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Come Sail with Me: Artists Take the Helm of Jazz Cruises

A performance on a jazz cruise
Autograph seekers on a jazz cruise
Dave Koz on a jazz cruise
A performance on a jazz cruise
Marcus Miller
A performance on a jazz cruise
A performance on a jazz cruise

Where will you find such acts as Marcus Miller, Russell Malone, the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra, Patti Austin, Houston Person, David Benoit and Wayman Tisdale this fall and winter? Performing in the lounges and ballrooms of major cruise ships en route to exotic locales, that’s where.

The concept of bringing recording artists on board to entertain people isn’t new, but in the last three years the jazz-cruise phenomenon has exploded with sold-out sailings to the Caribbean, the Mexican coast and Europe. The coming months will see the straightahead-oriented Jazz Cruise in October, the second annual Dave Koz and Friends at Sea cruise in November, the Brian Culbertson-hosted All Star Smooth Jazz Cruise and the Wayman Tisdale-hosted Smooth Jazz Cruise in Jan. 2007. In addition, bassist Marcus Miller will host the first-ever North Sea Jazz Cruise-to which JazzTimes is a consultant-that’s sailing from Copenhagen, Denmark, to Rotterdam, the Netherlands, next July. Each ship will be front-loaded with the top performers in jazz.

The annual Jazz Cruise, the oldest of the annual sailings, will whisk passengers away from Oct. 28 to Nov. 4 on Holland America’s sumptuous M/S Oosterdam with the Monty Alexander Trio, the Russell Malone Trio, the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra, Bill Charlap and Sandy Stewart, the Freddy Cole Quartet, the Dan Friedman Trio, the Wycliffe Gordon Quintet, the Jay Leonhart Trio, the Houston Person Quartet, Barbara Morrison and others. Billed as the world’s only full-ship, straightahead jazz cruise, the event switches this year from an East Coast Caribbean itinerary to a Holland America ship departing from San Diego for the Mexican Riviera. (Full disclosure: JazzTimes provides marketing services for the Jazz Cruise.)

On the contemporary jazz side, the number of cruises is increasing. Warren Hill hosted the first Smooth Jazz Cruise in 2004, and the response was so overwhelming that producer Jazz Cruises LLC approached genre leader Dave Koz and his management team the following year about helming a West Coast version. After anchoring a popular annual Dave Koz and Friends summer tour and Christmas package, the saxophonist and radio host says he was initially reluctant until he got all the facts.

“We thought, wow, it would be an interesting new experience to try to put together as an extension for people of what we do in the summer and the wintertime, and put it on a boat,” he explains of the Mexican Riviera cruise in November. “We put it up on sale and realized very quickly that there is a very strong market for this.”

Another company, Chicago’s AAI Events, kicked off its All Star Smooth Jazz Cruise of the Caribbean in the fall of 2005, with trumpeter Rick Braun as the host. Now ready to set sail again in January from Galveston, Texas, on Carnival Cruise Line’s Carnival Conquest ship, the All Star Cruise will now be hosted by Brian Culbertson. The ship heads to Montego Bay (Jamaica), Cozumel (Mexico) and Grand Cayman Island with a lineup that includes Boney James, Paul Taylor, Candy Dulfer, Down to the Bone, Nick Colionne, Norman Brown and Pamela Williams.

“In addition to a great concert in the concert venue, after that there are also jam sessions where all of the artists are getting together and jamming. I mean, where can you ever see that? You can’t,” says Culbertson, the popular Chicago-based keyboardist and producer who is gearing up for his first hosting stint this January. “I mean, not even at a jazz festival can you see this kind of stuff happening.”

The next level of cruising is combining the sailing with another major event, as the forthcoming North Sea Jazz Cruise of Northern Europe will do. “My concept here is to create a cruise that incorporates all the wonders of the North Sea Jazz Festival and then have the ship itself be the hotel for the festival,” says Michael Lazaroff, executive director of Jazz Cruises LLC. “We’re going to dock in Rotterdam; you’re going to attend the festival from the ship. So you get a spectacular cruise with all kinds of wonderful music, you get a VIP tour of the festival itself and you have your own hotel.”

Host Marcus Miller is thrilled about the prospect of hosting the combo event. “It’s going to be fantastic. We’re going to have some great artists together with people who love music, hanging out together and visiting some of the most beautiful cities in Europe,” he says. “For a music lover who’s always dreamed of visiting Europe, checking out the North Sea Festival-or maybe being able to have a conversation with their favorite musician over breakfast-this is a dream.”

The All Star Cruise also combines its voyage with a special event: a major pre-cruise concert at a nearby resort, Galveston’s Moody Gardens. Passengers can opt to come a day or two early for an all-star concert by the cruise artists as well as another big-ticket performer. Last year Al Jarreau and saxophonist Boney James were the pre-cruise entertainers; for January, AAI Events has booked George Benson. “The pre-cruise concert allows us to bring in an artist way above the caliber of what we normally would be able to afford to bring on, and they may not be with us on the ship, but we can have one big huge party prior to setting sail,” explains AAI president Mark Vrabel.

