Photo credit: Josh Timmermans.

Jam Cruise: New Orleans at Sea

Jam Cruise is a party like no other. With dozens of artists and countless amenities crammed into a beautiful Caribbean cruise ship, it’s no wonder thousands of music lovers see fit to boat down south for one special week in the middle of winter.

Fans of New Orleans music are especially welcome at the event, which has always boasted a wide array of performers from the Big Easy. Instead of reining in that aspect for the fourteenth incarnation of Jam Cruise, the organizers at Cloud 9 decided to double down by enlisting THREE iconic New Orleans acts to top the bill. That’s right–the next Jam Cruise will feature headlining performances by Dr. John & The Nite Trippers, Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue and perennial cruisers Galactic.

Of course, that doesn’t even take into account the sets from Dumpstaphunk and Anders Osborne, or the guest appearances by George Porter Jr., Leo Nocentelli, Johnny Vidacovich and Mike Dillon. It doesn’t even touch on the various New Orleans-inspired acts that will also take the stage, from Lettuce and Soulive to Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe, The New Mastersounds and Snarky Puppy, just to name a few.

In many ways Jam Cruise is like Frenchmen Street on a boat–a one-stop shop for all your music needs. A place where friends old and new can seamlessly hop from one show to the next without even having to finish their drinks.The only difference is you wake up in Belize.

Jam Cruise 14 will set sail from Miami on January 6 before returning to port on January 11. Along the way, the MSC Divina cruiseliner will make stops in Belize City, Belize and Cozumel, Mexico. I caught up with three different Jam Cruise regulars–a musician, a chef and an organizer–to get their take on the connection between New Orleans and Jam Cruise.





How long have you been attending Jam Cruise?

I’ve been going on there for about seven or eight years.

Ivan Neville piano set. Photo credit: Dave Vann.

Ivan Neville piano set. Photo credit: Dave Vann.

As a New Orleans musician, what would you say is the connection between New Orleans and Jam Cruise?

I think it’s similar to the music experience at Jazz Fest. With all of  the night time club shows, you’ve got a whole bunch of collaborations and stuff like that. It’s similar in that aspect because you’ve got different people playing together that might not normally play together. You’ve got a lot of bands performing, and it’s stuff that goes on all night. You’ve also got a few New Orleans people that go on Jam Cruise a lot. George Porter is always on, I’ve gone on a lot of times. Galactic from day one. It’s got the feel of Jazz Fest, but on a boat out at sea. I don’t know how to explain it. It’s a pretty busy hang. There’s a lot of stuff happening, a lot of bands, a lot of jams, and there’s not a whole lot of separation from the fans because everybody is on this boat. That’s cool in many ways. You’re talking to people that you might not normally get to talk to sometimes. It’s definitely got a New Orleans feel as far as the camaraderie with the musicians.      

What are some of your best memories of Jam Cruise over the years?

I mean, just all this playing we do. Getting to listen to a lot of people that I like to hear and getting to perform with a lot of different people. Not only with Dumpstaphunk. We go on there and do what we do, which is always a blast. But I’ve also been doing a piano set there for two or three years and it’s pretty special. It’s something I don’t do very often. I’ll sit down, play piano and sing some songs that I’ve written. It’s kind of the gift inside of me that people don’t normally get to see. I enjoy doing that a little bit. I only get to do that once every blue moon.  

Jam Cruise, obviously, has a jam band slant to it. Why do you think the jam band fans that attend Jam Cruise love New Orleans music so much?

New Orleans is probably the greatest music city on the planet. It’s got a lot of different styles of music, but it’s all kin. You know what I’m saying? It’s all related in some kind of way.  Anybody that ever comes to New Orleans, especially for Jazz Festival, sees a wide variety of  styles of music that are all “kin” to New Orleans. It’s what New Orleans is all about. Obviously the food that we have here–you don’t get food like that on Jam Cruise exactly–but they do have a couple of guests chefs.


CHRIS “SHAGGY” DAVIS (aka The NOLA Crawfish King), CHEF


How long have you been involved with Jam Cruise?

I’ve been involved with Jam Cruise for about three years now. I am the liaison for the Late Night Chef Series on the boat.

chef_shaggyWhat, exactly, is the Late Night Chef Series?

