If you like jazz and you like to take a cruise, there is nothing better than taking the Jazz Party at Sea on Norwegian Cruise Line. My wife and I agreed, so we signed on the fourth annual party on the Norwegian Sun, which left Miami this October for a week's cruise of the Western Caribbean.
This fall's cruise honored the 100th birthday of tenor sax great Coleman Hawkins with a stellar lineup of saxophonists to pay tribute, including Benny Golson, Jimmy Heath, Lou Donaldson, David "Fathead" Newman and Hank Crawford. Among other veteran jazz greats appearing were trombonist Curtis Fuller, pianist Junior Mance, guitarist Larry Coryell and drummer Jack De Johnette.
Standing out among the bright young stars featured were pianists Cyrus Chestnut, Danilo Perez and Benny Green, trumpeter Terrell Stafford, guitarist Russell Malone and singer Vanessa Rubin. A special treat was the inclusion of Great Britain's National Youth Jazz Orchestra made up of that country's best young jazz musicians. They stole the show on more than one occasion with their hard-hitting big-band arrangements.
Another big attraction for us was the chance to sail on the Norwegian Sun, NCL's newest ship which promoted the cruise line's new concept Freestyle Cruising. This innovation, started four years ago, offers passengers open-seat dining, with no set dining time. In addition to the ship's two traditional dining rooms, Seven Seas and Four Seasons, there are Ginza for Japanese food, Pacific Heights with healthful "cooking light" dishes, East Meets West Asian food, Il Adagio Italian Restaurant and Le Bistro French cuisine.
The Sun is a large ship with a maximum capacity of 2,200. Approximately half of the passengers were jazz fans, having booked passage through a consortium of travel agencies. This entitled them to attend the jazz events. The various concerts were held in four venues. Stardust Lounge, was the largest, where the ship's regular shows were also held. The other spots were smaller, night-club size Dazzles Disco, Observation Lounge and the Windjammer Bar. In addition, some shows were held top-deck pool-side.
One of big pluses of being on a jazz cruise is the chance to meet and talk with the musicians while they're at leisure on board. For example, I got a chance to visit with pianist Junior Mance whom I have admired since I first saw him 40 years ago. Now in his seventies, he is in great shape and plays as good as ever. We talked about his early days in New York and what he does now. In addition to still playing gigs, he is currently teaching college students music, as well as regularly conducting seminars in Japan.
In a concert the following afternoon in the Windjammer, we sat right beside him as he played solo. It was great to see his fingers flying across the keys. Next day we grabbed the same spot and watched the incredible technique of Cyrus Chestnut on the keyboard. No way could we have this close-up view in a traditional club.
Another time, we talked to Percy Heath about his many years playing with the Modern Jazz Quartet. That night with his current group, the Heath Brothers, he played a new arrangement of the MJQ classic "Django," This version, though, featured him on bass instead of John Lewis, who took the solo on piano in the original.
In the sports bar one afternoon we conversed with Benny Golson's wife about Benny's pivotal role in this year's Steven Spielberg film "The Terminal." Situations like these are worth more than the price of admission.
Shows were held in the afternoons and evenings, and all the groups performed several times during the week. Everyone had the opportunity to see them at least once. One slight drawback, the Jazz Party group had to share venues with the regular ship's scheduled entertainment. This meant, for example, that on most nights the Stardust Lounge wasn't available until 10:30 or 11.
Other showrooms were available in the afternoons and evenings, and groups were usually playing in several rooms at the same time. We found ourselves hurrying from one spot to another. Each day was a challenge figuring out whom to see at what times.
Although the Sun is one of NCL's bigger ships, it's easy to get around. While the stairways and elevators both fore and aft led you to restaurants, lounges and the cabin decks, it was the glass elevators mid-ship that were not only attractive, but helpful. The main desk, tour desk, concierge, casino and shops were located just off these. No need to remember which deck, you could see your destination.
