Return of the Jazz Cruises


An all-star jam during the Blue Note at Sea Cruise.

(Photo: Courtesy of Jazz Cruises)

The pandemic not only shut down clubs, concert halls and festivals, but tours ground to a halt and the urge to travel in search of arts-minded musicians was thwarted.

But a careful reopening has replaced doom-and-gloom with surviving clubs presenting again and landlocked festivals penciling in acts and selling tickets.

The same is true when it comes to jazz on the high seas. Jazz cruises that connected artists and audiences in one of the most unique ways possible were completely and cruelly grounded during the past two years. But that tide finally looks to be turning, said Michael Lazaroff, executive director of the jazz-fueled Entertainment Cruise Productions.

Its three marquee, week-long jazz excursions — The Jazz Cruise, which started in 2001; the two Smooth Jazz Cruises, which first got off the docks in 2004; and the Blue Note at Sea Cruise, the youngest and most adventurous, first setting sail in 2017 — are on course to return to the salt waters in 2023 with cruises in January and February.

The fact that the cruises have returned is a small miracle considering the toll the pandemic took. Cancellations affected more than 8,000 passengers, with an income dive of $29 million. “We dug deep into our resources to be able to hang on,” said the St. Louis-based Lazaroff. “We kept pushing everything back to the next year. We addressed everyone’s setbacks. But we’re happy that more than 6,000 people rebooked for ’23. We have a group of guests from over the years who have been very loyal and very supportive. Since we started, more than 120,000 people have been entertained, while more than 5,000 people have gone on four or more cruises.”

Lazaroff said he’s happy to say cabins are selling quickly. “I’m very excited to be sailing again,” he noted. “Hopefully we’ve reached the end of all this mess. Maybe life will go back to the way it has been for us.”

Lazaroff stressed that the cruises are not typical festivals, “There is no festival or event in the world that compares to our jazz cruises. Our bands don’t have to worry about packing up each night to travel to their next stops on a tour without much offstage interactions.”

Instead, the cruises plunge an act into immersion, where the music and parties continue non-stop as one multi-venue space existing with little sense of time.

More than 250 hours of jazz are performed by more than 100 musicians, from headliners to top-notch support groups. There are daytime shows (some around the pool), concert-dinner performances and the ever-present late-night/early-morning jams.

“The fans may spend the money for these cruises, but we buy the services of the greatest artists who get the finest sound,” said Lazaroff, who books talent for each cruise. “I spend $5 million on jazz musicians. I want to create an interactive experience where, up-close, the crowd gets excited. That turns on the performers, who kick it up a notch.”

He also added that he’s happy to give employment to the artists. “We sail in January and February, when artists often aren’t very busy,” he said. “We provide a good payday until the summer when they may be touring.”

A 10-year veteran performer on Lazaroff’s jazz cruises, trumpeter Randy Brecker champions the warm weather and calm breezes at sea instead of the deep winter back home.

“This is the greatest event of the year,” he said. “It’s not only the best festival, but it’s also features the best jazz players. Starting at 10 a.m. and going to 2 a.m., you always have the choice of hearing amazing music. It’s a great way to start out the new year.”

Performing on both The Jazz Cruise and the Blue Note at Sea Cruise, Brecker opts out of visiting ports of call in favor of hanging on the ship. “I’m not into sightseeing, so I stay onboard,” he said. “The jazz fans are respectful, cool and friendly. It’s nice to be around them.” As for his colleagues, Brecker embraces the hang. “We all get to see other in one fell swoop,” he said. “We see each other in the hallways, at the restaurants, in the room where food is always available. It’s quite a reunion, but I also make a lot of new musician friends.”

Lazaroff said he’s learned a lot in booking The Jazz Cruise and the Smooth Jazz Cruise For the latter, he admitted that, at first, he didn’t know a thing about the music.

But his newfound love is the Blue Note sail. “What happens there is the real music,” he said. “No categories, no rules, no restrictions. Just good music.”

Next year’s program, slated for Jan. 13–20, is packed, including Cécile McLorin Salvant, Christian McBride, Brad Mehldau, Chief Adjuah (aka Christian Scott), the Baylor Project, Sheila E., David Sanborn, Chris Botti and more. Hosting the main shows will be Marcus Miller, Robert Glasper, Don Was and comedian Alonzo Bodden.

Other featured performers include Brecker, Cyrille Aimée, Gerald Clayton, Emmet Cohen, Derrick Hodge, José James, Julian Lage and others. Eric Marienthal serves as musical director. Expect Marienthal and Brecker to play music from their recent duo album, Double Dealin’.

The Blue Note cruise came about serendipitously. Lazaroff was asked by the Cunard Cruise Lines to advise the mammoth company on how to modernize its entertainment. He suggested jazz on a full-charter Cunard ship. His first stop was to contact Don Was, the head of Blue Note Records, knowing full well that it had a “contorted relationship” with the Blue Note Entertainment Group (which includes the Blue Note jazz clubs), since the two organizations share a name.

“Don liked the idea but was obligated to present this to the entertainment group, which thought the link was terrific,” Lazaroff said. “Two thousand jazz fans are going to love this for seven days and seven nights.”

For a different experience, the Jazz Cruise sails from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Jan. 6–13 on the Celebrity Millennium. Its ports of call include Costa Meza, Cozumel and Nassau. The headliners on this straightahead cruise include Wynton Marsalis, Dee Dee Bridgewater (who headlined the very first Jazz Cruise event in 2001), Christian McBride, Kurt Elling, Bill Charlap and several others with John Clayton directing the big bands. Expect inspired sets by Bridgewater and Charlap, who have been collaborating lately with a future album in mind.

The Smooth Jazz Cruise, billed as The Greatest Party at Sea, takes place twice in 2023 (Jan. 20–27; Jan. 27–Feb. 3). The first round-trip sail leaves Fort Lauderdale with ports of call in Grand Cayman, Cozumel and Grand Bahama Island. The second’s ports of call include Costa Meza, Cozumel and Nassau.

The smooth lineups include Marcus Miller, Candy Dulfer, Jonathan Butler, Boney James, Mindi Abair, Take 6, Michael McDonald, Peter White, Gerald Albright and more. It’s a packed crowd of musicians for a full ship of fans.

Reading this in summer may feel like a vacation in warm weather is far away, but the steamy days are fleeting. Come January, sea, sun and a sweet breeze should go well with jazz again. DB

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