Thursday, December 13, 2007

The gig itself (with cones)

Why are we here? This isn't the start of some existential query. Every day I wonder why did they choose to put a modern jazz trio on this boat? And why do they want us to stay longer? Hasn't this failed social experiment gone on long enough?

In fairness, there are always a handful of people on every cruise that really enjoy the jazz. They watch us play each night, they applaud, they occasionally buy our CD or buy us a drink. Typically these are either senior citizens, homosexuals, or dangerously depressed individuals. For whatever reason, every guy whose significant other divorces or breaks up with him on the cruise (which isn't that rare of an occurrence) becomes our biggest fan and best friend. They'll buy us a drink or a copy of our overpriced CD if we listen to their sad story on the breaks. Unfortunately, these wonderful guests are as much of a minority as Americans are in the crew.

The other cones ("guests" to all the lay people) are indifferent at best, and at times openly hostile. One night we were playing outside the 21st Century bar when this charming middle-aged woman began dancing up a storm. Spinning and bouncing, shaking and shimmying across the floor. When the shipped rocked towards the starboard side, she staggered thisaway. When it rocked towards the portside, she staggered thataway. After a while, she started pulling people off of their barstools to dance with her. Men, women, and small children were all fair game. One cat resisted her arm drag and she fell headfirst onto the floor. When she danced with all of the people at the bar, she began grabbing random people as they walked by to dance with her.

After a while, she shimmied up to Preston and pleaded,
"American music! Play Brown Eyed Girl. Something American. The people want to hear some American music!

To which Preston replied,
"We're a jazz trio. We just play Jazz."

"No! American music. Play that Funky Music White Boy. Sweet Home Alabama. The people want some American music!"

"We do play American jazz." he responded, still soloing over Giant Steps

"No! No jazz. AMERICAN MUSIC!!! Play something American!"

We took a break and after about 5 minutes, this woman gets everybody at the bar to stomp their feet and chant,

"MU-SIC! MU-SIC! MU-SIC!" for like 5 minutes straight.

We succumbed to the pressure and resumed playing. The woman grew tired of trying to dance to the Wayne Shorter ballads and up tempo Coltrane tunes we were playing and began to hang out with some other cones. 5 minutes into our second break, she got everyone stomping their feet and chanting,

"MU-SIC! MU-SIC! MU-SIC!" for like 5 minutes straight.

So we went back to our regularly scheduled program of All The Things you are in 5/4 and How Deep Is the Ocean? in 7/4 . No matter how frustrated this woman got trying to dance to our music, she would get everyone at or around the bar chanting for us to resume playing the moment we stopped.

Another night, this cone came up to us and said,

"We wanna hear the Electric Slide. Why don't y'all play that next?"
"We're more of a jazz band. We just play jazz. We don't have a mic even if we wanted to play that song." I replied
"Alright. Alright. So I'll sing it," he said after some deliberation.
"We don't know that song. We just play Jazz. Sorry." I replied.
"Alright. Alright. Alright. Just do the Cha Cha Slide then." he said.

One night, this heavyset frat boy tried to dance to our music. By dance, I mean bending over and backin' that thang up to every man and woman that walked by, occasionally smacking his own butt in rhythm and screaming some primal fraternity battle cry. This went on for about 20 minutes before he started doing his own version of the pole dance. He went over to the Roman pillar near us and began to hump it rhythmically while he stuck out his tounge and headbanged. After his friends cheered and took a few dozen pictures, he lifted up one leg and acted like a dog peeing on a fire hydrant while he made howling noises.

Chaz (our drummer) got so fed up with this cone he decided to take matters into his own hands.

The cone told all his friends to "Check this out!" and started backing it up to an oncoming group of senior citizens when the drum trades came.

Chaz proceeded to play the most sparse, out of time stuff he could on every trade. The cone looked around trying to figure out what had happened. He tried to keep time slapping his own butt but I guess doing that without a swingin' beat behind it would just look silly. He left and Chaz gave him the Fangul while he played with one hand.

