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Sanibel resident cruises to Europe via the high seas

By Staff | Oct 9, 2009

My husband Tom and I have spent our past 12 summers in Europe. The worst part of each summer usually is the airline flight over or back. This summer, we decided to take Cunard’s Queen Mary 2 instead. We boarded the ocean liner in New York on June 20 for a six-day cruise to England.

At dinner, we found our assigned table in the enormous, elegant Britannia restaurant. The food was excellent, and the portions small, thank heavens.

The real treat was after dinner. We went to listen to live jazz in the Chart Room lounge. It was okay at first, with a jazz trio consisting of an excellent young British pianist, and two serviceable young Argentinian musicians playing drums and string bass. But then a slightly more seasoned man (in his 40s or 50s) who spoke like Dustin Hoffman came up and got a case out from behind my armchair. I asked him what he played. “Trumpet,” he replied. His name? Larry Gillespie. Good last name for a trumpet player. He sings scat, too. We had been planning to leave the lounge after the current set, but when Gillespie told us he’d been joining in the next set, we decided to stay. It was a great choice.

The late night, last set at the Chart Room is where some musicians on board gathered to jam. Every night of the cruise, we heard the best jazz in that last set in the Chart Room. And we got to know Larry Gillespie, the trumpet player, fairly well.

One day on board I heard a lecture by Roy Hunt, an Englishman, about Irving Berlin’s life and music. It was interesting, and fun because he had the audience sing parts of Berlin songs at intervals throughout the lecture. Roy made some mistakes. For example, he said Berlin composed only on the black keys. The fact is, Berlin composed on the white keys. Berlin never really learned how to properly play the piano (never mind the line, “I know a fine way to treat a Steinway”). He even had a piano made with a lever which would shift the piano keyboard into another key.

Still, it was fun to sing a little and to hear again about the extraordinary life of this immigrant American who wrote one of my favorite songs, “God Bless America.” The next day, Roy lectured about Cole Porter.

That evening, we’d planned to go to the big band dance after dinner. But the dance was so lame I could not stand it. The “big band” was a disappointing little combo. We headed for the adjacent nightclub, G32, where the Caribbean/rock group called Fusion was playing.

We got out on the dance floor and I really danced up a storm. Fortunately, the captain had advised us to wear sensible shoes even though it was a formal night. The rough seas were wreaking too much havoc to risk wearing heels. Some women did anyway. What fools! There I was, in my black leather flats, long black gown, and crocheted beaded black jacket, dancing like a maniac. We had a great time. Then, inexplicably, the band was replaced by a DJ! We walked out. Replacing a live band with a DJ what an insult to musicians!

It was late enough then to go the Chart Room again to hear great jazz in the last set, played by the best musicians on board.

One afternoon in the movie theater, I watched Cadillac Records, which was mostly about Muddy Waters, but also about Leonard Chess and Chess Records, Etta James, Little Walter, Chuck Berry, and others — very nostalgic film.

We were blessed to have James Taylor and his 24-person entourage on the ship. They’d arranged with Cunard for their transportation to Europe for a concert tour in exchange for performing two concerts on board. On the day before the concerts was an interview with Taylor in one of the theaters. He’s a very down-to-earth guy, looking much older these days, but with a young wife and 8-year-old identical twin sons.

At lunchtime one day, there was a lively jazz jam session in the Golden Lion pub with a select group of musicians from the ship’s orchestra. They didn’t play long, just for the peak of lunch hour.

One of the young musicians sat down near us after the session. Upon learning that Tom is a drummer, the young guy mentioned that Steve Gadd was onboard since he’ll be playing with James Taylor. We knew about this, and Tom told the kid that Steve Gadd is probably the best American drummer alive today. He’s famous as a studio musician who plays only for the best Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon, and several jazz stars. I told the kid that Taylor and Gadd had been playing music together since 1973. He was aghast that these two old guys could go back that far.

James Taylor and his band put on an outstanding show. On stage with Taylor were a piano player, four background singers, a bass guitarist, Steve Gadd the famous drummer, a guitarist and a sound engineer.

This music may be classified as mostly folk rock, but these people were really rocking. The audience was wildly enthusiastic, giving standing ovations after the standard hit songs that we know James for, such as “Sweet Baby James,” “Fire and Rain,” “You’ve Got a Friend,” and one of my personal favorites that I sing around the house all the time, “Shower the People You Love with Love.”

I found myself hoping to hear either “Bartender’s Blues” or “Steamroller Blues.” Alas, the first encore turned out to be “Steamroller Blues.” Taylor made it into a very bluesy, electrified song in which he did some incredible vocal acrobatics. He used the song to show off the tremendous skills of the piano player and the guitarist. The audience went crazy. The band had to perform two more encores before we would let them go.

Taylor seemed to be very pleased. He was complimentary about the ship’s comfortable and elegant theater — much more welcoming than the 10,000-seat arenas where Taylor normally performs.

This was our first cruise ever (except for Navy cruises that Tom took in the 1960s). Would we do it again? Because of the relaxing nature of a transatlantic cruise (without stops at various ports), and because of all the music, I would say enthusiastically YES!