June 14, 2024

Mark Vrabel and Tony Labarbera
The Smooth Jazz Cruise Cats
by Baldwin “Smitty” Smith

We spent a minute with what have to be two of the most passionate and enthusiastic promoters in the business. What gives them that distinction? They are spearheading the phenomenal All Star Smooth Jazz Cruise 2005. Join me as we talk to Mark Vrabel and Tony Labarbera.

Smitty: Hey Guys how are you?

Mark Vrabel (MV): I’m doing great! How are you Smitty?

Tony Labarbera (TL): Hi Smitty, I’m doing well, thank you, it’s great to talk with you.

Smitty: You guys have been all over the country the past few weeks promoting this smooth jazz cruise, and it sounds like it’s going to be a hit.

MV: It’s going to be a hit. With the artists that we have and the cruise being hosted by Rick Braun who is the ideal host for an experience like this, it is a hit. All we need is for the people to know what’s happening and it will be a great success, and we are very excited about it.

Smitty: Super! This isn’t the first cruise that you have been associated with is it?

TL: We were involved with Peter D’Attoma and the Warren Hill cruise briefly. After the first cruise we were working with both of them in different capacities at one point, and that didn’t work out the way we wanted it to.

Smitty: So why a jazz cruise, tell me a little bit of how this has developed between the two of you?

MV: Tony and I have been friends since we were kids. Tony has always been involved in music in one form or the other from the rock n roll side and things like that. Myself, personally, I am the one who introduced him to smooth jazz. As a fan, I think that it’s a format where the radio does not do the live shows justice. There is such a difference between what people hear on the radio when it’s a song that you like, as opposed to seeing the show live, and the kind of energy and the talent and the musicianship of all of the artists that make up this genre. It’s such a fantastic experience, and I think that when you combine that with a cruise and the ability to spend time, and hang with the artists and see these shows and jam sessions and everything that’s involved in it. For a person that’s a fan of this music, I don’t think there’s a better vacation that they could take than a smooth jazz cruise.

Smitty: I like that, that’s so cool! Tony, you mentioned that you are a fan of smooth jazz, how long have you been a fan?

TL: Actually I have been involved in concert production for approximately 25 years. And mark being the big smooth jazz fan, had some motives of his own when he brought me to the very first show that I saw, which was Mindi Abair’s very first headlining show in Milwaukee about two years ago. He had brought me to the concert with the agenda of wanting to start doing some concerts of our own in the Chicagoland area. So I’m sort of new to the genre, as Mark has been a fan for many years, I sort went through “smooth jazz 101” when we decided to pursue this.

Smitty: Tony, as a fan of rock n roll, what was going through your mind as you sat there for the first time at a smooth jazz show? And by the way, you couldn’t have picked a better show than Mindi’s.

TL: To echo what Mark had said earlier, the live performances do not mirror what you hear on the radio. I’ve been telling my friends often when they ask me “What are you doing in smooth jazz all of a sudden”, that it is pretty much the music of your life, you just don’t know it. When you are walking through the department store or the grocery store, it’s the background music of your life. The problem that we have as promoters is bringing excitement to the audience and let them get excited about the live shows. If you can get them to one show, I believe that you pretty much have them hooked. Because the translation between what they hear on the radio and what they see live just brings an excitement to the whole experience.

Smitty: Is that how you felt?

TL: Yes. It was much more exciting to me to see the show live. And I have found that to be true with each of the performers that we’ve gone out to see. Actually Mark had taken me to 3-4 different shows before springing the idea on me that he wanted to start promoting shows. Then he and his family went on the smooth jazz cruise and invited us to go along. I went to the cruise on about one week notice. We did it as sort of a honeymoon with my new wife and we had the smallest cabin on the ship. I’m pretty sure that it was a closet that they turn into a room. They could fit a bunk in there, and we didn’t spend a lot of time there, as we were at all of the shows and all over the place. I like to tell people at this point that on the first cruise I got the smallest cabin on the ship, on the next cruise we now own the ship.

Smitty: That’s what I’m talking about! Mark, when you think about what Tony just described, don’t you love that conversion factor?

MV: I do and it’s a funny story, but it’s totally true. Talk about from one extreme to another; this is a classic case of that.

TL: How the whole thing actually started, on the smooth jazz cruise, I thought that it was a good way to possibly bring some rock bands on and do a rock cruise. So I talked to Peter D’Attoma about it. We drove from Chicago to Florida for the cruise, so on the way home, a 20 hour trip, for 20 hours we did nothing but talk about how we would put a cruise together.

