Cruising with a swing

Keith McDowall looks back on 25 years of jazz cruising, the last 15 thanks to ECP’s Caribbean jazz cruise, set to depart again in January 2016

Twenty-five years is a landmark in anyone’s life I suppose - but a quarter century of jazz cruises would be more of a “seamark ”.

So having achieved it this year aboard the Jazz Cruise on Holland America’s M/S Eurodam, set me thinking about this remarkable concept of a floating jazz festival which began on the SS Norway in the early 80s.

My wife, Brenda and I first joined the cruise in 1991 for Dizzy Gillespie’s 70th birthday. And as he cut and handed me a piece of cake I thought - “It can’t get much better than this…”

On the Norway over a decade, we saw Dorothy Donegan knock hell out of a keyboard and was a sensation. There was Joe Williams, Al Grey, Shirley Horn, Bob Wilber, Kenny Davern, Arturo Sandoval, Derek Smith, Milt Hinton and hosts of other big names in jazz. Surely it could never be matched…

So when Norwegian Cruise Lines pulled out, it looked like Hank O’Neil’s concept of taking jazz to the ocean was over.

Not so, said Anita Berry, a travel agent from St Louis, who apart from being an astute businesswoman also loved the music. She vowed - and we all supported her - that there would be another jazz cruise.

She bet everything she had and chartered an entire Holland America liner for a million dollars. In hindsight it looks extremely courageous or foolhardy,

“Well, you can’t take it with you”, she told her family.

“Yes, Mom - but you can leave a bit behind for the rest of us”, recalled her son, Michael Lazaroff, on board for the 14th Jazz Cruise, which he organised.

He has developed the concept into a slick, highly professional event which his Entertainment Cruise Productions claims - rightly I think - to be the biggest and best of its kind in the world. The company runs several other cruises focused on other styles of music too.

Every year we seem to say “that was the best” but 2015 was really it. Pianist Monty Alexander (pictured left) took the party to new heights but what was outstanding was his one-night-only reunion with bassist John Clayton and drummer Jeff Hamilton. When starting out they all played together, being introduced by their hero and mentor, Ray Brown. All their careers have blossomed. But to see and hear them together again was electric - an outstanding joy.

Arturo Sandoval was back with his band. So were Christian McBride, John Pizzarelli, Houston Person, Benny Golson, Russell Malone, Phil Woods, Freddie Cole, Shelly Berg, Ken Peplowski and Dick Hyman - just some of the 103 musicians on board. George Wein, 90, who pioneered jazz festivals at Newport, received a deserved lifetime achievement award and sat at the piano to sing and play his thank you “speech”.

Jeff Hamilton - surely among the best jazz drummers in the world - brought his trio featuring Christoph Luty and Tamir Hendelman (the latter Barbra Streisand’s pianist for her big gigs. The trio have been together for 10 years and it shows, but why on earth, when they tour all over Europe playing to large audiences, do they never appear in London? Beats me.

A newcomer to the cruise was the outstanding trumpeter, Byron Stripling, as were singers Cyrille Aimée and Tierney Sutton (pictured right). Oh, and that fellow who can never get out of his hat, Gregory Porter, was on board.

These were just some of the 103 musicians enjoyed by a 2,200 audience on board the Eurodam for a spectacular week.

Next year will be the 15th under Entertainment Cruise Productions so it is being billed as the Crystal anniversary. Anita Berry was on board this year but she takes a back seat now and just comes to enjoy her kind of music. She’s earned it.

On a sad note Freddy Cole’s wife, Margaret, who was on board, died in her sleep in Atlanta when she got home from what was to be her last cruise. That will be a blow for Freddy, immensely popular with the Eurodam’s passengers. Sad too, was the sudden death after leaving the ship of Zane Musa, who played sax in Sandoval’s band and was only 36.

I grumble to Michael Lazaroff that there are no European musicians invited but next year he has stretched a point and the fabulously accomplished Australian, James Morrison has been invited. Progress….

But that is only a minor moan. The entire event is now outstanding and unlikely to be equalled. This year the whole cruise was sold out by August. If you are thinking about it for 2016… Move.


The 2016 Jazz Cruise takes place 17-24 January 2016, and full details can be seen at

Artists this year include Kenny Barron, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Joey DeFrancesco, Kurt Elling, Jeff Hamilton, Joe Lovano, Christian McBride, Charles McPherson, Marcus Miller, Houston Person, John Pizzarelli, Dianne Reeves, Shelly Berg, Randy Brecker, Dick Hyman, Ken Peplowski, David Sanborn, Gary Smulyan and many more.

The cruise departs Fort Lauderdale, Florida on 17 January, calling at Puerta Plata (Dominican Republic), Charlotte Amalie (St. Thomas, USVI), Frederiksted (St. Croix, USVI) and Freeport (Bahamas) before returning to Ft. Lauderdale, 24 January.

For those who might like their jazz in the Mediterranean, Entertainment Cruise Productions also offers The Signature Jazz Cruise (30 September-10 October 2015). The Signature lineup includes George Benson, Marcus Miller, David Sanborn, Boney James, Brian Culbertson, Candy Dulfer, Alonzo Bodden, Norman Brown, Peabo Bryson, Richard Elliot and more. The cruise calls at Civitavecchia (Rome), Amalfi, Portoferraio (Elba), Santa Margherita Ligure (Portofino), Cannes, Barcelona, Ciutadella De Menorca, Bonifacio (Corsica) and Monte Carlo.

For the funkily inclined there is the Smooth Jazz Cruise, so popular it has two editions - 10-17 January and 21-28 February 2016. This year it features George Benson, Marcus Miller, David Sanborn, Boney James, Brian Culbertson, Candy Dulfer, Alonzo Bodden, Norman Brown, Peabo Bryson, Richard Elliot and more. It departs Fort Lauderdale and calls at Half Moon Cay, Grand Cayman, Cozumel and Key West.

In addition ECP offer The 80s Cruise (February 28 – March 6, 2016.) The Gospel Cruise (March 6-13, 2016), and forthcoming, The Star Trek Cruise (contact EJP for details).

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