Jazz Without the Poverty: The Jazz Cruise Rides the Waves in Style

The Jazz House All-Stars. All Photos: John Abbott Photography c/o Jazz Cruises

Jazz leads a hand-to-mouth existence. It was born in the red light district of New Orleans in the early 20th Century, and has never fully overcome its disreputable origins. Jazz lacks the support from governments, foundations, and rich donors that other, more decorous art forms enjoy. Jazz is too much of the street to be considered high culture, yet its audience is tiny compared to the masses who consume popular music. Pop stars like Taylor Swift perform in huge stadiums. Important jazz musicians play the Bar Bayeux in Brooklyn.

On a recent trip to New York, I went to the Bar Bayeux. I was surprised by how small it is. (I should not have been. The Village Vanguard, the most iconic jazz club on the planet, holds 132 customers.) Important artists like Immanuel Wilkins, Joel Ross, Billy Hart, Sullivan Fortner, Melissa Aldana, Uri Caine, and JD Allen have played the Bar Bayeux. I went there to see a duo with Adam Kolker and Frank Carlberg. Kolker plays all the reed instruments except double reeds and has a masters degree from the New England Conservatory. Carlberg is a respected New York pianist who composes and arranges for his own big band. There may have been 25 people in the club for their sophisticated, enormously skilled, beautiful set. When it was over Kolker passed a hat.

There truly is such a thing as "the jazz community," and it is worldwide. If you are a hardcore jazz fan, you can travel to a jazz festival anywhere—Skopje in the Republic of North Macedonia, say, or Pancevo in Serbia—and your people will be there. At large events like festivals, where jazz fans gather in one place, you can almost convince yourself that the jazz audience is substantial. But the jazz market share is barely a blip in the vast money pool of corporate popular culture. In jazz, there is never enough money for anything. Somehow, the people who run jazz festivals and jazz clubs and jazz record labels, those true believers, those keepers of the flame, find ways to survive budget crisis after budget crisis.

I first discovered what jazz without the poverty looked like when I covered my first Jazz Cruise, in 2018. It was my first cruise of any kind. It was an idyll, a dream in which the dark blue Gulf of Mexico swirled and swelled below the balcony of my stateroom. The buffets were fabulous, and when I ate in the dining room, the attendants did everything but spoon the crème brûlée into my mouth. There were 15 hours of music a day, created by 100 jazz players, many famous, in cool ship venues. The beneficiaries of all this munificence constituted a subset of the jazz community I had never seen before. They were 2000 well-dressed, responsible-looking senior citizens, all convivial jazz enthusiasts, all unfazed by the fact that it had cost thousands to be there.

Chucho Valdés

John Patitucci

When another opportunity to go on the Jazz Cruise presented itself, I pounced. This year's sailing left from Miami on January 18, 2024. In seven days, it traveled over 2200 nautical miles through the Caribbean, to Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and St. Thomas in the US Virgin Islands. The ship was the Celebrity Summit, and once Miami Beach was in its wake, and the Florida Keys were sliding by on the port side, the floating jazz festival began. The roster of musicians included names like Kenny Barron, Christian McBride, Kurt Elling, Benny Green, Chucho Valdés, Paquito D'Rivera, John Patitucci, and Anat Cohen.

(L to R) John Clayton, Christian McBride

As often happens at jazz festivals, the program contained simultaneous concerts. You might have to choose between Kurt Elling and the Jeff Hamilton Trio. Or you might have to decide whether to see Anat Cohen or Jazzmeia Horn. It was a high-class problem, and because each musician played several times, it was solvable. In one respect it was like no other jazz festival: You could leave your stateroom, descend one flight of stairs, walk a few steps, and find yourself in the Celebrity Theater, where a world-class jazz orchestra was playing. It is a plush 900-seat auditorium with little personal tables beside each seat. The band, conducted by John Clayton, contained people like Randy Brecker, Delfeayo Marsalis, Gary Smulyan, Steve Wilson, Sean Jones, and Ken Peplowski. Another difference with this ocean-going festival was the access to artists. Musicians were a captive audience for their fans. Everywhere you went on the ship—the swimming pools, the spa, the buffets, the gym, the bars, the coffee kiosks—you always found yourself next to a musician whose records you owned.

Delfeayo Marsalis with three fans: shaken, not stirred

Three I hung with were Ethan Iverson, Mark Turner, and Anat Cohen. Iverson and Turner played on the first night, with the Billy Hart Quartet. They appeared in the Rendezvous Lounge, the most intimate of the ship's three main venues (capacity 315). After the Hart concert, Iverson played a solo piano recital there.

(L to R) Ethan Iverson, Mark Turner, Ben Street, Billy Hart

Hart's band (with the leader on drums, Iverson on piano, Turner on tenor saxophone, and Ben Street on bass) played edgy, intense music. Iverson's following solo concert contained many impulsive, startling interpretive liberties. As I came to find out, both of these performances were somewhat atypical for the Jazz Cruise, whose predominant stylistic orientation is mainstream and straightahead.

