It's the kind of scene that's usually reserved for dreams: You're up to your chest in clear, azure water. On the right, a Mayan ruin towers above the sea. Just opposite is an exquisite white-sand beach. Behind you someone is humming a jazz melody, and when you turn around you see, bobbing up and down in the waves, a face you recognize…from an album cover.
The last place I thought I'd find Swing Street come to life again was on a cruise ship in the Caribbean. Like most jazz buffs who grew up in the Woodstock years, I feel that I was born a few decades too late. I missed out on 52nd Street in the forties, when you could hear Art Tatum in one joint, slip next door and catch a set by Coleman Hawkins, then dodge taxicabs to check out Lady Day, Count Basie, or Bird and Diz right across the way. But a jazz cruise sounded like the next best waterborne thing. For seven days straight, the travel agent told me, nothing but jazz, from eight in the evening until one or two in the morning.
Related: Best Caribbean Cruises
We sailed out of Miami just before sunset. Four bandstands were jumping at once: Oscar Peterson playing a Gershwin set, Joe Williams belting out the blues he used to sing with Basie, Milt Jackson tearing up the vibes in front of a heavy bop quartet, and Dave McKenna holding forth in the piano bar, well into an uninterrupted medley of songs with the word "baby" in their titles.
The roster of stars who've been featured on cruises organized by Hoss, Inc., over the years reads like a who's who of American jazz greats. Some are legends - Cab Calloway, Dizzy Gillespie, Sarah Vaughan; others, bona fide heavyweights - Benny Carter, Illinois Jacquet, and Joshua Redman. One night I realized that the guy sitting next to me was Milt Hinton, who played bass for Louis Armstrong and Benny Goodman in the heyday of swing. He nodded to acknowledge my excitement over the piano solo we'd just heard.
Momentarily satisfied, I walked out to the observation deck to take in the starry sky. As I stood in the cool breeze I could still feel the drumbeat underfoot and hear a snatch of melody sailing over the sound of spinning turbines. Looking out to sea, a martini in hand, I fancied myself waiting for Myrna Loy.
After steaming south all night, we headed west along the coast of Cuba. I struck up a conversation with a few of the younger musicians while sunbathing out on deck. There are two official autographing sessions, but the musicians are also approachable the rest of the time - you can catch them lounging around the pool or hanging out at the bar. One evening I pinned down singer Joe Williams between sets, and we chatted for half an hour about his days on the road with Prez and the Count.
Most nights the musicians jammed until dawn, the audience dwindling to a few hardcore devotees - among them a jazz deejay from Boston, a columnist for Downbeat, and a music critic for the Wall Street Journal. Sometimes, when a late-night session really got cooking, a musician who wasn't working the gig would sit in on a few numbers.
Although I'd have been just as happy to take in the music while docked in New York harbor for a week, I have to admit we had a great itinerary: the Yucatan, the Cayman Islands, Jamaica, a private island on the northern coast of Haiti. During the week, I visited a Mayan temple at Tulum, snorkeled around a barrier reef off the Caymans, and swam in the pools of Dunn's River Falls, in Jamaica. On Labadee, in Haiti, I spent an afternoon watching the local schoolkids play cricket.
By Saturday, when the ship turned north from Haiti for a straight shot back to Miami, I had heard more jazz in a week than in the previous two years. Who would have thought you'd be able to re-create 52nd Street on a ship…and come home with a suntan?
The Beat Goes On
More Jazz Cruises
My particular jazz cruise - organized by Hoss, Inc., on a Royal Caribbean ship - will not be repeated, but other lines offer similar cruises. Here are a few, with their schedules for 1997:
Cunard's Queen Elizabeth 2 - 800/528-5273 (for information; book cruises through a travel agent). New York to Newport, Rhode Island, with a three-day anchorage in Newport for the JVC Jazz Festival (August 1318).
Delta Queen Steamboat Co.'s Delta Queen and American Queen - 800/458-6789. A frequently run cruise featuring Dixieland and traditional New Orleans jazz. Starting and ending in New Orleans, with stops at St. Francisville, Louisiana; Natchez, Mississippi; and Baton Rouge, Louisiana (weekly, January 15-March 8); New Orleans to Galveston (February 14-20, 20-22, and 22-28); New Orleans to Memphis (March 8-15).
Norwegian Cruise Line's Norway - 800/327-9070. Eastern and western Caribbean routes, organized by Hoss, Inc. The ninth annual "Big Bands at Sea" (November 22-29); "Dixieland at Sea" (September 27-October 4); the 15th annual Floating Jazz Festival (October 25-November 1 and November 1-8).
Oren Jacoby, an independent filmmaker in New York City, is making a documentary about jazz musicians.