We gather a bunch of chefs from around the country who are into the same thing: music and food. It’s been really great to watch the series grow over the years. I believe I was brought on because there’s a very large contingent of New Orleans musicians on the boat, most of them being my friends. So when I go on the boat I do a lot of New Orleans stuff. We try to do it in a way that–if there’s a bunch of New Orleans bands playing that day–I’ll cook that night. Stuff like that. I started a good rapport with the chefs on board the boat. How? I’m not exactly sure because not many of them really speak English. But for some reason, I clicked with them, and we became friends. I think that the folks at Cloud 9 realized I could communicate with these people, so they made it happen. So over the last few years, I’ve been more involved. It’s good to be there, and to hang with my friends like Ivan and Stanton Moore and Anders Osborne, who I also do some work with.

How important is the New Orleans vibe to Jam Cruise?

I think that New Orleans is the heart of music in this country. That’s my personal opinion. I followed the Grateful Dead for many years. I saw the Grateful Dead over 200 times. I travelled the U.S. with music in my blood, and I ended up here. Really, from the first night of being here. I’ve been fortunate that I’ve become friends with all these musicians. I’ve come to realize that this place is awesome. I mean, where else can you go? They say Austin is like the “whatever you call it.” I’ve been to Austin many a time, and I can’t just open a magazine and go, “I’m going to go here tonight.” I’m going to see Ivan Neville play at some little rinky-dink bar.  I can’t see Allen Toussaint at the Square. There’s just so much, everything from funk to blues.

What kind of New Orleans food are you cooking on the boat?

We’ve done everything. We’ve done cochon de lait, we’ve done pigs, we’ve done seafood dishes, and jambalaya of course. The first year I was on, it was all new. We would curate a menu and give them the ingredients per hundred people. Then while we were on the boat, I’d go down into the galley and talk to the chefs. They bring their team, you demonstrate how to cook that meal to them and then it’s out of your hands. You have all these people cooking your meal for thousands of people.

What happened was that I started bringing New Orleans food on there. You’ve got a lot of Jamaicans in the kitchen, and I’m whipping together this jambalaya. They don’t call it “jambalaya,” it’s something else. They have it in Jamaica and eat it all the time, but they were like, “what is ‘jambalaya’?” So I come back and this guy’s got all kinds of stuff going on. He’s adding all his stuff that they add in Jamaica, tomatoes and all this. I had to put a stop to it. I was like, “wait, this is my name here. We have to represent where I’m coming from.” So he and I worked together and we made a really badass jambalaya. It was pretty great.

I do a big old shrimp boil. We have gumbo. Last year I did shrimp and grits. Then there’s a lot of chefs that bring the food from their area. There’s chefs from California, there’s barbecue. It’s awesome. The people on the boat love it. When we bring that stuff out at midnight, when everyone’s buzzed, the line literally stretches across the boat. We serve about 900-1000 people at midnight. At midnight! That’s pretty good.




There’s usually a lot of great New Orleans music on Jam Cruise. Is that something that’s been going on from the beginning?

When we first booked Jam Cruise, I don’t think that we were focusing on New Orleans. We were focusing on the jam band scene, but we have always known that New Orleans is the heartbeat of live music and, therefore, the artists that we booked were some of the more traditional New Orleans artists and artists that embrace the New Orleans vibe. Brass bands are such a huge part of the New Orleans music scene and that’s why we booked Dirty Dozen Brass Band and Rebirth Brass Band. We also wanted to take one of the front runners of the jam band scene, who continue to not only permeate in America and internationally, but who have been on every single Jam Cruise. That’s Galactic. So we started there.

When I spoke with Ivan, he described Jam Cruise as being very much like Jazz Fest. What do you think about that characterization?

New Orleans and Jazz Fest have been a huge part of my life, even before I started working for Jam Cruise. For years, we have brought Jam Cruise down to New Orleans. We announce Jam Cruise every year during Jazz Fest. That is how much we connect with that city. We literally announce our cruise that weekend. Second weekend, every year. So that makes a statement right there. Jazz Fest and Jam Cruise share very similar energies. There is a way of life in New Orleans that is more vibrant and exciting than any other place. Jam Cruise holds that same energy.

Photo credit: Chris Monaghan.

Photo credit: Chris Monaghan.

