Smooth JazzIt’s one thing to bump into your favorite music artists as they slip backstage for a concert or sprint from their limos. But a chance meeting in a hot tub? Or at the breakfast buffet? Or on a horseback riding trail?
Such was the good life for more than 1,800 satisfied, stuffed and sunburned music lovers in January as they packed Holland America’s Westerdam for the Smooth Jazz Cruise 2009, hosted by former NBA star and smooth jazz marvel Wayman Tisdale.

The weeklong cruise, which left Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., on Jan. 18, made stops in San Juan, Puerto Rico; Santa Bárbara de Samaná and Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic; and in Half Moon Cay, a private island owned by Holland America. The anchor aspect of the cruise was its laid-back nature. Since most of the artists were on the ship for the entire run, casual encounters in hallways and lounges were almost unavoidable. But that was the point, says Michael Lazaroff, executive director of Jazz Cruises L.L.C. of St. Louis, Mo. “We’re just here to have fun,” says Lazaroff. New Yorkers account for much of the cruise’s clientele, trailing only Floridians and Californians in number.

The Smooth Jazz Cruise, which returns in January 2010, offers artists at the top of the music charts. Included in January’s cruise were Gerald Albright, Tom Braxton, Peabo Bryson, Jonathan Butler, Jeff Golub, Everette Harp, Jeff Lorber, Jody Watley, Kirk Whalum and Peter White.

Aside from his self-taught skills with the bass guitar, Tisdale, a 6-foot-9 power forward/center who once headlined for the Indiana Pacers, Sacramento Kings and Phoenix Suns, was an inspirational lightning rod who epitomized the name of his latest album: Rebound. Last year, Tisdale was diagnosed with bone cancer, a crushing diagnosis that led to the amputation of part of his right leg. Despite the personal tragedy Tisdale made it known in the weeks before the cruise that nothing would stop him from making it. Many in the Westerdam’s main stage burst into tears as he rose into view on a stage elevator during his first appearance. “There ain’t no stopping us,” said Tisdale with a wide grin before getting down to business with his guitar. He succumbed to cancer on May 15th.

While each night had a specific schedule, you never knew which artist might crash another’s set for an impromptu duet. The biggest surprise was the unannounced appearance by smooth jazz megastar Dave Koz, who was in Washington, D.C., performing at one of President Barack Obama’s inauguration events when the ship sailed, but caught up at a port of call and silently slipped aboard.

Next January’s Smooth Jazz Cruise is already sold out — only wait-list orders are still being taken. Jazz Cruises L.L.C. had sponsored a separate Dave Koz and Friends Smooth Jazz Cruise in 2008, but opted to combine the Koz and Tisdale cruises into one in 2010 — a tip of the hat to the current tight economy. However, the company will run two identical Smooth Jazz Cruises in January 2011, one right after the other. The company also sponsors the Jazz Cruise, which sails in November with a more traditional, “straight-ahead” jazz lineup.

There were a number of one-on-one sessions where cruisers could chat with the artists. During Tisdale’s session, his wife, Regina, had something to say about his home skills. “He doesn’t have a domestic bone in his body,” she said as Tisdale bellowed with laughter.

“That basketball thing went deep once. It got into my pores,” said Tisdale, who then struck a serious note when asked about his health. “I’m getting through this,” he said, noting that he invited the surgeon who performed the operation on the cruise.

In addition to Tisdale, the cruise opened a window into the personality of the other stars. For example, Jonathan Butler proved to be as comedic as he was energizing while Chaka Khan, who headlined the last night’s entertainment, was so unprepared during her introductory appearance that she forgot the words to a song and had to have them whispered in her ear as she performed it.

There were many unscripted light moments. When Kirk Whalum’s performance was accidentally interrupted by the ship’s public address system, he didn’t miss a beat. Whalum, who is deeply religious — and somewhat mischievous — stopped and asked the audience “Can anybody here interpret tongues? One never knows when God is going to speak.” The crowd roared.

Somewhat anticlimactic was the final-night performance of Rufus featuring Chaka Khan, which offered some of Khan’s signature tunes, but didn’t meet the high-energy standard set earlier in the week by performers like Tom Braxton, Marcus Miller, Brian Simpson and comedian Jonathan Slocumb.

The appeal of smooth jazz to African-American audiences was reflected in the high percentage of people of color on the cruise. The cruise attracts a mostly boomer-aged clientele, although some cruisers stretched those limits a few years in either direction.

Of the ports of call, Santa Bárbara de Samaná was easily the most forgettable. Small tender boats shuttled cruisers from ship to shore, where there was little other than aggressive tour agents, a few tiny restaurants and shops and a handful of art and souvenir vendors. At the other end of the spectrum was Half Moon Cay, an immaculate island with crystal-clear waters, an extensive beach, plenty of cabanas and some restaurants and bars. The island is only moderately developed, but that’s the way Holland America wants it.
A number of activities were available, including a horseback ride into the surf. There was plenty to do in San Juan, but only a few daylight hours in which to do it, and Santo Domingo, offered many food and touristy choices. The historic parts of the city were within easy walking distance of the ship.

At 2010 prices starting at $1,750 per person (based on two in a cabin) for the smallest inside stateroom to $7,500 for a penthouse verandah suite, the Smooth Jazz Cruise isn’t cheap. But factor in what one would pay for each performance at a theater and toss in the value of 80-degree days on clean beaches in January, all the food you can eat and all the elbow-rubbing opportunities you can muster and the cruise seems to hold its value. Returning cruisers get discounted rates.

Smooth jazz may be disappearing from the radio dial at an appalling rate, but it’s clearly alive and well
on the high seas.     

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