MV: And how we would do it differently and how we would do it better.

Smitty: I love it. I would love to have been a fly on the wall for that discussion.

MV: Tony’s wife was kind enough to take notes. We have a whole log of our 20 hour conversation of what we liked, what we didn’t like, and how we would change and improve things if we were to do it ourselves. And the very first thing that we needed to start with, and I think it is the major attraction to anybody that enjoys and understands this music, is the lineup. To really know who the top artists are within the smooth jazz genre, to have them on our list, Tony spent many months with phone calls to managers and agents, and being the super pest, doing everything that he could to make sure that we could sign up everybody that we wanted to be on this cruise. And that’s happen; we are really excited about this lineup.

TL: We also felt that we needed a host who was going to be much more personable with the audience and guests. That’s why we picked Rick Braun, because he is probably one of the most approachable of the artists out there. And he has the perfect personality to be a host for something like this.

MV: Regarding Rick, I think the whole mood of the cruise, just from the example of his talent, his musicianship, and how solid that is; yet there is the fun side. Anyone that has been to a show where Rick has performed knows that the music is fantastic and how much fun he puts into his show. That’s the message that I’m trying to get out there with the cruise; The music is there, the fun is there, there’s going to be nice warm weather, and a lot of fun beyond the music.

TL: You also have to have a host that the other artists respect. That was again, one of the main reasons why we approached Rick Braun first.

Smitty: Hold up, please allow me to back up, did you say that your wife took notes for the 20 hour trip home. I hope you know how valuable she is to you and this effort.

TL: Well both of our wives are working night and day to help us put this thing together, and they have been very patient with us running around the country. I was just on the Peter White Christmas tour for the last month. I was just looking at a map the other day and realized that I had gone from one coast to the other four times so far since September, promoting this at different festivals and doing the tour and other things. They put up with a lot of us being gone to promote this thing at this point.

MV: Without our wives and their patience, their understanding, and their help, this could not happen.

Smitty: That is totally cool man. I hope you both know how blessed and fortunate you are to have wives that support you to that degree. Give it up for Rachel and Nadia! I’m looking forward to your next trip to Houston.

MV: Oh we expect to be down in Houston very soon.

Smitty: Cool, we’ll have a good time I promise you. Tell me, with the majority a cruises leaving out of Florida, New Orleans, and California, why Galveston, Texas, how did you settle on this port for the All Star Smooth Jazz Cruise?

TL: One of the considerations for anything that we’ve done with the cruises….We did want to switch it up a little bit from what everybody else had been doing. Everyone has left from the Florida area; we wanted a different destination and a different point of embarkment. So we were looking where we could go. So were going to the Gulf Of Mexico, which is Belize, Cozumel, and Playa Del Carmen. When we were looking for a different point of origin, we checked several different sites, we talked to several chambers of commerce etc. and the people in Galveston were extremely enthusiastic about doing this. They love the idea of our pre-cruise festival; we’ve got a two day festival in Galveston. They pretty much rolled out the red carpet, they brought us out there and showed us all of their facilities which were pretty much brand new and top notch. They are really excited. To be honest with you, that’s something that we got from them that we would not have gotten from any of the other locations that we checked into. They’re sort of business as usual, where Galveston was excited and they’re going to try to make it very accommodating, and that’s something that our guest is going to remember and want to come back for.

Smitty: That’s interesting that you say that because actually, what you’re doing in launching this cruise from Galveston, Texas; this is something that has never been done, and quite frankly you’re making history and I hope that it’s history that will certainly repeat itself.

TL: Well that’s the plan. The people from Galveston chamber of commerce, the people from the Moody Gardens Resort have been so helpful in helping us put everything together, that I see us doing repeat business there.

MV: I think that anybody that has a tendency against Galveston has not spent a lot of time there recently, because we did. We spent a week there and had the Convention and Visitors Bureau people take us around town, and show us everything that’s there. And with what we have planned at the Moody Gardens Resort, between all of the attractions available, the smooth jazz cruisers and pre-show concerts that are going to be at the resort, it’s going to be fantastic and we could not have ask for anything more out of Galveston. It also gives us an opportunity to go to some ports of call that you may not have been able to go to from the other locations. That includes Belize, Cozumel, and Playa Del Carmen.

Smitty: Ah man.

MV: It was kind of a combination of things, but we’re real happy with this decision.