There is music day and night. One of the cool things about going to see bands in New Orleans at Jazz Fest is the sit-ins. Ivan Neville will play four shows a night, and then go sit in at two other shows. That’s exactly what happens on Jam Cruise too! We encourage and embrace the camaraderie and the family vibe that goes on in New Orleans. So that is part of it. It’s really about the spirit. Music is just the sole strengthener for so many of us and New Orleans completely embodies that. We really have brought that on Jam Cruise. It has really taken on the spirit of New Orleans–the soul, the life.

My friend made a dynamic comment the other day when we were talking about how special New Orleans Jazz Fest is. She said, “you really need a key to get in.” I thought that was so fascinating. Here’s what I take from it. I think the Fleur de Lis is the key. It signifies perfection, light and life. You don’t have to find the key, but you have to get it…you have to get what it means to fall in love with a city like New Orleans. You hold the key. If you are a tourist then you will go drink hurricanes on Bourbon Street. And god bless them. But if you are a true music lover with a heart for culture, those of us who are serious connoisseurs, there’s no other place on the planet where you can get so much music, and from higher quality musicians, than in New Orleans for Jazz Fest. That place has soul, light and life. Just like the Fleur de Lis. Not only do I wear a charm of the powerful symbol proudly around my neck, but I have an ornate tattoo on my shoulder. I just want to show a little more love and honor for a city that has changed my life forever. 

One of the things I noticed about Jam Cruise was how accessible the musicians are for the fans. If you go to a club in New Orleans, it’s not unlikely that you’ll see some of your favorite musicians just hanging out catching the show. Jam Cruise felt similar.

That’s a good point. We say on Jam Cruise that “everyone has a backstage pass”. So there really is no separation between the artists and the passengers. You are totally right. One of my favorite things on Jam Cruise is to walk around the different venues and see musicians watching the shows. I see it all the time. It’s so cool. And it’s true because it’s about the party. It’s not just about what goes on onstage. The energy between the musicians and the fans is so comparable that the musicians turn into fans because that’s what they really are. So it’s just one big party.

You mentioned the New Orleans acts on the first Jam Cruise. How did you guys evolve from headliners like the Disco Biscuits or STS9 to three New Orleans headliners in Trombone Shorty, Dr. John and Galactic?

Dr. John is one of the forefathers of the New Orleans music scene, and every year we seem to be more connected to New Orleans. We can’t help it. It is just automatic. We just continue to be drawn to the spirit of New Orleans, and Dr. John is someone who everybody looks up to. Especially the musicians. We’ve never had him on board, so we didn’t even know that it would be possible. But we went after it and he was into it, which is a huge testament to our event.

We’ve had Trombone Shorty on two other times. This is his third time coming on board. When we first had him, not many people knew who he was. And now, he is the official closer of the Fairgrounds during Jazz Fest. But he still wants to come back on board! That, again, is another testament to who we are and what we do. I feel like both Dr. John and Trombone Shorty believe in our concept. That’s putting a lot of trust into our event.

And then Galactic. Galactic–I joke with them that they’re our resident house band. Their shows continue to blow all of our minds. You would think that, after thirteen cruises–fourteen being the upcoming one–that someone might get tired of a certain band. But they just continue to put out the best that they possibly can. What’s so cool, is that they utilize the artists that are on board for sit-ins and it just takes their shows up to a whole new level.

The musicians associate Jam Cruise with Jazz Fest now. That’s coming out of their mouths. And it’s not just Ivan. Ask any of the New Orleans musicians that come on board Jam Cruise. They all see the connection.

There’s also a bit of a Mardi Gras/Carnival vibe going on as well with all the costumes and the theme nights.  

We have theme nights on Jam Cruise. We have themes on three nights out of the five. So we have official theme nights. Jam Cruisers like to dress up in costumes so much, that the other two nights that we don’t have official theme nights, they have created unofficial theme nights. So on board Jam Cruise, people are in costume five nights out of our five night cruise. I think of Mardi Gras when I see how this trend has just flourished on board. Mardi Gras is all about celebration and dressing up and extravagance and costume. There is a true history when it comes to Mardi Gras and New Orleans, and it has become a part of the Jam Cruise history to have everybody in costume. It’s just a part of it. It’s part of the party. It’s part of the culture of Jam Cruise.

Jam Cruise 14 will take place January 6-11. A limited number of cabins on the boat are still available.