Friday, November 30, 2007


The life of a jazz trio on a cruise ship is a surreal existence. Drums, bass, guitar set up next to circular watering hole called the 21st Century Bar despite the Roman pillars and pictures of chariot races. Next to the casino, and underneath the marquee broadcasting the night's events in bright red letters. In between two photo stations where guests can stand in front of a Christmas living room backdrop or one of the beach with the ship on the background. It's as if they Photo Shop'd us into a picture you'd find on the brochure. The wafting sounds of Wayne Shorter, John Coltrane, and Bill Evans sailing over the sounds of slot machines, thrilled and agonized gamblers, and the drunken chatter of guests passing by.

On this particular night Preston (our guitarist and bandleader), Chaz (our drummer), and I got in the proverbial foxhole together to fire off eigth notes at the endless parade of guests passing by. After the first tune was over, Preston mumbled under his breath,

"I'll Remember April. 1, 2, 1, 2, 3, 4"

"Pling..............................Pling..............................................Pling, pling........................" went the guitar at 10-20 second intervals while Preston slumped his shoulders and stared at the floor. The entire tune was a vague, sparse, minimalist, affair that would have made Steve Reich and Phillip Glass uneasy. The end of the tune was a vague mystery of random plinging that eventually stopped altogether while the bass and drums faded out. When the tune was over Preston stared at the floor for about a half a minute before mumbling,

"What Is This Thing (Called Love). 1, 2, 1, 2, 3, 4."

"Pling, pling.............................................................................Pling, pling......................................Pling, pling............................................................................................................................Pling." went the guitar, even sparser than before.

He took the minimalist approach to the calling of tunes as well. Sometimes as much as a minute of silence went by before a tune was called.At one point, he looked up from the floor to Chaz and said,

"What do you want to play?"
"I don't care. Just call something," Chaz replied.
(15 seconds of silence)
"What do you want to play?" he asked me.
"I don't know. Whatever." I replied.
(30 seconds of silence)

It was as if the guitar was giving the bass and drums the silent treatment and this set was the agonizingly, uncomfortable attempt at chit chat over dinner. Every tune for the next 2 hours went down in this manner. Intros, melodies, outros, were a sparse mystery. Occasionally, Preston started a tune and stopped playing for an entire chorus or stopped playing altogether 4 bars before the tune ended.

Playing in a jazz trio on a cruise ship is a surreal existence.

Surrealism: Part 2

So after another less than satisfying day at work, I went to the office (crew bar to all you laypeople) to unwind. Although there was a Latin themed "Salsa Fiesta" for the crew on the other side of the ship, I figured tonight would be a good night to get to bed early and catch up on some much needed rest.

After a few beers and a few games of Tekken Tag Tournament, (the 1 working arcade at the bar) I went back to my room.

My room. Fortress of solitude. Where the bunk beds are artfully decorated with purple, orange, and turquoise privacy curtains. Where fluorescent light reflects God's glory off of the large tiled linoleum floors. Where the 8 inch TV brings you 3, count 'em 3 movie channels full of uninterrupted cinematic classics such as Code Name: The Cleaner, Wild Hogs, Georgia Rules, The Last Mimzie, No Reservations, and the Santa Clause 3. This is where I wanted the Gulf of Mexico to rock me to sleep.

I opened the door only to have it abruptly stopped. A shirtless Emil (my roomate) blocked the entrance and immediately began apologizing in a frantic manner,

"Jimmy I'm sorry. I should have asked permission. It's my friend's birthday. I'm so sorry. We're hanging out. I should have asked permission....."

I took a step into the room and there were Filipinos as far as the eye could see. 3 on the bed, 2 on the floor, 2 brought there own mini stools. A small table was set up in the middle of the room full of party favors. Ribs, chicken, noodles, wine, whiskey, sodas, and some Filipino delicacies that I didn't recognize. All of a sudden from 6 inches away from my right ear,


being sung in a rich tenor voice. There was some cat in the bathroom singing his heart out into a microphone attached to a karaoke machine. My intrusion didn't stop his performance. After Emil told me whose birthday it was, I wished him a happy birthday and everybody began started up at once.

"I'm so sorry. I should have asked." Emil said as he put on a T-shirt. ("Why didn't he have a shirt on?" I wondered.)

"Jimmy you want food?" from one side of the room

"Sit down. I move. Sit on the bed," from the bed

"Have some food. I make you plate. You like ribs?" from the other

"Beef, you like beef?" from somwhere.

