In January of this last year, 2020, I went on the ‘Blue Note Jazz Cruise’ with three friends.
What? Mariken went on a cruise?
Yes, incredible! I had always sworn, in front of everyone I know, that I’d never, ever go on a cruise – because it’s so obviously anathema to the kind of travel I do. Until two dear friends dangled the idea in front of me, of a one-week cruise from Miami through the Caribbean with 75 well-known jazz musicians on board, and all that at a sizeable discount. I signed up within minutes.
From mid-morning till deep into the night, jazz concerts were held in the numerous different venues that such a big ship as the “Celebrity Infinity’ contains, from mega-theatre to intimate lounge, from swimming pool stage to dining room. Likewise, the program offered something for everyone’s taste: from sleek ‘showtime’ productions by divas like Melody Gardot and Niki Haris to jazz celebrities such as David Sanborn, Christian McBride and Robert Glasper, to the most avant-garde improvising players from the famous record label Blue Note’s stables. With about 2,600 guests on board, all hungry for the music, you had to line up early to get a good seat, and it took me some days to figure out the ‘lay of the land’ in some of those venues, to come close enough to the players to be able to do some drawing. I’m not as courageous as I used to be when I was just ‘going for it;’ these days I prefer to be as invisible as possible, which is hard in this setting. Sitting on the ground, almost underneath the stage, worked, occasionally. I was particularly enamored by the younger generation of piano-whizzes such as Geoffrey Keezer, Emmet Cohen, Sullivan Fortner and Gerald Clayton. Their repertoire and knowledge of the form is vast, their technical prowess and deeply felt love for the music is mind-blowing, as is watching, close-up, their musical communication with their sidemen. Here are some of my images, quickly ‘stolen’ at more intimate performances.
Meanwhile, the ship stopped in the harbors of St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic and Labadie in Haiti, for some very conventional beach visits and guided tours. Who cares? Not us; the music was all that mattered and we would not have minded it if the ship had simply stayed moored in Miami harbour without wasting all that diesel to sit on some boringly mainstream beaches.
These three stops were the only times where the ‘Ugly American’ truth about cruises in general came true: guests will be herded onto land for a few hours, no matter what land it is, like rotund sheep dressed in Hawaiian shirts to places that encourage you to part with your money as quickly as possible, on drinks, always more drinks, on happy hula dancers and trinkets. The stop we made in Haiti consisted of no more than a day in a walled-in beach compound on the remote Northwest coast of the island. We, the cruisers, were absolutely forbidden to climb the fence and travel the ‘real’ island, probably to protect us from the ‘political unrest’ and poverty we’ve all been reading about in the media. My friends and I had really been looking forward to an opportunity to visit Haiti and were embarrassed by this kind of Apartheid, which likely doesn’t do much to help alleviate the Haitians’ economic or social problems. A Caribbean cruise raises many questions; the complete unsustainability of any and all of it is so darned obvious.
But: the weather is glorious and the food is great. For me, another remarkable feature of this trip besides the great music, was that the majority of guests were Afro-Americans, mainly well-to-do professionals: a ship-full of people out to have fun. A rare chance to hang out with so many members of this delightful, lively, ready-to-laugh part of the American population. The well-known Black comedian we had on board, Alonzo Bodden, perfectly reflected the mood of his audience. He joked about the various musicians on board that he knew personally; about American Black expressions and worldviews and, just the same, he joked about White ways as well. He generously but kindly, never condescendingly, made fools of all of us and we laughed, including those of us that weren’t American at all. He also, of course, took on that most bizarre phenomenon of all: Trump politics (In Jan. 2020 we were in the midst of it), to enormous applause, amply proving this was a progressive-thinking crowd. When you’re going to spend a week with a ship-full of Americans at this conjuncture, this was comfortable to know. Cool cats dig jazz.
It was, altogether, an ‘anthropological experience’ for me. But frankly, next time I’d prefer to be back in the New York City clubs for my jazz, and Vancouver isn’t doing too badly, either. Soon after the cruise, the Corona Epidemic broke out – cruiseships became dangerous places and a complete no-no, and there’s been no live music to speak of either, anywhere since.