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A Festival That Runs on Cruise Control

The world of jazz on land today is sadly circumscribed. There is no longer a 52nd Street where clubs were nestled so close together that the musicians could sit in with each other’s bands between sets. Concerts are even more firmly structured; after two hourlong sets, it’s all over at 11 p.m. For this reason, among others, the floating jazz festival has certain advantages over any other form of presentation.

Where else can you find dozens of world-class musicians literally under one roof (or on one deck) 24 hours a day, free to play where and when they wish, often until 4 or 5 in the morning? Where else can the fan, instead of rushing for a taxi or parking lot after the show, mingle with his idols for a midnight snack, or hang around until the wee hours while jazzmen come and go in an intimate lounge?

This year the sixth annual “Floating Jazz Festival,” produced by ex-CIA agent Hank O’Neal and his wife, Shelly Shier, consisted of a split fortnight, starting on the S.S. Norway out of Miami and ending, with a largely different cast, aboard her sister ship, the newly launched S.S. Seaward.

First, a warning: If you are into Sun Ra, Ornette Coleman or Cecil Taylor, do not opt for a jazz cruise. The Yellowjackets or Spyro Gyra would be similarly out of place. The O’Neals, whose tastes dovetail neatly with those of the passengers, eschew all forms of avant-garde and fusion, leaning generally to straight-ahead, swinging maturity.

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This year, for the first time, an entire 16-piece orchestra was brought aboard to be included in the first week’s cast. Sure, we all know that big bands are out and that in order to form a new one nowadays it has to be attached to the name of some deceased maestro; but Illinois Jacquet, a veteran of the tough Texas tenor sax school, decided to buck the odds. While leading a student band during an artist-in-residence semester at Harvard in 1982, he was reminded that this was his logical setting. Soon afterward he formed a professional ensemble in New York.

Jacquet’s values, established during his years with the bands of Hampton, Calloway and Basie (and on tour with “Jazz at the Philharmonic”), are unchanged. Playing Lester Young’s “Tickle Toe” or a blues, then climaxing with the “Flying Home” routine that became one of the most imitated sax solos since Coleman Hawkins’ “Body and Soul,” he uses the band mainly as his personal backdrop, though now and then a sideman will contribute a spirited chorus or two.

When Jacquet was not holding forth at the Norway’s Checkers Lounge, his place was taken by an admirable house band. Under the leadership of trumpeter Alan Hoel, once the lead trumpeter with Sammy Spear on Jackie Gleason’s Miami-based TV series, this chameleonic group backed up a series of guest soloists: drummer Ed Shaughnessy (moonlighting from his “Tonight Show” job), and the trumpeter Erskine Hawkins, who had a dance band decades ago at Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom.

Hawkins achieved a dubious claim to fame when he was assumed to have played the solo on his hit record of “Tuxedo Junction,” though the actual performer was one of his sidemen, Dud Bascomb. Marginally better than it was 45 years ago, Hawkins’ trumpet was soon supplanted by that of Clark Terry, under whose guidance the house band took on a new and vital character. Terry, an Ellington veteran, has it all: phenomenal technique, originality, wit.

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A group billed as the New Quintet of the Hot Club of France, heard at the Club International, offered proof that you can teach a new dog old tricks, but it’s hardly worth the effort. Frank Vignola, the leader, does his commendable best to simulate the memorable Django Reinhardt guitar, but the violinist, Bob Mastra, is all fast fingers and no flame or fire. To 1988 ears this group has all the impact and drive of a 1938 Chevrolet; only when a guest soloist was added (guitarist Howard Alden, pianist Roger Kellaway) did it come to life.

Gospel, a valuable first-cousin to jazz, resounded in the Saga Theatre when Marion Williams, in her first-ever ocean voyage, took over for a glorious Sunday matinee. Ranging from jubilee shouts to a quasicalypso, she brought her decades-old vibrancy to “Oh Happy Day” and was joined late in her act by a much younger woman, Juanita Brooks, whose sound accented even more powerfully the mood of exaltation. Brooks, almost 6 feet of New Orleans glory, switched effortlessly from sacred to secular the following night when she sang “Basin Street” and other standards with a jazz combo.

The redemptive force of music was stunningly demonstrated during an all-saxophone colloquium one night at the Saga. Buddy Tate blew at gale force in his first major appearance since major heart surgery several months ago. Then Arnett Cobb, severely crippled years ago in an accident, still on crutches, walked slowly on stage and let the passion transcend the pain as he wound his way through “The Nearness of You,” earning a standing ovation.

Sharing the stage with Tate and Cobb were Illinois Jacquet, Flip Phillips, Red Holloway, the Norwegian Totti Bergh, Sam Rivers of the Gillespie band, and Benny Carter on alto. This extraordinary summit meeting would have been even more effective had not so much time been given over to each man playing a slow ballad. Even the healthiest appetite may resist eight oversized portions of ice cream.

Totti Bergh’s wife, Laila Dalseth, sang twice during the week, in her first appearances aboard a ship named for her country. As her Oslo recordings revealed not long ago, she has a curious, nervous vibrato recalling a long-gone jazz oriole named Lee Wiley.

As always, Dizzy Gillespie was an infectiously live wire, though he tended to come more fully alive when sitting in with other bands. By and large, the ad-hoc groups worked better than the organized units. Normally staid and elegant, Benny Carter hit the deck running during a concert with Clark Terry, stepping delightfully out of character when the two of them engaged in a lighthearted vocal on “All of Me.”

Along with the scheduled performers, the O’Neals invited a few musicians who were on hand either as window dressing or because they were old friends; they were not required to play. In this category was Dexter Gordon (who did, however, perform briefly on the final Norway night).

The Seaward cruise, ironically, played a no-trumpets hand, though Jonah Jones and Buck Clayton were both non-playing passengers. With no big house band to back up any soloists, and no female participants (except for a couple of musicians’ wives who sat in), the musical level fell below the Norway’s standards of diversity and quality.

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Some of the cruise regulars provided luminous moments: Joe Williams, backed by his own group or joining with friends at late night jam sessions; two incomparable pianists, Dick Hyman and Tommy Flanagan, and such O’Neal favorites as Scott Hamilton’s smooth-sailing quintet.

Terry Gibbs, the vibraphonist, on his first voyage in 40 years (he was scared almost permanently by a bad transatlantic crossing long ago), joined forces with Peanuts Hucko for a vibes-and-clarinet synergism that worked wonders in the Lionel Hampton-Benny Goodman manner.

The farewell sessions on the Seaward were a “Piano Spectacular” emceed by Mel Powell, and a final all-out get-together hosted by Milt Hinton.

Of the 1,800 passengers on the Norway and 1,410 on the Seaward, it was estimated that two-thirds were jazz fans; the rest were cruise regulars for whom the usual musical fare (including country & Western sessions and a Mexican musical revue) was available. During the second week we even heard briefly from an accordionist who hovered over the diners, but after a brief appearance, no doubt aware that this was not his crowd, he disappeared silently into the night.


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