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Swing @ Sea: Jazz Cruises

An all-star sax jam on The Jazz Cruise
Shelley Shier & Hank O'Neal
Jon Burr, Dorothy Donegan, Clark Terry, Ray Mosca & Louie Bellson on the SS Norway
Dizzy Gillespie and admirers hang out on an early jazz cruise
The Jazz Cruise founder Anita Berry with Clark Terry

You don’t get to see two veteran octogenarian trumpet players trading licks very often, but there were Clark Terry and Snooky Young, riding out on top of the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra (Young is the big band’s senior member) in the Vista Lounge showroom of the Holland America Line’s m/s Oosterdam last October off the Mexican Pacific coast. Terry and the band were among the roster of over 80 musicians in well over a dozen groups, plus all-star combinations, on the weeklong The Jazz Cruise.

A few weeks later, in early December, saxophonists Bud Shank, Phil Woods, Benny Golson, Jimmy Heath, Eric Alexander and Donald Harrison shared the Stardust Lounge showroom stage on the m/s Norwegian Sun as it sailed back toward New Orleans from the 6th Annual Jazz Party at Sea.

Those were just two of a number of jazz-themed cruises that sailed from the United States last year. For jazz fans, it’s like having your own jazz festival at sea. For jazz musicians, it’s not just a festival and a gig; it’s also, paradoxically, a respite from the constant touring life, a week in one place, albeit a ship on the move, that’s a temporary home away from home. And much more than at land-based festivals, it’s a place where fans and jazz musicians can rub shoulders and interact away from the bandstand.

“My first night on board,” said Carl Collins, a jazz buff from New Jersey who’s a co-founder of the Jazz at the Point festival in Somers Point, N.J., on the Oosterdam, “I sought out a secluded spot topside to enjoy my evening cigar. On the deck outside the Oak Room [cigar lounge] I encountered a group of like-minded gentlemen who welcomed me to join them. It turns out I had just met Jeff Hamilton and some members of the Clayton-Hamilton big band. Throughout the week, we often got together late at night to repeat the experience, swapping stories and stogies.”

For C. Claiborne Ray, a member of the New York chapter of the Duke Ellington Society who’s been taking jazz cruises annually for a couple of decades, “it’s like having your own private jazz club. And you get to meet the musicians in other ways than you do at concerts or even festivals, like at breakfast or lunch.”

There were also other ways for fans to interact with musicians. On the Oosterdam, you could often find tenor saxophonist Houston Person in a public area, sitting in front of his Scrabble board waiting for someone to challenge him to a game. And passengers and musicians on both cruises mixed and mingled on shore excursions, sightseeing or visiting remote beaches and reefs.

It’s not only passengers who have more access to musicians; it’s also the musicians themselves. Bassist Joe Sanders of the Heath Brothers Band, at 22 the youngest musician on the Norwegian Sun, enjoyed hearing about Thelonious Monk and Charlie Parker from Woods, Heath, Golson and trombonist Curtis Fuller during extended lunch conversations. “For me especially to be this young and play with these guys and hear those stories, it’s amazing.”

“Hearing those stories about Bird and Monk from Phil at breakfast,” seconded guitarist Russell Malone, the lone musician who was on both cruises, “you can’t put a price tag on that. These gigs aren’t what you do to get rich, but being able to interact with these giants, that’s priceless.”

Speaking of priceless, Malone was part of an unscheduled event that was a priceless memory for fans on the Norwegian Sun. He was part of a group playing for dancing and listening out on the open pool deck one evening when a squall came up, tossing water out of pools on nearby tables and sending passengers running for cover. The music seemed to be over but the squall ended as quickly as it began, and Malone and baritone singer Everett Greene came back to the stage and played an intimate duet set for almost an hour after the scheduled concert/dance time, exploring tunes like “Gone With the Wind,” “Willow Weep for Me” and “I’m Just a Lucky So-and-So.”

Trombonist Wycliffe Gordon, on the Oosterdam with his own quintet as well as in duos with bassist Jay Leonhart, was sharing his cabin with his wife and infant twins. “This is fun, more so like a vacation for me,” he said, “away from schoolwork and contracts, computers and phones.”

And between his own group and duet sessions with Leonhart, Gordon was actually doing double duty. Most of the musicians on the seven-day cruises only had to play on four of those days, plus a final jam session. As bassist John Heard on the Oosterdam said: “Four times a week, that’s not work. And my wife loves these cruises; it’s important that she chills out and enjoys herself.”