TL: Actually there was a different port that we were supposed to be on that we changed to Playa Del Carmen. So this is pretty much a custom cruise that you can’t get anywhere else, because even if you take this cruise without the music part of it, you would not be stopping in Playa Del Carmen.

Smitty: So you guys have really done a lot of homework, and you have so many features of this cruise that says that it truly is a vacation, and the music that comes with it, is just something that you don’t get everyday. So this is really a great cruise out of a nice location because I will tell you that the Moody Gardens Resort area is just fantastic. There’s so much to see with the award winning Tropical Rainforest, Aquarium, and so many other things to see and do. This is going to be a fun filled, jam packed, week of fun.

MV: I don’t know if my enthusiasm is coming through in my voice, but it is there and it is really strong. My input into this has been as much as coming from a fans perspective; knowing the music, understanding the music, seeing the live shows, etc. So I think it is really important to be able to set this up from what I think would be appreciated from a fans perspective, not necessarily just from the artists perspective, or from a business perspective, but what is it that would make this cruise better than anything else that has happen before. That is what was important to me and I think that we’ve been able to make that happen, and we’ve got a lot of surprises for people. I think that once this cruise is over, they’ll be back for our 2006 cruise and anything else that we do in the future because it is really important to us that everyone has a great time, and we are going to do everything that we can to make sure that that happens.

TL: One of the other important aspects of this is selecting the ship; The Elation really excited us because of two main reasons; the showroom is spectacular and one of the largest in the Carnival fleet. It also has the “Cole Porter” lounge which holds approx. 600 people that we will use for our jam sessions among other things. It’s absolutely beautiful and it has a jazz scene to it already. I think it plays very well to what we are trying to accomplish. We’re going to have shows in six different areas on the ship at some point during the week long cruise. We’ve got 50 different shows going on with 40 different musicians. So from a production standpoint, which is where I come from, we just thought that this ship (The Elation) lent itself well to producing the concerts.

MV: Also, what hasn’t gotten a lot of publicity to date is that in addition to all of the artists that everybody is familiar with, we are in the process of setting up talent for our “Rising Star” stage. We want to give the opportunity to some up and coming smooth jazz stars of tomorrow, to be exposed to our passengers and for the passengers to be able to see some of these future smooth jazz superstars. So another part of this whole thing that we are excited about is the “Rising Star” stage. I can’t give you any names yet.

Smitty: That’s cool. You know, I think this is great. You know why, you guys are true fans because what you are doing is what fans talk about doing all the time. This is what fans say that they would do if they would win the lottery, this is what fans say that they would do if they had the resources. After attending concerts or a festival, how often have you heard someone say “You know, I would love to organize a festival myself, or I would love to have a festival in my hometown.” And you cats are living a dream and you are sharing that dream with fans that have talked about doing something like this, such as giving up and coming musicians an opportunity of exposure. We get email from fans talking about different rising stars, saying; “They (promoters) really should invite this musician or that musician because they are really good”, or “I know he or she is not a headliner, but if they could just get a little festival exposure, I think that everyone will love them and want them back.” So this is just fantastic, I love your enthusiasm and passion for what you are doing. I think fans are going to embrace this because you are doing what they’ve dreamed and talked about doing for years.

TL: You know, there’s nothing stronger to us, than our line up. I think that makes the cruise. Looking at other options out there, nobody has our line up.

Smitty: I think you’re right, and I have an old saying that I have used for many years; “If you put the right people on stage, you’ll get the right people in the audience.”

TL: Right and you’ll have the right chemistry. That’s also something that we were looking at when we were approaching artists. We wanted artists that were going to be personable and approachable to the guest on the ship. We actually passed on a couple of artists that we thought may not be comfortable with being on all the time. Because when they get on the ship, the one thing that we are selling to everybody is access, they have their chance to be with these people for a week. They are going to be seen when they are eating, and moving about the ship, and so on.

Smitty: Yes, they will be seen when while they are eating, relaxing, and that’s cool.

MV: Now Smitty you are going to be with us?

Smitty: Of course!

MV: Ok I just want to make sure.

Smitty: You guys are going to be on my turf, I consider that a special invitation!

MV: Yes, very much so.

Smitty: Yes sir I will be there. Also, not only will the fans enjoy the lovely island of Galveston, but also the entire Houston area. If they want to spend a extra week or come in early, because there’s so much to see and do in this whole region of Texas.

MV: I’m going to use a line that I just can’t resist, and this goes well and we could make it the theme of the cruise if we want and that is; “They do everything big in Texas”

Smitty: You got it baby! You cats have come in and actually put your stamp on the saying that you just used Mark; that we do it big in Texas, and you’re coming in and doing it right. Because this is a big event, it’s totally cool.

