not only do they get it, but they love it. Because two elements are happening—first of all, they get to hang with each other and they don’t get to do that very often. Secondly, perhaps even more importantly, they get to hear each other, which they don’t always get to do. Kirk Whalum years ago said to me, “Do you realize that you get the best performances out of everybody?” And I said, “Why is that?” He said, “Because we’re performing in front of our peers and that is the motivation.” Gregory Porter mentioned that to me on this last cruise, and said that it was such a thrill for him to be performing in front of all of these great musicians and that that was his inspiration for that night.
In terms of just pure camaraderie, I will never forget one experience at Blue Note At Sea this year. We sailed on Super Bowl Sunday night and there is an outdoor kind of a theater on the ship, with a big screen TV. And there we were watching the Super Bowl with Terence Blanchard, Robert Glasper, Gregory Porter, Marcus Miller—and they’re all watching the game and eating Super Bowl food. They loved it. It was clear that they were having a great time. Those are the kinds of things that make it easier for guys to come back, because they have a good time. Very rarely—and I’m not even sure that I can name one now—have we had any artist, on any of our cruises, who after the cruise said, “I won’t do that again.” Probably the most complimentary thing I’ve heard in a while was from Pat Metheny. When he came off stage from his first show—he was an on-and-off guest, he did not sail, he came on board and performed two shows, and then left—he comes up to me and says, “If I knew that the theater would sound like this and the audience would be like this, I would have sailed all seven days. This is amazing.” And so those are the kinds of things that you live for.
The fans have that same experience. A lot of these fans know each other and get together each year on the ship. For them, it’s about reuniting and communing with each other. How do you get that across?
It’s very difficult. We do testimonials. I always tell people that like the movie Same Time Next Year, or like going to camp, they’re going to see people for a week that they probably, or may only see them just for that week. But the minute they see them, the relationships are all rekindled. On the Smooth Jazz Cruise, I can walk on stage—which I do very briefly to say hello to everybody—and I will look in the audience, and I will know where various people are sitting, because they sit in the same seat every year. And, if not the same seat, absolutely the same area. And it’s extraordinary. Twelve thousand people have sailed with us on our jazz cruises four or more times. How many occasions are you aware of where people do it four times, unless you own the condo? It’s a fascinating sociological concept. But it is a family kind of thing, it is a friendly environment.
People on our cruises, because it’s jazz, and because they all love jazz, it, it breeds inclusiveness. It breeds people just enjoying life. [There’s] not a lot of hostility. It’s just people there to really enjoy the music and without a doubt, the single most powerful element of our cruises, which is not on the website, is exactly what you just said. It is the camaraderie among the guests. When was the last time you spent seven days with two thousand people who had the exact same musical interest that you do? And it is just an amazingly powerful thing. And, very often, I will say on stage, and I did it this year for sure, that the world’s a crazy place. The world is nuts. But for seven days, we don’t have to worry about that because we are among people who are kind and attentive and inclusive, and they’re here to enjoy music and to enjoy each other. So for seven days, it really is a vacation from the craziness.
The audience really has a respect for the music. They don’t care that you might be a successful musician or a staff member. If you’re talking during a performance, they’ll tell you to shut up!
They are there for the music. Anything that gets in the way of their appreciation of the music is a problem, whether it’s bartenders mixing drinks or using a blender or anything. The music is like precious nectar to them. And they want all of it. Probably the proudest thing I feel about our productions is the compliments that we receive from the guests, but more importantly from the musicians, as to our sound quality. Our new ship really made it much better. But that to me is so important. We don’t spare any expense regarding that. That has to be right. Because otherwise it doesn’t make any sense to pay all that money to have all those musicians and then not have it sound properly.
You’ve worked with the Holland America line for many years now, but you have moved to Celebrity. What has the transition to the new line been like?