Although there were some first-timers on the cruises, many of the passengers, like Claiborne Ray, had been sailing on jazz cruises for decades. And like many of them, the organizers of both cruises had taken their first jazz cruise on the m/s Norway back in the 1980s. Anita Berry, a travel agent from St. Louis who founded (with her sons) Jazz Cruises, LLC, the company that runs The Jazz Cruise, started booking cabins on the Norway back then, and by the time those Norway cruises stopped, she was booking a thousand people per cruise. Joe Segal, who with his son Dwayne, books the Jazz Party at Sea cruises, was a longtime Chicago jazz club owner (The Jazz Showcase) when he first cruised on the Norway as tenor saxophonist Al Cohn’s guest. Soon after, he partnered with Jazz Club at Sea to book cabins on the Norway jazz cruises.

The template for jazz as a theme cruise in our time was developed on those Norway cruises by producer/promoter Hank O’Neal and his wife, Shelley Shire. O’Neal, whose Festival Network group has just acquired George Wein’s Festival Productions, Inc., took time off from the acquisition proceedings to talk about his years developing and producing jazz cruises on the Norway and other ships.

“In 1983 the advertising agency for Norwegian Caribbean Lines [now NCL] came to us and asked us to put on a jazz festival at sea,” says O’Neal, who at the time was also running his Chiaroscuro jazz record label. “The idea was simply to sell cabins at full price rather than discounting them during hurricane season, by offering an added attraction, in this case jazz. We had the Norway, a former ocean liner with wonderful venues for the music, which was a plus. But we only had two months to put it together, so I had to call in favors from all the musicians I knew to book it. The guys from the ad agency were going to help us with logistics on the ship, but the agency was fired by NCL the day before we sailed out of Miami, so Shelley and I had to do it all. We were disastrously disorganized-even had Leonard Feather helping us set up chairs for one concert-but the passengers loved the music, the musicians all enjoyed themselves, and Feather and Stanley Dance wrote glowing reviews for JazzTimes of that and many other Norway cruises.

“The idea was to build up a base of loyal passengers who would come back year after year, have music that was pretty down the middle, easy on the ears, nothing too far out. And back then we had what I call the great middle in jazz, artists with star appeal-like Dizzy Gillespie, Carmen McRae, Sarah Vaughan, Joe Williams, Stan Getz-who were relatively affordable and could draw ticket sales. We also drew a large black audience, over 40 percent of our passenger base, which was about 35 percent more than most regular vacation cruises drew.

“It became so successful-one year we sailed four straight weeks with jazz-that we were able to perfect the template so that we had so many hours of music, in so many shipboard venues, that it was almost impossible to hear all the music. And we created a synergy with Chiaroscuro; I released dozens of albums recorded on the cruises, and on board we were able to get other musicians to make guest appearances on albums. Where else could you get Dizzy and Dorothy Donegan, or Buddy Rich and Dizzy, together?”

By the 1990s, O’Neal was spending 16-18 weeks at sea, organizing and running not only jazz but other musical theme cruises, from big band and blues to Mardi Gras and even classical music. But in 1998 O’Neal and NCL had a falling out, and he moved his jazz cruises to the Queen Elizabeth II (QE2).

“The QE2 had a bit of jazz tradition,” remembers O’Neal. “George Wein ran short jazz cruises from New York up to Newport for his jazz festival there, but they repositioned the ship for Caribbean cruising in 1999 and we did jazz, blues and big-band cruises until 2002, when Cunard moved the QE2 to Europe. Then it just wasn’t cost-effective to fly musicians to and from the ship, so we got out of the jazz-cruise business.”

Over that 20-year period, O’Neal learned a number of lessons about running jazz cruises. “If you don’t have a certain size ship,” he counsels, “it won’t work. You need enough passengers and musicians to reach a critical mass so everyone is getting enough, and enough of a variety, of the music. I don’t think a thousand is enough, and a ship with over three or four thousand is too many. The ideal is 1,500 to 2,000. Feedback from passengers is also important. You have to read and heed those comment sheets they fill out. And giving out souvenirs-T-shirts, bags, pens, key rings, etc.-is helpful, but so is providing access to the musicians on board at autograph sessions and panel interview events.”