"You like noodles? I make you plate of noodles."from the floor

"WHEN I FIRST SAW YOU. WITH YOUR SMILE SO TENDER........." from 6 inches away.

"You like Jack Daniels right? Here drink this." from the floor

"Sit down. You can sit on my chair," from somewhere.

"Toast for his birthday!" from the bed


"Happy Birthday," I said.

Sensory overload. I've partied with Emil's friends before and had a great time but this was too trippy and way too crowded for me to relax. After firing off a bunch of what I hoped were polite "no thank you's" to the numerous offers I had received, I took a shot of Jack and Coke and told everyone that I was just dropping off my bag was going to the Salsa Fiesta. After carefully stepping past everyone and everything, I tossed my bag on the top bunk and left. Dude in the bathroom was still crooning away, his non-mic-wielding hand emotionally clutching his chest while he rocked back and forth with each line.

Life on a cruise ship is a surreal existence.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Safety Testing

Safety exam.....October 14th....high noon. Written in blood or maybe black ink on the tattered piece of paper rolled up in my door handle. I miss door knobs. All we have are those sideways handles that protrude out and to the left. Every door is like that. Pushing on them is weird. Unnatural. The same could never be said about door knobs. They're a joy to push or pull. AND they're (most often) turned clockwise. These things are turned the opposite way so you gotta use your left hand, at least if you're as uncoordinated as I am.

The fateful day arrives. I show up at the saloon (crew lounge) and the arcade is unplugged right as I enter. The music screeches to a halt and everyone stares up at me for a moment. I make my way to the seat where the tests are handed out. 6 pages of minutiae about every aspect of safety and emergency protocol. Fire classes, types of extinguishers, emergency codes, muster station locations, roll around and around in my barren, sleep deprived head like tumbleweeds.

After finishing the exam, we had to have the examiner (the same lecturer from the safety course who's name and what he does on the ship I'm supposed to know but don't) look it over. My turn came up and we sat across from each other at one of the lopsided, uneven tables in the lounge with 4 aluminum legs that come together at the middle before speading out in 4 directions once on the floor. That, along with the laquered tribal design of the table, and the way it leans to one side while the ship rocks makes it look like a smushed mushroom.

Tension. He doesn't say a word while he looks over the test. Occasionally he shoots me a look of surprise and continues reading. Did I get something wrong? Why does he turn the pages so violently? He continues reading and re-reading my exam, bobbing his head up and down rhythmically as if he were listening to hip hop on an invisible pair of headphones. Then came the questions. Stuff I got right, he asked. Stuff I didn't know, he asked. Did I really get that one right? Did I really get that one wrong? One after the other. Keeping me off balance. I think he asked about the different fire classes, which I knew. Then he followed up with which letter corresponded to which type of fire, which I wasn't so sure of.

"Uhhhh, A is solid, B is combustible liquid, I think C is electrical, right?"
to which he immediately responded,

"What is this? You ask-uh ME the questions now? I ask-uh the questions!! YOU ANSWER THE QUESTIONS!" pounding the psychadelic mushroom table for emphasis.

He had me demonstrate how to operate the fire doors and locate the weather doors and a bunch of other things. Then he asked me to get the fire extinguishers out of the nearby closet. He asked me how you use them, to which I responded some lame faxsimile of the P.A.S.S. method we were taught. That's Pull out the pin, Aim at the fire, Spray said fire, then Sweep the stream left to right.

"Show me," he said.

I pulled out the pin, picked up the fire extinguisher and pretend aimed and sprayed and sweeped at the imaginary fire.

"I SAID SHOW ME," he said louder.

So I started spraying and sweeping for real in front of everyone. For those of you who have never sprayed a fire extinguisher, those suckers are LOUD and the spray goes everywhere and smells funny. After a second or two I stopped this demonstration. At the moment I stopped, he yelled out,


I did


As I sprayed the extinguisher left and right, left and right. The spray hitting his shoes and legs and the door and everything. For like 15-20 seconds I sprayed while he shouted encouragement, his face a mix of a drill sergeant's intense demeanor and a childlike excitement of getting to shoot something loud and messy indoors.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

What day is it?