Nature was evident throughout the ship as large floral panels greet you as you progressed along the stairwells. Smaller framed floral art pieces lined the passageways to the cabins. Appropriately, in the court of the Seven Seas Restaurant, a large sculpture of dolphins atop a world globe soared to the deck above, while a stained glass wall framed the entrance.
Many passengers book passage for the Sun's full range of spa facilities, according to Carlos Abella, assistant hotel director: "For them the ship is a spa at Sea." Shopping in the stores and attending art auctions are also big attractions. "Our jewelry store is especially popular," Abella says, "and, whether one buys a painting or not, the lively art auctions are very entertaining."
For many, the quality of service aboard can make or break a cruise. The Sun's 960 member crew is made up of some 59 nationalities, Abella says. The majority of the servers in the dining room come from Western Europe and the cabin stewards are largely made up of Asians. While we enjoyed the varied cuisine, we enjoyed talking with the servers, as well.
Unlike ships with traditional seating, Freestyle gives you an opportunity to have a different server every night, thereby learning more about other cultures as well as different cuisines. In East Meets West, we enjoyed our Moroccan Lamb as well as visiting with our Chinese and Romanian servers. In the more traditional Four Seasons restaurant we ate excellent sea bass while getting to know our Serbian waiter.
Our itinerary consisted of two days at sea, the first and last. Our first port s stop was the Maya Coast, on the southern tip of Mexico. This was followed by a day each in Roatan, an island off Honduras; Belize City, capital of Belize, and, lastly, Mexico's Cozumel Island. At each stop, passengers could debark and do their own thing or choose from the many excursions offered.
Of course, in this part of the world diving and snorkeling are very popular, and we love to snorkel. We went on excursions in Belize and Roatan and were on our own in Costa Maya and Cozumel. We saw all the usual colorful tropical fish, but in this part of the Caribbean, the coral is particularly beautiful and it was heartening to see that in most areas there were boats with attendants who would warn people not to get too close both to preserve the coral and keep snorkelers from getting painful coral cuts. Making the Jazz Party possible is an international consortium of travel agencies consisting of Windrose Cruises and Jazz Club at Sea from the U.S., Chancery Cruising from Great Britain and PS Tours of Germany. This is the fourth year the consortium has booked the party, each year on NCL.
Carolee Glasgow, owner of Windrose Cruises, says 2004 was one of the most successful. "The consortium is allocated roughly half the ship‘s cabins to sell," she says. "We sold out our first in 2000, but, after 9-11 , the next two years were a little off." Customers came back this year and the group sold out in August. Windrose is also involved in promoting blues and gospel cruises. To attend the concerts, you must book through consortium members.
Chicago jazz club owner Joe Segal, along with his son Wayne, is responsible for signing up and coordinating the appearances of the over 40 musicians on board. Their club, the Jazz Showcase, was opened by Joe in 1947 and holds the record of being the country's oldest continuously running jazz venue. Over the years, Joe has dealt with most of the world's top performers, from Charlie Parker to Wynton Marsalis.
One of the musical highlights was the Thursday night "Coleman Hawkins Tribute" with the lineup of seven saxophonists on board each taking a chorus on "Body and Soul," the song Hawkins' immortalized. Each improvised in his own unique way, but it was the two youngsters Peter Roothan and Greg Fishman who got the loudest cheers. It was good to see the elder sax greats encourage and acknowledge that the young bloods were coming on strong.
Other memorable moments: listening to the exquisite interplay between the duo of Benny Green on piano and Russell Malone on guitar, proving that soft is good, and listening to celebrated composer Benny Golson's sextet launch into his classics, "Whisper Not," and "Stablemates."
Next year's Jazz Party will head north when the Norwegian Sun sails up the Inside Passage from Vancouver to Alaska, Sept. 18-25. Better make reservations early. This is one of the world's most popular cruise destinations. Call Windrose Cruises, (800) 714-2784 or click on the website: www.windrosecruises.com. For information on Norwegian Cruise Lines, call (800) 833-5621; www.ncl.com.