Michael Lazaroff, director of The Jazz Cruise, explains the methodology of presenting jazz on a cruise ship
The Jazz Cruise recently celebrated its 10th anniversary. Produced by Anita Berry, Michael Lazaroff and the staff of Entertainment Cruise Productions, The Jazz Cruise is the first and only full ship charter in the world dedicated to mainstream or straight-ahead jazz. The organization also organizes The Smooth Jazz Cruise, which has two one-week sailings. During January 2011, The Jazz Cruise and The Smooth Jazz Cruise entertained nearly 6,000 passengers from 38 states and over 20 foreign countries, presenting over 125 jazz musicians and vocalists during a three week period.
This year The Jazz Cruise sailed on Holland America's m/s Noordam and visited Nassau, San Juan, St. Maarten and the private island of Half Moon Cay. Next year, The Jazz Cruise sails again on Holland America from January 29 through February 5, 2012, from Ft. Lauderdale, Florida to Aruba, Curacao and the private island of Half Moon Cay. Artists performing include Kurt Elling, Randy Brecker, Houston Person, Clayton Brothers, Benny Golson, Anat Cohen and many others.
Lazaroff , the Cruise's executive director, spoke about how his company organizes The Jazz Cruise and what makes it unique.
One of the unusual aspects to The Jazz Cruise is that it's a charter of the whole ship. What's involved in chartering a whole ship for a cruise?
It's been approximately ten years now [running the cruises] where we did full ship charters with all of our cruises. We have done nearly 30 full ship charters [since the beginning]. My mother, Anita Berry, was part of a sales consortium where she was helping to fill half of the ship. It was a big ship—the SS Norway with 1,100 passengers—and she put a group together that went on that particular cruise. 90% of all theme cruises are not full ship charters, they're groups – and that can be anywhere from 100 to 1,000 people go on the ship and they have certain of events and activities just for them and it's usually run under the auspices of the ship or with some type of small organization.
When you charter a ship, you have that ship for the full week. You decide where that ship goes; you decide what the meals are; you decide what all of the entertainment is. You are free to either utilize or not utilize any and all events, items, programs that are on a typical cruise of that cruise line. When we do a theme cruise, we basically get rid of almost everything. There are many activities over which we have no control or things that we do that make our cruise experience better. Obviously, we keep the pool and the gym and the spa and the beauty salons and the gaming and the bars and things like that. But in terms of activity and entertainment, we rarely utilize anything that the ship offers.
What is the difference for the fans (and musicians)?
One of the differences between doing a group versus a full ship charter is that you have to plan those activities; you have to hire the people; you have to produce the shows; you have to get the people to and from the ship. One of our biggest activities is our travel services—getting all of the musicians and their companions to the ship. Interestingly on our most recent cruise, John Clayton, for whatever reason, left his bass in his hotel room and got on the ship and the ship sailed. He was using somebody else's bass the whole week. Luckily, we were able to secure the bass and it was waiting for him when we arrived back in port.
For the jazz fan or listener, our cruises are different because when you walk on the ship, you immediately notice the fact that every single person walking on that ship is there for the same purpose you are. So there is an instant camaraderie and esprit de corps among the guests. Secondly, the music that you hear in all the public areas is music that we control. Even the piped-in music, is our music. When you turn on the television set, you're going to see certain channels dedicated to jazz films and jazz music. You're going to see that we have the full run of the ship. Typically, if it's not a full ship charter, the events that are for the group have to be worked around everybody else's cruise, so you generally get some of the rooms and you get them late at night, after everyone else has seen their normal cruise events, whereas here, it is just us.
So we actually take over the ship. One of our goals is that when somebody gets off the ship and they're in the office the next week and somebody asks them, "Where were you last week," that they're going to tell them that they were on a cruise. And when asked, "What was the name of the cruise line?" we want them to say, "The Jazz Cruise." We don't want them to say "The Holland America Line." We want every aspect and every part of the program to be reflective of what we do.
A cruise is a pricey trip. Have you seen any effect from the economy?
Basically, we haven't seen that yet. We just finished three sailings in January and they were all sold out and we had wait lists. Clearly there have been people who used to go on our cruise, who because of their particular situation, have not been able to go on the cruise, but we have others who have taken their place.
I get the impression that people come back year after year. Is that true?
That's absolutely the case. We have a large number of people who have sailed with us ten times, fifteen times, even back in the group days. Even with the ten sailings of the jazz cruise that have occurred since we went to a full ship charter, we have a number of people who have been on every one. One of the sale categories we have now is for guests who have sailed on four or more of our cruises. They get a special price and right now that is the largest sale category we have.
Do people come for the sights or the sounds?
It is almost entirely about the music. I would suggest that no one goes on The Jazz Cruise because of the ports of call. And there are very very few people who choose not to go because of the ports of call. Once in a while you'll hear, "I don't want to go back to so and so," because there are only so many islands within the Caribbean. Whenever we announce a line-up—which we did ten days ago—99% of the emails commenting are about the line-up: "Glad you have so and so" or "Wish you would added so and so." Virtually none of them say, "Damn, Aruba?" or "Why aren't we going back to Jamaica?" One of the jokes on the cruise, which you will hear from people, is that they'd be happy if we pulled out of port and dropped anchor.