It's a question that I'm asking less and less. The whole 5 day/5 day/4 day cruise schedule eliminates the whole concept of weekends, the Sabbath, TGIF, bad cases of the Mondays, humps days, and replaces them with a constant state of timelessness. Nobody knows the date or day and once we leave port, cellphones can no longer tell us. Everyone just surrenders to it. It's like that dude who lived in a cave for a year. Not knowing what day it is, what time it is, or where you are can be liberating. The only days that provide any temporal inertia are the 2nd and 4th Sundays of each month when we get paid. The other day that kinda breaks up the monotony is the one which has a formal night attached to it. Formal nights are where the staff members are required (if we're in passenger areas) to wear suits, or tuxedos, or dresses after 5 PM and the staff is magnanimously allowed to hang out at the Electricity Discoteque although we can't sit on the barstools or stand next to them.

Work weeks (I guess they're not really weeks) slowly and rhythmically rock back and forth like the ship at sea. Port days, sea days, Cozumel days, Progresso days all melt into one another seamlessly. It's like Groundhog day without the moral lessons to be learned or the tacked on romantic subplot.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The gig itself

The gigs with the trio are going well. My fingers look like a Warner Bros. character after he or she gets hit in the hand with a mallet, anvil, or piano. 4 and a half hour gigs each night are no joke on the upright bass if you're out of practice.

We play at this cigar bar on the ship. It's one of the only places indoors where folks are allowed to smoke. It's also the only place with big screen TV's, which poses a problem when Monday Night Football or LSU games are on during our gigs. They asked us to stop Monday Night after a couple songs to placate the numerous Cowboys fans who were tired of my bass obscuring their
view of Tony Romo throwing countless interceptions :-)

I enjoyed the night off while the other guys in the trio were pretty angry about getting told to stop playing. It's nice to know that the guys are so hungry to play. Maybe when my hands stop throbbing, I'll be right there with them.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

& on the 3rd day.....

I rose again from underneath the uncomfortable flame-retardant sheets and comforter just in time to be late for another day of lectures. I know you're probably thinking to yourself,

"5 hours of safety lectures and corporate videos on such topics as sexual harassment, workplace discrimination, proper use of the fire extinguisher, and the history of the Carnival corporation must be off the chain!"

And you'd be wrong. It's not. It actually sucks. The videos are cheesy and the material is boring. Nobody (lecturers included) wants to be there and for some reason, the lecturers ask tons of questions and will not move on until someone answers. They also wont go on with the lecture until everyone is back from the few breaks that they give us. Of course, nobody answers any of the questions and people straggle in 10 minutes late from each break which prolongs this exquisite agony for the rest of us.

After a while, the instructors got the idea to put in episodes of Mr. Bean (have you heard of this show? It's almost like a British version of Get Smart) on the breaks. Man, did it ever solve the tardiness issue! Who knew that Mr. Bean had such mass appeal? And, more importantly, why? Brits, South Americans, Africans, Indians, Asians, Russians, Scots, Canadians and even the French folks were doubled over in laughter at Bean trying to change pants while driving.

Now I'm studying for this safety test I have to take tomorrow like it's the bar so I wont have to go to any more of these training seminars. It's painful watching the instructors trying to get everyone involved. After watching the video on the importance of smiling and saying hello to every guest in a 10' radius (the video was hilarious. The main character did a parody of the 6th sense but instead of saying "I see dead people", he said "I see rude people". You had to be there.), the instructor tried to get us fired up about being nice to people. She was all like,

"So are we all okay with this? Are we going to give every guest we see a BIG smile?!!!"

[awkward silence and nodding of heads]

"I can't hear you"

[muffled uh-huh's and yeah's barely audible over the hum of the slide projector]

"What about you, Jose? Can I count on you to smile EVERY time you see a guest?!" she said to this Ecuadorian cat who worked in the crew. Jose, who apparently had to work until very late the night before, hadn't said a word all day and looked very sleepy and uninterested. He nodded weakly and quickly resumed staring at the floor as he had been doing for the last 3 hours.

"I can't hear you!" she said in a cheerful voice.

"Jes" he said after 5 seconds of staring at the floor. I think she made him "show off his smile" after this exchange which was just as awkward.