Only one of the two cruises I sailed on last fall reached O’Neal’s critical mass ideal (although both heeded his advice on musician access events, souvenirs and audience/passenger feedback). It was The Jazz Cruise organized by Berry’s company.

“It was always my dream to have full ship charters,” says Berry, “because when you take a group on a cruise you don’t get the right treatment, you don’t have enough control. By the time Hank O’Neal stopped doing jazz cruises we were booking over a thousand passengers so it wasn’t too much of a leap to charter a ship for a jazz cruise. Our first charters, in 2001-02, were on 1,400-passenger ships. The Oosterdam had 1,850.”

(Besides The Jazz Cruise, this year sailing out of Ft. Lauderdale on Nov. 11, Berry’s company will also be launching The Smooth Jazz Cruise, a Dave Koz & Friends at Sea cruise, and a North Sea Jazz Cruise, in conjunction with this year’s North Sea Jazz Festival.)

Bassist John Clayton, co-leader of the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra on board last year’s The Jazz Cruise, really appreciated the jazz charter concept. “The great thing about the people on this ship,” he said, “is that every one of them is here for the music. And where else can you get that? It’s also a really knowledgeable audience, one that buys your albums and supports your concerts. It’s like playing for the home team.”

“I love The Jazz Cruise; this is my fifth one,” said Sunny Mackay of Palm Springs, who once owned Dante’s, the celebrated North Hollywood jazz club. “I actually like all cruises, but here you meet the most wonderful people, who all love jazz, and love talking about it too. And on this cruise I got to meet [guitarist] Joe Cohn, whose father Al used to play at our club.” (Joe Cohn was on the Oosterdam playing in bassist Leonhart’s trio along with pianist Ted Rosenthal.)

With a collection of 15 “All-Stars,” as well as 17 established groups, ranging from big band to solo pianist, The Jazz Cruise on the Oosterdam could offer some very special events. One of them featured Ken Peplowski leading a group of fellow saxophonists and a rhythm section on some of Benny Carter’s legendary arrangements for sax section and rhythm from both the 1930s and 1960s. And there was trombonist Gordon and guitarist Malone, sitting in with pianist Johnny O’Neal’s Trio; trumpeter Eddie Allen sharing the stage with his early idol, Clark Terry, and a tribute to the late Ray Brown, played by 13 bassists together on the showroom stage.

The 6th Annual Jazz Party at Sea took place in early December on a weeklong cruise by the NCL ship, Norwegian Sun, out of New Orleans and into the Gulf of Mexico and Western Caribbean. Aboard were about 40 jazz musicians and over 900 jazz cruisers, representing roughly half the passengers on the ship.

“We have to make the jazz exclusive to our passengers who book the Jazz Party at Sea,” explained Joe Segal, who along with Bud Shank and Jimmy Heath, was celebrating his 80th birthday on the cruise, which featured souvenir T-shirts displaying caricatures of the three and the inscription: “A Lifetime of Jazz.” Since the ship also carried a full complement of its own entertainers-from musicians, dancers and singers to variety acts-Segal says “we have to work against the ship’s scheduled entertainment,” meaning that jazz in the main showroom was after 10:30 at night, and in the other larger “disco” showroom, in the afternoons and either later or earlier in the evening, depending on the disco’s schedule. Still, there was jazz in one or more venues on board every day from early or mid-afternoon until the wee hours.

Segal and his son Wayne shuffled around the musicians for a lot of mixing and matching. So one day you could catch saxophonist-flutist David “Fathead” Newman with pianist Danilo Perez’s trio, another day with organist Joey DeFrancesco’s trio. Vibist Bobby Hutcherson also played with both trios, and with the Heath Brothers Quartet. Also floating among various groupings were saxophonists Shank, Woods and Golson; pianists Junior Mance, Stu Katz and Willie Pickins; trombonist Curtis Fuller; and trumpeter Jim Rotondi, on board as a member of Eric Alexander’s quintet.

Malone found pluses and minuses on both. “I enjoyed being able to take my own band on the Oosterdam,” he said on the Norwegian Sun, where he was appearing in duo with pianist Benny Green. “But my cabin didn’t have an outside balcony, something I really appreciate on this cruise. But here I’m not too happy about the sound equipment, which is a bit of a drag. And while both cruises had a lot of great musicians, the ones here are such hip guys, such legends. It was great to hear them tell stories and even greater when Phil Woods sat in with Benny and me for a whole set; that was unforgettable.” Originally Published