There has never been a sailing of The Jazz Cruise without Houston Person. Even I, Entertainment Cruise Productions Executive Director Michael Lazaroff, had to miss one sailing, but not Houston. As such, he is the patriarch of the program and was a key person in the transition from Norwegian Cruise Line’s Floating Jazz Festival to The Jazz Cruise.
Houston worked together with my mother, Anita E. Berry, to secure talent and to program events. Their friendship and collegiality grew over the years to the point that they called each other at least monthly, exchanged birthday and Christmas gifts, and looked after each other through thick and thin. As I have shared before, Houston flew to St. Louis to help us celebrate Anita’s 90th birthday. He and Freddy Cole performed for her and a hundred of her closest friends and family. This would be the last jazz show that Anita would attend and one of the last shows that featured Freddy.
There was a bond among the three of them that was wonderful to watch. They sat at the venue both before and after the show for a long time. Though the average age of the three of them was 90+, they were animated and engaged as if they were high school buddies. Sadly, Anita did not remember much of the event the next day, but for a few hours, thanks primarily to Houston, she had a great time.
Houston is a master player. The only notes that come from his horn are the ones that matter. When you are in the audience you are engaged fully, waiting with great anticipation as to where Houston will take you next. His manner of playing is deliberate, purposeful and beautiful. Perhaps best known for his longtime association with Etta Jones, Houston has recorded more than 75 albums as a leader and many more with others.
To put a fine point on it, he is to The Jazz Cruise what Hank Aaron was to baseball. Houston embodies the style, professionalism and purpose of The Jazz Cruise.
Recently, Michael Lazaroff, our Executive Director, had the opportunity to pose some questions to Houston about music, life and his important place in the history of our cruise programs.
Lazaroff: Houston, though we speak on the phone often, it has been over a year since we have seen each other. How have you been during this difficult period?
Houston: I’m getting along fine. Everything is going alright, though I do miss my wife very much. I’ve just been practicing, getting some rest, and anticipating the cruise.
Lazaroff: My mother, Anita, adored you. How did that amazing relationship come to be?
Houston: I guess it just naturally evolved. We cared about each other and we were very loyal to one another. We had a mutual respect and a very trusting friendship. Over the years, we developed that relationship, and it was great for both of us. Man, I miss her very much. She was responsible for a lot of the success that I’ve been having and she stuck with me through thick and thin. Anita also made sure I had exposure on the cruises, while I made sure I did her proud. Overall, we just cared about each other.
Lazaroff: You have performed with most of the top players in the world. Living or passed, who would be your all-star band? You on tenor of course, but we need someone on drums, bass, piano, and trumpet.
Houston: Well, you’re not going to get it (haha), and here’s what I’m saying. I’ve had an opportunity to play with a lot of people, and who I’ve wanted to play with. Most of the rhythm sections I’ve used before have all been dream sessions. But if I could name someone I haven’t recorded with that I would love to record with, I would start out with John Clayton. I’ve always wanted to record with him. And I would choose Monty Alexander or Shelly Berg on piano. Hmm, now for a drummer, I would really have liked to play with Art Blakey. I would have liked to have done something with Roy Hargrove as well. And lastly, on trumpet, I would definitely choose Wynton Marsalis. I will say, everyone I have played with was really special to me. However, there are still other people I dream of playing with that I haven’t had the opportunity to do so. But, I’d certainly get a dream quartet out of those guys.
Lazaroff: The Jazz Cruise has grown since 2001, both in terms of the number and scale of our musicians. Any thoughts about what those changes have meant to you?
Houston: I like the authenticity the cruise brings in presenting the full groups to perform. That’s been a key feature for me. But the biggest changes I’ve seen is The Jazz Cruise using more vocalists and more female musicians. Those are two of the things I particular like. You always listen to your clientele. That’s the main thing.
Lazaroff: I would be remiss if I did not ask about your special relationship with Etta Jones. How did that come about and what is your fondest memory of working with her?
Houston: Well, I met her at a jam session in Harlem at Wells. We basically liked each other from the start. After that, we were paired together in Washington D.C., where she lived. From then on, we were both together and that worked pretty well. Back in the day I had gigs that usually wanted a vocalist with the band and I would take her on those gigs. Some didn’t require a vocalist, but I wanted her with us nonetheless. And you know, she didn’t have a band in the beginning, so we formed a group, and it blossomed into a great 35 years. There were no problems, no attitude and no egos. Also, Etta went on a couple cruises with me. Every memory was a fond one, just good times.
Lazaroff: Final thought, if you were to advise folks thinking about sailing on one of our cruise programs, what would be the three reasons you would share with them to entice them to sail?
Houston: The first reason is the pocket book; it’s the best bargain imaginable. And what’s different and really good about this cruise is you get to see the groups. You will see me with my group as well as other musicians. For the most part they have the musicians playing with the group they came on with. They do have a jam session portion where they mix and match them though, which is also a good time. It’s a bargain! The second reason is you get a chance to mingle with the musicians. I mean, nobody’s going anywhere (haha). You see the artists and then you get a chance to chat with them. Oh, and then there’s the exciting ports and the exciting food! You can see the ports and still enjoy the amenities on the ship such as shows, games, and the casino. It’s a nice vacation all together rolled into one. It’s a ball! That’s what I tell people. But I think the biggest reason for me to sail is that the cruise really becomes your family. They supported me when my wife passed and that meant a lot to me. I mean, that is my family, really, because all of my jazz family is there. It truly is 7 days of magic.