Why the proliferation of such oceangoing adventures? The cruises combine the elements of a great destination vacation with high-quality entertainment and luxurious accommodations in an intimate setting. And the smooth jazz audience, statistically middle-aged and affluent, can afford to treat themselves.

“I think fans of music are looking for new experiences,” says Koz, who plays host to David Sanborn, Mindi Abair, Jonathan Butler, David Benoit, Patti Austin, Peter White, Jeffrey Osborne and others this year. “If you’re a smooth jazz fan, you are able to see 10 or 12 different artists over the course of a week. You can see them in their big show and then also see them in more intimate venues doing things you could never see elsewhere. You can eat with these people, you can travel to exotic locations with these people, and everybody on board-here’s the key part-everybody on board shares the same passion as you.”

St. Louis-based Jazz Cruises LLC, which now produces four cruises, was founded on the considerable experience of chairwoman Anita Berry, a devoted jazz fan who first began organizing groups and booking artists onto cruise ships some 20 years ago. Now under the direction of Berry’s son, Michael Lazaroff, the company is state-of-the-art in terms of producing the floating festivals. “It’s terrific accommodations, generally very good food, very good service, you get to go to interesting ports of call,” says Lazaroff. “If you combine that with international entertainment of a genre that people are very interested in-that’s like the best of all worlds.”

“Cruising is a really fantastic vacation, but when you combine the music with it-versus the normal, bad-Vegas-type show that would be on a regular cruise ship-it’s a really fantastic thing,” echoes AAI’s Vrabel. “You get on the ship, you unpack one time, you visit all these exotic ports of call. You do that during the day, and then we go all night with the music.”

Passengers get to not only watch their favorite artists but also hang out and interact with them on a number of levels. “We have discussion panels with the artists, we talk about the state of the music industry or we have Q&A sessions with the artists,” explains former Smooth Jazz Cruise host Hill, who adds that on the Jan. 2006 cruise guitarist Jeff Golub mixed and served Cuban mojitos at one of the bars, cycling enthusiast Marion Meadows led a spinning class for fans at the shipboard health club and Hill led revelers on a morning jog “to work off the alcohol from the night before,” he says with a laugh. “It’s really up close and personal with the artists for a week.”

A popular feature of the first Dave Koz cruise was a “Women Over 40” panel session hosted by Patti Austin, whom Koz calls “the Oprah of the cruise set.” Says Lazaroff, “We have comedians, pajama parties, all kinds of fun stuff. We have gifts every night; we have commemorative T-shirts and mugs and parties every night.”

On the Smooth Jazz Cruise, passengers got to compete in an amateur Star Search talent contest, where the most popular amateur performers as judged by the audience got to take over a shipboard lounge and jam with the artists in an all-star band. And Chicago guitarist Nick Colionne proved a hit by hosting a series of impromptu jam sessions dubbed “Nick at Nite.”

Culbertson agrees that the setting makes for unhurried connections with fans. “There’s autograph sessions, just autograph sessions,” Culbertson adds. “Usually they’re after a show, everyone’s rushing, ‘Can you sign this?’ Boom, boom, boom. On the ship we have more time to hang out, so it’s a lot more intimate connection between the fans and the artists; that’s why it’s gotten so popular.”

For the artists themselves, it’s a working vacation that also allows them to reconnect with their colleagues. “The artists love it,” enthuses cruise producer Lazaroff. “It’s a quasi-vacation, quasi-gig for them. They get to see their fans; we treat them awfully well. They vie to come on the ship and that’s sort of interesting, how that has developed over the years.”

“They come with their families,” echoes Vrabel. “It’s a working vacation for them. Unlike a normal show or tour where they play and they’re off to the next city, they actually get to spend the entire week watching the other artists’ shows, and they get to hang with their peers.”

Hill adds that the setting fosters relaxation for the performers. “Typically we’re all just drained when we’re at a gig ’cause you’re on the road, you’re up at 5 or 7 a.m. to catch a flight, you roll in from the airport to get to sound check, you’re lucky if you get to catch a nap before the show, then you’re up onstage and you do it all again the next day,” he says. “In this case you don’t have to catch any flights, you’re on the ship for the whole week, you’re hanging out and you’re seeing all your musician buddies.

“Most of the artists, their response at the end of the week is that it really was one of the best musical experiences they’ve had, because they’re in such a relaxed, loose, easygoing frame of mind for a week,” continues Hill. “And then they get to do what they love, which is playing music.”