TL: And even if we are Chicago Boys, we do have our cowboy hats.

Smitty: Yes. Now, you have a website where people can go and really get a strong flavor of what we’ve just talked about.

MV: The website is www.allstarcruise.com and once again we thought it was important to give people as much information as we could.

Smitty: And there’s some info there, that for sure.

MV: A lot of them know who the artists are and they can actually go there and buy their latest CD’s, although all of the merchandise will also be available on the ship during the cruise where they will be able to buy their CD’s and have them autographed by the artists. We also have information on there about the ports of call, the ship information, the deck plans, what the cabins look like, what’s going to be happening with the shows so that they get a concept of that. And in addition to all of the smooth jazz shows, on a normal cruise vacation there are comedy shows and some other kind of variety shows, and if we can incorporate any of the things that are already happening on that ship within our program, we will. Priority obviously being all of the smooth jazz music that we have to offer. But I think there will be some other entertainment options too.

TL: Plus we are going to have artist panels in a seminar type setting, with various artists answering questions from the fans, it will be a moderated forum where fans can ask questions and talk about things such as the state of the genre, sort of like a roundtable discussion. We are going to have a panel of industry professionals, management, record people, and promoters, and the artists are looking forward to this very much as well.

Smitty: That’s a fantastic idea. I was going to ask what makes this cruise different from all of the other jazz cruises, but we’ve answered that. I think you’ve answered that very well.

TL: I can answer that with one word, lineup.

Smitty: Yes, and your website is very informative.

MV: Please encourage everyone that wants to find out information to definitely visit us at www.allstarcruise.com where we have the booking information, there’s even a “Refer Your Friend” program. Because it’s always more fun to take a vacation when you can bring some friends along. So we really wanted the website to be as informative as possible, because I know from a personal experience how frustrating it can be when there’s something I’m interested in, and I can’t find out information about things. So we really wanted to make it as in depth as we possibly could.

TL: One of the other things that makes us different from the other jazz cruises, again I will answer with one word; Women. We’ve got Joyce Cooling and Mindi Abair. It’s not the Old Boys club. When we were filling out our line up, we were specifically looking to have some of the female musicians on there also. It was one of the things that was common on the other cruises that we’ve been a part of, that there were not any female musicians on there, so we went out and got two of the best.

Smitty: Yes you did, and I love them both (laughing)!

MV: We do too.

Smitty: I’m very close to both of them, and I love their vibe. It’s going to be very hard for me to miss this party.

TL: Cool, Mindi is my good luck charm. I said this on stage a couple of weeks ago; she was the very first smooth jazz show that I had ever seen, she was the very first smooth jazz concert that Mark and I ever promoted, as we promote concerts in the Chicagoland area also, she was on the first smooth jazz tour that I had the pleasure of being a part of after 20 years+ of touring with rock bands (laughing), and she’s on the very first cruise that we are promoting. So she has inadvertently and unknowingly become sort of a foundation of the different things that we are doing.

Smitty: Alright let’s give everyone the date of the cruise. I know that we’ve talked about it and it’s on your site, but let’s give everyone the dates.

MV: The dates of the cruise are; Sunday November 13, 2005 thru Sunday November 20, 2005, with our two day pre-cruise land based concerts on Friday and Saturday nights (November 11th & 12th) before the cruise. Friday night is Al Jarreau and Saturday night is Boney James, with a preview performance by all of the artists that are going to be on the cruise, in the Moody Gardens Convention (Center) Showroom.

Smitty: Yes, and that’s a gorgeous place. So the only thing missing here is everyone coming out and kickin and having a good time.

TL: Well it’s not missing so far, our sales have been very good. We started selling I think October 1st and we’re ahead of our projections right now. Once we get through Christmas things should start to explode.

Smitty: Yes it should because this is just incredible, how do you top this?

MV: We have our work cut out for us trying to top this for 2006.

TL: Preparations are already underway.

Smitty: I totally believe you two (laughing). Well Tony, Mark, this is just great. I can’t thank you enough for enthusiastically talking about this fantastic cruise. It is called the All Star Smooth Jazz Cruise 2005, and I love your slogan on your website; “Don’t be left on shore”.

MV: Smitty thanks for everything, we really enjoyed talking with you, we will see you soon in Houston and we will definitely see you on the cruise!

Smitty: You got it and big ups to you both.