Imagine the band aboard the Alcoa Cruise Line, 3 days south of New Orleans, playing to a packed outdoor dance floor as they steamed across the Caribbean Sea in the mid 1950s. Drinks in hand, people lounging by the pool, the bar tender shaking a mai tai while the last of the baked alaska is being cleaned from the late diners’ tables... The 1950's was an exceptionally exciting decade of popular music - especially that based in New Orleans, Latin America and the Caribbean. Louis Armstrong and the Allstars have formed as a 7-piece ensemble, touring internationally, making movies, all featuring the sound of traditional New Orleans improvised music. The golden age of aviation has opened Havana as a wealthy getaway where one can weekend to hear salsa music, Nat King Cole, drink daiquiris, gamble and be back in the office by Monday. Harry Belafonte is one of the biggest stars in the US, covering traditional calypsos from Trinidad, while cha cha and exotica are catapulting across the country with the rise of tiki bars and faux Polynesian restaurants and watering holes. But if you’re stuck at home, you can at least hear Desi Arnaz every week on CBS.
Beguine music of the French Caribbean is having a renaissance in Martinique, Guadeloupe and Paris, with clarinets and trombones collectively improvising, much in the style of New Orleans music, but with Caribbean rhythms and melodies. Meanwhile, New Orleans record labels Specialty, J & M, Imperial and others are churning out hit after hit of New Orleans R&B singles from Fats Domino, Dave Bartholomew, Smiley Lewis, Little Richard, Art Neville, Huey Piano Smith and more. The musicians making these sides are, in many cases, the same musicians playing traditional jazz jobs on Bourbon St, and jamming after hours at the soon to be christened Preservation Hall.
The Alcoa cruise ships steamed from New Orleans to the Dominican Republic, French Caribbean, Mexico, Trinidad, Venezuela and Jamaica from 1949-1959. Their colorful print advertisements, pulling photographs from the program of the inaugural Carifesta, held in Puerto Rico 1952, promise calypso singers from Trinidad, Haitian dancers and drummers, and Martiniquais beguine ensembles both in port excursions, and on the wooden dance floor onboard as they cruised under the stars. Alcoa even served as a record label, offering the sounds of calypso, steel pan, merengue and more on mail order 45 rpm records, or right from the gift shop on board. It was (and remains!) customary for steamships to feature a band of New Orleans musicians, entertaining for dancers, providing music for dinner, and cutting loose as the night wears on. I like to imagine a young band aboard the Alcoa steamships, comfortable playing traditional jazz and New Orleans R&B, but incorporating local musicians while in port, blending calypso, beguine, and mazurkas, with their New Orleans sensibilities. This album will feature the sounds likely heard on a 13 day excursion from New Orleans through the Caribbean on the Alcoa Clipper, Corsair, and Cavalier.