Jonathan Butler, who has sailed on a few cruises over the years, says he’s surprised by how much he enjoys them. “I never thought I would, because I was always freaked out about Titanic and ships going down. You couldn’t even get me to Catalina Island on that little ferryboat, you know, I would just freak out,” he jokes, referring to the annual offshore JazzTrax Festival in Southern California. “But being on such a large ship, you don’t really feel anything except maybe every now and again. And you’re there with your friends.”

Koz found out exactly how strong the bond with his fans and fellow artists could be when his mother passed away just one day before his cruise set sail last year. After spending time with his family, he chartered a plane to join the cruise days later in Mazatlan, its second port of call. “One of the passengers saw me and said, ‘Welcome home.’ And I kinda lost it then,” he remembers. “It was just such a beautiful thing because that’s what it felt like, it was like a cradle of love and support and comfort. So there was no place on earth that I would rather have spent that time. I found so much healing not only from the music but also the passengers onboard.”

The boom in chartered theme cruises came about after the cruise lines themselves stopped hosting special-interest groups on their ships as a cost-cutting measure. With individual production companies now handling reservations, hospitality, music bookings and onboard music production, the cruise lines have been able to tighten their belts while focusing on service. “One of the reasons why there is such a rise in theme cruises throughout the world is because cruise lines themselves abandoned the concept,” notes Lazaroff. “They were able to get rid of the overhead and planning departments and stuff like that.”

Today Jazz Cruises LLC buys out each Holland America ship and prides itself on being a one-stop shop for passengers and artists with its own reservation center and hospitality staff. “Right now I am literally purchasing my ships for 2007, 2008-it’s a couple million dollars apiece,” explains Lazaroff. Having a dedicated ship is the key to the success of the cruises. “Everybody on that ship is there for the same reason. So it isn’t like you’re gonna be with people who have no idea what it is they’re listening to. And that’s important; it changes the whole atmosphere.”

Chicago-based AAI Events grew from a computer-services and special-events production company into a cruise production company thanks to owner Vrabel’s devotion to the music. For its first All Star Cruise in Nov. 2005, the company had contracted with Carnival Cruises to fully charter the Elation, but the federal government commandeered the vessel to be a floating hotel for homeless victims of the Hurricane Katrina disaster. AAI then booked the massive ship Conquest, which holds twice as many people. As a result, the All Star Smooth Jazz Cruise passengers made up 50 percent of the ship’s manifest. The ship has proven so popular with cruisers that instead of returning to a smaller vessel, they have again chartered half of the Conquest for the next sailing in 2007. Vrabel is hoping that by 2008, the Conquest will be fully chartered.

For the smooth jazz-oriented cruises, name-artist hosts serve as a marketing focal point to draw in fans and have varying levels of input into the musical programming, including what other artists are booked, what the backing band will be and how those treasured jam sessions will be fostered. The cruise producer generally does the final booking and scheduling of headliners and backing musicians for the cruises.

Grammy-winning bassist Miller is working with Jazz Cruises LLC and North Sea Festival organizers to finalize the lineup for the first North Sea cruise. “My duties will be to put together a list of artists that our audience will be excited to see, put together a band that is versatile enough to support those artists, and then oversee that everything runs smoothly. I also have to schedule various performances in different areas of the ship,” he explains. He adds, “For myself and Bibi Green, my manager, and the folks at the North Sea fest, it’s going to be a lot of work! We have a ton of coordinating to do.”

Culbertson says he felt strongly about having a major role in coordinating the performances aboard the All Star Cruise. “It’s something that I really want to take upon myself to make sure that every show is great,” he says. “And also getting a lot of the artists together and sit in on each other’s shows, because again, that’s what the fans really want to see-everybody sort of collaborating and playing with each other.”

Wayman Tisdale, who takes over hosting duties for the Smooth Jazz Cruise in January, says he’s also working on details of the shows with Jazz Cruises LLC. “I was at the right place at the right time when they asked me to do it, and I’m really excited about it,” he says. “So I’m gonna try to be at least half the person that Warren Hill was on his cruise because he did a great job.”

The future of the jazz-cruise phenomenon seems bright, as fans are hungry to see more of their favorite artists while the artists are happy to earn income during a part of the year when their touring schedules tend to be lighter. Once they experience a cruise, jazz aficionados tend to make it an annual vacation.

“You see it in the rate of returns,” says Koz. “They gave me the statistic that before the Warren Hill cruise was over this year, something like 65 or 70 percent of the following year’s ship was sold by the people that wanted to come back. So it seems like something that works and really resonates with fans of our music. And not just our music. There’s a blues cruise, and I know there’s a country thing happening. I think it’s really cool. ”

“They come for the music and they come back for the experience,” says Lazaroff of fans and performers alike. “Part of it is the fact that the ship is all full of jazz friends. They renew their friendships, and we do everything first class, so they keep coming back, almost like Same Time Next Year.” Originally Published