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Ooowee, ooowee, baby, won't you let me take you on a jazz cruise?

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 27, 2009 - The "themed cruise" is ubiquitous these days.

You can find cruises focusing on sports such as baseball -- with hall of fame players mingling with passengers -- to golf cruises featuring stops at famous courses and even a NASCAR cruise complete with race car drivers.

Or you can cruise while enjoying your favorite hobbies and crafts, gourmet food and wine. There's even a cruise for chocolate lovers and another for extremely dedicated Star Trek fans.

And don't forget cruises specializing in music, such as the blues and even jazz. 

Jazz Cruises, on Bemiston in the heart of Clayton, holds the honor of creating the first full-boat charter dedicated to music. Back in 2001, Anita E. Berry decided it was time to start her own Jazz Cruise charters. With the help of her sons Michael, Richard and Robert Lazaroff, she has turned that initial cruise into a full-time business that books annual straight-ahead and smooth jazz cruises -- primarily in the Caribbean -- that sell out every year to 1,800-plus passengers.

Berry recently celebrated her 80th birthday and took some time at her Jazz Cruises office to look back on her involvement with travel and jazz over the years.

"I actually went on my first jazz cruise in 1957," she recalls. "I was already a travel agent and loved the music, so it was an attractive combination. But not everyone on the boat was a jazz fan since the cruise was also open to the general public. And after that first cruise, I really didn't hear about anymore jazz cruises until 1983."

Berry was in Florida that year having dinner with old friend and legendary jazz pianist Eddie Higgins, and he told her about a jazz cruise he had played for Norwegian Cruise Lines.

"Eddie said that cruise on the S.S. Norway was one of the greatest gigs he had ever played," she says. "Even though I was a travel agent and a jazz fan, I told him I'd never heard about it. He replied that evidently not many people did because practically no one was there in the audience for the cruise. When I found out Norwegian was going to try a jazz cruise again the following year, I decided to get involved."

Berry knew many of the musicians booked for the '84 Norwegian cruise and began encouraging them to get their own fans to attend. That 1984 jazz cruise had a much better attendance, and Berry became more involved with the Norwegian Line's annual cruise, eventually becoming the person who booked the most people on the cruise every year.

Berry then was asked to help book and produce the S.S. Norway's annual jazz cruise. She called on longtime friend and booking agent Cherrie Sheets to help line up musicians. And thanks to friends and legendary musicians Clark Terry and Joe Williams, attendance grew.

But despite the growing popularity, there were conflicts between those on the cruise strictly for jazz and those who just wanted to cruise.

"Since it was not a full-boat charter, we jazz fans had to share the boat with other passengers," says Berry. "As a result, Norwegian got complaints from other passengers who didn't like the music. Eventually in 1999, Norwegian decided that booking jazz was not worth all the work involved. I hated to see it stop, so I thought and thought. I already had a list of about 1,000 names I was selling the cruise to every year, and I found out that the smallest boat in the Holland America line could hold 1,245 passengers. Surely I could find another 245 people to go on a jazz cruise! So I made the decision to book a full-boat charter jazz cruise for 2001."

Berry went on the final Norwegian jazz cruise in 2000 and announced her plans for a full-boat jazz cruise charter the following year.

"I got up in front of everyone and told them they had to back me to make the jazz cruise bigger and better. I also told them my sons were going to kill me unless I could make this a success! And, by God, they did! We filled that Holland America ship in 2001, and we've been chartering bigger and bigger ships every year!"

Berry's sons had good reason to be concerned. Chartering an entire ocean liner for a week involves an investment of well over a million dollars -- and there is no way to cancel once you've reserved the full ship.

"When we found out what mom wanted to do," comments Michael Lazaroff, a former attorney who's now executive director of Jazz Cruises, "we decided we really needed to find out what she was getting into. But as we found out more, it began to seem like it could work. One of my brothers is a doctor, and the other is in real estate. So I decided to try and step in to help mom. It turned out to be exactly what I wanted to do -- and I've been doing it ever since."

Jazz Cruises now books two jazz cruises that generally sell out every year. In addition to the cruise with straight-ahead jazz that sails Nov. 8-15 this year, a smooth jazz cruise, which sails from Jan. 17-24, 2010, has already sold out. In 2011, back-to-back smooth jazz cruises have already been scheduled, and bookings are brisk for both.

For Berry, the original jazz cruise remains her focus and with good reason.

"It's been such a wonderful experience for me on these jazz cruises," she states. "We had Henry Mancini on the cruise for three years before he passed away, and he said it best: 'What could you possibly want from a vacation more than what's here? Great music, great food, and you don't have to drive home after!' And it's certainly something I think is true. Where else can you find people you have everything in common with?"

This year's jazz cruise features a few special elements connected to Berry's 80th birthday. ("That was certainly not my idea, believe me," she interjects.) The musical attraction for her birthday celebration will be her "Birthday Big Band," with Freddie Cole, Ann Hampton Calloway, Johnny Mandel and Ken Peplowski as leaders -- backed by great musicians such as Wycliffe Gordon, Terell Stafford and Butch Miles.

"It's going to be fun for the passengers, the musicians, the crew, and for me and everyone on our staff," concludes Berry. "But it always is!"  

Terry Perkins, a freelance writer in St. Louis, has long covered jazz and the local music scene. 

Terry Perkins is a freelance writer based in St. Louis. He has written for the St. Louis Beacon since 2009. Terry's other writing credits in St. Louis include: the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the St. Louis American, the Riverfront Times, and St. Louis magazine. Nationally, Terry writes for DownBeat magazine, OxfordAmerican.org and RollingStone.com, among others.