Moving to Celebrity, in terms of the production of our music, was without a doubt one of the best things that we’ve ever done. The venues that they have, including first of all the main theater, are just better. [The theater] has a better sound quality, it is completely tiered, and the way the ceiling works, we can actually hang the speakers from the ceiling so there isn’t any wall reverberation. It is great. And then we have two additional venues—Revelations and Rendezvous—which are just vastly superior to what we had before. It isn’t even close.
For the first time in the 17 years that I have been doing cruises, no one complained that they couldn’t get into a show because of the size of the venues and the accessibility. And that meant the world to me. Like all changes, people are kind of skeptical and so there were some questions, about, say, “Which ship has better food? Which ship has better this? Which ship has better that?” And what I truly enjoyed was the incredibly selective, and sometimes poor memory, that folks had before. I had a lady come up to me and say, “I liked Holland better because the sodas and the bottled water were free.” I said, “No they weren’t.” She says, “Absolutely!” I said, “Did you buy a drink package?” And she says, “Yeah, maybe I did that. Maybe that was it.”
At the main dining room at a Celebrity, I think the food was better. I think that in terms of the specialty restaurants, the new ship blew the old ship away because of all the different choices and really cool places. The best thing about Celebrity thus far: they really want to please. And, we are the largest charter company. When you get us, you get seven sailings, which is a ton.
And they don’t have to spend any money marketing it either.
That’s right. They don’t spend any money marketing it, and the other aspect which folks don’t realize is that it’s very nice for them, in their brochures, to say that they have the Star Trek Cruise and they have Blue Note at Sea, and they have the Jazz Cruise and so on. It’s a feather in their cap. So that works out well. But they are really working with us on all of our programs. So I’m excited about that.
And what is the capacity of the cruise?
Assuming double occupancy it’s around 2,100. Most f our cruises are less than that because we probably have a larger number of singles and fewer triples and quads than a normal cruise would have. So we are right around 2,000 passengers. Which, when we do seven cruises, that means we are entertaining 14,000 people. Three meals a day, seven days a week, plus entertainment. It’s an interesting business.
And then you just take the rest of the year off, right?
That’s exactly right [laughs] I love when people ask me that question. My two favorite questions are: Do you go on every cruise? To which I always say, “No, no, I just put ‘em on the ship and wish ‘em the best.” And, secondly: What do you do the rest of the year?
Right, you work on your backhand. No, seriously, it’s clear how hard you and your team work all year round not only on marketing the cruise, but also on working out all the details and logistics. There are some musicians like Marcus Miller and Wycliffe Gordon who do multiple jazz cruises.
The smooth jazz is fascinating in that there really isn’t any new smooth jazz. So all these guys, who are terrific musicians – who became famous as smooth jazz artists – are all trying different things. And there’s a fairly strong R&B element, a fairly strong funk element to the point where it really is, now more than anything else, just a really fun, high-energy, instrumental music form. And that’s really what it is. So, Wycliffe is perfect. He puts on a show, and he sings, and he is, as you know, one of the most congenial folks ever. He did do the gospel show on all three cruises and he was terrific.
That gospel show is a favorite on the Jazz Cruise, I know. Explain what that show is all about.
Forever and ever, from the time that we first started cruises, on every cruise that we’ve ever done except for the 80s—only because we haven’t figured out how to do it—we do a gospel show. Typically, it’s the first morning at sea. And it is gospel music performed by our folks. It’s a very inspirational thing. Obviously when you talk about gospel music, there is a religious bent to it, but it is not intended to be a religious experience. It is just a tribute to this fabulous music that, unless you are jaded, you have to realize was a predecessor to jazz. Gospel clearly is either at the root of jazz, or, or part of the [mix]. The Jazz Cruise is going to New Orleans this year. So we’re going to have lots of that there. I’m pretty excited about that.
What about fans who do multiple cruises? Last year the Jazz Cruise and Blue Note at Sea sailed back to back on the same ship, but to different destinations.
Yes, we had 140 people who sailed on the Jazz Cruise and on Blue Note at Sea. The smooth jazz folks tend to stick to their knitting, and stay there. We are seeing some movement to the Blue Note at Sea cruise, but going from the Smooth Jazz cruise is probably a bridge too far for many of them.
