Jazz Cruises, formerly known as Entertainment Cruise Productions, has announced the lineups for all four sailings of its jazz-themed cruises—The Jazz Cruise, Blue Note at Sea, and The Smooth Jazz Cruise (two separate sailings)—in 2023. The St. Louis-based production company, which has been producing jazz cruises for more than two decades, was forced to cancel them in 2021 and 2022; this year’s sailings of The Jazz Cruise and The Smooth Jazz Cruise were set to run until the CDC recommendation against cruises came out in late December, due to the uptick in cases from the Omicron variant.
The Jazz Cruise, which was first created by Anita Berry in 2001, will kick off the season with a sailing that departs from Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., on Jan. 6, 2023. A seven-day cruise like all of the company’s sailings, The Jazz Cruise features mainstream and straight-ahead jazz with more than 100 artists and over 250 hours of live music during the week. Headliners in 2023 include Christian McBride, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Wynton Marsalis, Bill Charlap, Monty Alexander, Tierney Sutton, Joey DeFrancesco, Samara Joy, and Kurt Elling. John Clayton leads Anita’s Big Band, a large ensemble named after the cruise’s founder and featuring an all-star collection of players, including Gary Smulyan. John Pizzarelli, Ken Peplowski, Emmet Cohen, Randy Brecker, Niki Haris, Wycliffe Gordon, and the cruise’s music director Shelly Berg act as hosts for various performances and events. For example, Peplowski and Pizzarelli host a “Name That Tune” contest that brings out the jazz geek in guests, who often try to identify the most obscure of jazz standards. There’s even a passenger jam session for guests who can play, at least on a basic level. During a special concert on-board, Bridgewater will be inducted into the Jazz Cruise Hall of Fame. Previous inductees include Elling, Pizzarelli, Haris, Houston Person, and JazzTimes founder Ira Sabin.
The ship no sooner gets to Ft. Lauderdale, on Jan. 13, when it goes back out to the Caribbean for Blue Note at Sea, a cruise with a decidedly more electric and groove-oriented focus. Produced in partnership with Blue Note Records and The Blue Note Entertainment Group (tied to the Blue Note clubs in NYC, Napa, Hawaii, Tokyo, and Milan), Blue Note at Sea boasts an equally impressive lineup of headliners and performers, including hosts Marcus Miller, Robert Glasper and Don Was, as well as McBride (sailing, like a few hundred guests from The Jazz Cruise, back-to-back), Chris Botti, Sheila E., Cécile McLorin Salvant, Brad Mehldau, José James, the Baylor Project, Julian Lage, and many more. Saxophonist Eric Marienthal is music director for this sailing, scheduling the many performances as well as special events like wine tasting, “Cigars under the Stars,” “Band Feud,” and a 3-on-3 basketball tournament hosted by Glasper.
When that same ship, the Celebrity Millennium, returns to Ft. Lauderdale on Jan. 20, the next group of guests and artists board for the first of two sailings of The Smooth Jazz Cruise (Jan. 20-27 and Jan. 27–Feb. 3), hosted by Boney James and Miller. Marienthal again serves as music director for this cruise, which features several smooth-jazz stars such as Brian Culbertson, Jonathan Butler, Candy Dulfer, Peter White, Mindi Abair, Take 6, and Gerald Albright. The comedian Alonzo Bodden, a regular on NPR’s Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me, is comic-in-residence for all four sailings, often razzing the musicians as well as guests in his crowd work.
In part because the cruises were on hiatus for two years, Jazz Cruises has also dipped its toe into land-based shows in St. Louis, its home base. A George Benson concert at The Factory, originally scheduled for May 12, has been moved to Aug. 4. The Smooth Jazz Cruise on Land Festival will be held at that same venue on Sept. 17-18, featuring many of the cruise artists, including James, Butler, White, and Marienthal, as well as RnR with Rick Braun and Richard Elliot.
Michael Lazaroff, the longtime executive director of Jazz Cruises, said that the land-based events came out of a desire to remain engaged with the guests of The Smooth Jazz Cruise. “Not being able to sail in ’21 and ’22 has been disappointing on many levels, but we really miss seeing our guests, our artists and enjoying the great music and camaraderie that exist on The Smooth Jazz Cruise,” he explained. “Bringing that wonderful program to St. Louis is the next best thing to sailing. Our goal is to replicate, as best as we can, the on-ship experience of our program and have some fun.”
Learn more about Jazz Cruises’ 2023 sailings and 2022 land-based events at their website.