When I talked to executive director Michael Lazaroff, he explained that the Jazz Cruise, in terms of programming, is the most "pure jazz" of his offerings, which include two smooth jazz cruises and one called "Chris Botti at Sea." (All sell out, with waiting lists.) But even with the Jazz Cruise, Lazaroff stops short of the avant-garde. He says, "Keeping the music accessible is important for us. We tend to book musicians who are willing to play some standards, not just their own compositions. People want to hear tunes they know. We are always trying to go younger, but I try not to stray too far out."

But on that first night, the Billy Hart Quartet did not play standards. They played challenging, take-no-prisoners, exploratory music based on original compositions by band members. The crowd in the Rendezvous Lounge seemed to have no problem with it. The sheer excellence of the musicianship was impossible to deny. Hart, at 83, is a phenomenon, an explosive, totally unpredictable drummer who is far beyond "keeping time." He relentlessly lashed his band. They responded by bearing down harder. Turner's work, which can sound severe and intellectual, demands listeners who concentrate, and the audience in the Rendezvous Lounge seemed willing and able. Turner is a unique thinker, with his own complex, uncompromising saxophone language. There are very few wasted notes in his solos. His arsenal of fresh ideas feels limitless. And his scorching runs always reveal a basis in lyricism. The best example was his own stirring song,"Nigeria."

As for Iverson's set, the crowd loved him. Before he started he announced that he would take requests. People shouted them out. Iverson compiled a written list, then dove in. Not one of his renditions was what you expected. "But Not for Me" was rollicking stride with some sharp angles. "On Green Dolphin Street" was taken way uptempo, in C. Another song began with thunderous crashes and when it finally revealed itself as "Stella by Starlight," the crowd laughed with delight. My request was "Killing Me Softly with his Song," from Iverson's new Blue Note album, Technically Acceptable. He played it almost straight. It was gorgeous.

Iverson is a natural, consistent crowd-pleaser. For his entire career, he has been finding ways to be accessible while pushing the envelope. For 17 years, he was the pianist in The Bad Plus, a trio whose repertoire included songs by Nirvana and Black Sabbath. They became one of the most popular jazz ensembles of the new millennium, and brought many new young fans into jazz. The day after his solo concert, Iverson told me, "My first love was Dave Brubeck and Time Out. A lot of my peers dismissed it as unworthy. I've never made that mistake. People like that music. So there is a thread in my work, a commercial thread that is related to Time Out and certain other things like that." Yet later he said, "I am proud in a way to bring a little avant-garde heat to the Jazz Cruise. Communication with an audience is very important to me but I also want to confound at times. Not all jazz should be safe."

Iverson has been prolific since leaving The Bad Plus at the beginning of 2018. He teaches at the New England Conservatory, leads a new trio with Thomas Morgan and Kush Abadey, tours Europe, works with the Mark Morris Dance Group, composes for symphony orchestra, and even has a whole second identity as a critic, journalist, and blogger. His name is one of the most familiar in current jazz, yet when he goes on the road he plays with local rhythm sections. He says, "It's too expensive to bring a New York trio everywhere." As for the cruise, he says, "It's very luxurious for us. I suppose it can be dangerous to accept the largesse. It's like, 'Should we have a martini now, or after we spa?' But I'm not too worried about it. The Billy Hart Quartet will be back on the street next week."


funambulistic's picture

There are a bunch of music themed cruises out there. My brother went on the "Soul Train" cruise last year and can't wait to go back. Sister-in-law has been taking the "Monsters of Rock" cruise for several years. Though cruises do not really interest me, my choice would be the "80s Cruise" (Adam Ant on board!).

I found one for the incessant equipment complainers and sad sacks on these very pages: "Emo's Not Dead Cruise"... https://www.emosnotdeadcruise.com/

supamark's picture

about the JoCo cruise (Jonathan Coulton), which is essentially the nerd cruise. My desire to avoid Norovirus etc is what keeps me from cruises.

I first read your 2nd paragraph as Eno's (like Brian) not dead, and I was like that's weird. Then I read it again and thought, "are y'all sure? 'Cause it should be."

jtshaw's picture

I’ve been an avid follower of Ingrid Jensen’s career for over 20 years, and my music collection includes not only her recordings, but the outstanding players she collaborates with. Her sister, Christine Jensen, is a strikingly good alto sax player as well as an excellent composer/arranger. I’ve joked with a friend that my taste in contemporary jazz can be described as “three degrees of Ingrid Jensen.” Really enjoyed this article.

Glotz's picture

There are enough cruises like this in Milwaukee and Chicago... and this weekend I will research this.

Thanks Thomas!