How do you handle the programming of The Jazz Cruise, particularly in regard to booking new talent?
We use the one-third, one-third, one-third rule. We try to have one-third of our performers who are pretty much standards—guys that are always there, sort of a core—and that's probably now less than a third. Then we have approximately a third, let's say 40%, of people who seem to rotate on and off. With the balance, which is less than a third, we try very hard to introduce new people. And obviously, the more cruises we do, the harder it is to come up with quality new people. Like this year, the people who are brand new to the cruise—who have never performed with us before—would include Benny Golson, Carmen Bradford and some of the members of our big band. Kurt Elling has been on the cruise once before, but it was a long time ago. He is somewhat new to the recent cruises but he's been with us before.
Who are you excited to present in the next cruise?
John Pizzarelli is someone that we've been trying to get for a long time and we finally pulled that off. Obviously Kurt Elling and Benny Golson. And Scott Hamilton. We've got some really top notch people who either have never been with us or it's been so long that it really is current to our people.
How do you know if an act just isn't right for the cruise?
It's fairly easy to determine the performers that are not clicking with our guests. One is attendance. You see their sets and they are not well attended. Secondly, one of the things that our guests do not pack when they go on our cruise is their shyness. And they are very willing to tell us who they like and who they don't. It really is fun. I would imagine that over 60% of the conversations we have with our guests during the week relate to line-up issues or line-up concepts, such as: "Why do we have him?" or "Why wasn't she back?" or "Why do we try to rotate vocalists every year?"
Die-hard jazz fans can't help but think of themselves as experts.
Absolutely, our guests are amazingly knowledgeable and they love to swap stories and opinions. Many, many of them are true experts and all of them have an undying love of the music. Once in a while, though, a guest's enthusiasm exceeds their judgment. Let me tell you one of my favorite stories. Most of us know that Freddy Cole doesn't make a big deal out of the fact that he's Nat King Cole's brother. He will rarely mention it. I was at the bar with Freddy one night three years ago and a guest comes over and starts to show off his jazz IQ. He had opinions about everything … everybody … it was over my head and I did not know if he was legitimate or not. Then it happened. He leaned over and asked Freddy Cole the following question, I swear: "Are you from a musical family?" I looked at Freddy and said, "your question" and Freddy said coolly, "Yeah, we do have a couple of fairly good singers in my family."
Are there certain styles of jazz that work better than others?
It's a standards-based jazz format. Folks who have come on with original compositions and only played original compositions have not been well received. Our guests want to recognize the music they're hearing. For example, we had violinist Regina Carter and she was a hit. We asked her to come back and her manager Myles Weinstein said, "She's doing a new show … please go see it." So I flew up to Chicago to see it and the show was absolutely fantastic [she was performing her African Thread project]. But in no way, shape or form could I bring that on the cruise, because our guests would not like it. Similarly, the second half of that billing was Esperanza Spalding. And she was doing something completely different from what she was originally doing and that too would not have been well received by our guests. They want to hear the music they know and they want it played by terrific people.
What little wrinkles do you like to add over the years?
We created our own all-star big band and they play with our vocalists. They play for dancing. Our guests love to dance. We've added a 24/7 passenger jam session room which is fully equipped with all kinds of equipment for them to use. We actually have a professionals come in there once a day for an hour to work with them. We've added some fun frills. We have costume parties now. We have many many more meet and greet opportunities for our guests and we do much more "Behind the Music" type of one-on-one Q&A sessions, particularly when we get someone of real stature. Recently, we had Johnny Mandel so there was a wonderful Q&A with him. This year we did it with George Wein. So when we get these icons who represent the history of jazz, we do those interview sessions.
We've also added our Jazz Cruise Hall of Fame and we have a very special night where we honor two or three people and we induct them into the Hall of Fame and we actually talk about their music. This year we honored Freddy Cole and posthumously James Moody and we had James' lovely wife Linda on the ship to accept for him and those were lovely tributes.
Who will you honor in 2012?
We don't know yet. We honored [JT's founder] Ira Sabin one year. When my mother who started doing this ten years ago, there were a couple of people who pitched in and now that we're a very successful business we're not going to turn our backs on people who were there in the beginning. Those people who took a shot on us, I have all of the love and admiration in the world for them.
Looking back what has been your most memorable performance or event?
The first one that comes to mind was a couple of years ago we were celebrating my mother's 80th birthday and for whatever reason, we asked Freddy Cole to sing to her in front of everybody. He sang "Unforgettable" and it was memorable because it's something he just doesn't do. I framed a very nice picture of this and it's in her office and it is her prized possession.
The other personal thing I love is every time our big band starts to play. To me, there is no comparable music in any other genre. And I just love watching the big bands play. For me, every cruise that I've ever done, it's when that first show hits that is so special, because you've got everybody on the ship; you've got the equipment; you put everything up and all this is done all on the same day. And BOOM, the music is playing and all the guests are having a great time. That means everything in the world to me and it was the most compelling moment for me.