Are there any artists on your bucket list for future sailings of Blue Note at Sea?
Trombone Shorty. Jamie Cullum. We’ve tried numerous times. Pat Metheny and Chick Corea [this year and next year] checked off a lot of boxes we’d had. We’ve had Herbie Hancock, we’ve had Keb Mo, we’ve had McCoy Tyner. Sonny Rollins would be great. I haven’t as yet been able to secure Cecile McLorin Salvant and I would like that very much. We’ve been lucky in that, over the years, as our programs mature and the word among musicians is such that you’re going to be okay, nothing’s going to go wrong when you’re on the cruise. So we’re able to get almost everybody. Once in a while there’s somebody who comes around. We just signed Steve Tyrell for the Jazz Cruise. He’s someone who never wanted to sail, and I finally convinced him to sail. I’m really looking forward to it. He’ll be spectacular.
How do you enable or encourage the fans to connect with the artists?
We try as hard as we can to create events where the artists are able to mix with our guests. And, whether or not that’s right after their sets, or in Q&As, or otherwise. Clearly some artists embrace this and they are terrific. Others are shy. And we can kind of work with that. But those rare occasions where someone is not very cooperative and/or polite about it—and that goes for both the guests and the musicians—then we have to do something. We will never allow a guest to stalk a musician, dominate a musician or say something which is embarrassing or something like that. We will sit them down. And, if there are musicians that simply perform and then go back to their room and that’s all that they do, [then] we’re going to be reluctant to rebook them, quite frankly. Because part of the lure of being on the cruise is you’re going to get a level of experience with these musicians that you wouldn’t get at a concert. If all that they do is perform the music, then there isn’t any difference between a concert and, and being on the cruise. So why pay the premium? It doesn’t make sense.
I’ve seen firsthand how the fans are respectful of the artists and their leisure time, but at the same time the artists enjoy the give and take with the fans who are so knowledgeable and passionate about the music.
They are. We put it in the documents and the way we say it is that the way that you listen to jazz, you don’t talk over the music, you don’t dominate the event, but if there’s something that you like, you applaud, you say something. So that’s how you treat these guys. Say hello, or “I saw you back there” The one thing that we really discourage is, and I hate this because I’m awful at it, if they go up to a musician and say, “You don’t remember me, do you?”
My favorite story about that by a mile, I’m at the Ocean Bar on the old ship, and I’m there with Freddy Cole and this guy comes up to us. And he’s one of our self-assumed know-it-alls. And he said, “Freddy, the last thing, the last album…” And he’s criticizing what the drummer did, and this and that. “And I really liked the way that you did that song…” Just going on and on and on, and then he stops and says, “Freddy, I’ve been meaning to ask you: Do you come from a musical family?” And I looked at Freddy and I said, “You’ve got this one.” So Freddy kind of rolls his eyes at that and says, “Yeah, we got a few singers in our family.” I mean, this guy didn’t know #%*. That was the bottom line. But there are guys on these cruises who know so much about the music.
Doing it from one year to the next, I notice the incremental things you do one year to the next to improve the experience. What were some of the things that you took away from the first sailing with the Blue Note at Sea cruise?
That’s easy. More music. You never know what your clientele is until you get on the ship. You can look at the demographics and you can make some conjectures. So, on the smooth jazz cruise, we have X amount of music and then X amount of events. Almost like parties and things like that – that are fun, but they’re really not the music. The people who came on Blue Note were very serious music lovers. And they could care less, or were not excited about costume parties or things that we sometimes do on the other cruises. They wanted music. They didn’t want anything else. I just finished the first draft of the program for Blue Note at Sea and we literally have twice the number of hours of actual music than we had the last time. There isn’t any question that this is a music cruise. Just like with the Jazz Cruise is, if it isn’t music, they want to eat and that’s it. They don’t want to meet the captain or things like that. So that’s what I’m doing. It’s a very serious music cruise.
For more information about the Blue Note at Sea cruise, visit their website.