When Jon England cruised aboard the American Harmony in December 2019, he had no idea that would be his last voyage for 16 months. As a popular cruise entertainer, Jon already had his full year’s schedule for 2020 cruises.
Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
Suddenly, that wonderful American Cruise Lines trip between New Orleans and Memphis would be Jon’s unexpected final one until May 2021.
This Friday, May 7, Jon will be headed back to Memphis for his first cruise since the pandemic. For three weeks, he will entertain on ACL’s new American Jazz. Then it is on to other cruise gigs.
“I am absolutely stoked,” Jon says. “They have a brand new white baby-grand electronic/digital piano with Yamaha concert sounds samples I can’t wait to hear/play.”
What he missed most when cruises were cancelled, Jon says, was “the joy of a responsive audience, feedback, requests for favorites and seeing the ever-changing sights along the country’s remarkable waterscapes.”
He also missed “the joy of working as a team with the onboard personnel to create once-in-a-lifetime experiences for guests. It’s a genuine privilege to be in such a gifted position.”
Now in its inaugural sailings, the American Jazz has 99 guestrooms with a capacity for 190 passengers. With contemporary styling and modern amenities, American Jazz boasts a gorgeous glass atrium and private balconies in all its spacious staterooms.
Musical pursuits during shutdown
Of course, Jon has not been idle during the cruise shutdown. Life without music is just not an option. He produced three half-hour Public Television Specials and created numerous new YouTube upload experiences for his 22,000 subscribers who this year pushed his viewership to over 10,000,000 views.
“And that’s not counting the 300 fan-channels who aggregate my videos into their own personalized playlists,” Jon says. “Their individual appreciations, commentaries and music-related stories make me feel like an international superstar.”
Mastering the fine-technical art of Zoom/virtual broadcasts, Jon undertook about two dozen concert shows to sequestered environments around the country, taking up the slack where venues had been forced to restrict in-person events.
“I took the inspiration from Liberace’s intimate Piano Show T. V. studio setting and devised a self-operated, multi-camera production where I’d broadcast a full, live, hour-long presentation drawing upon my cruise-line repertoire of shows,” Jon says, noting that he has won “The Las Vegas Liberace Showmanship Prize.”
While the majority of audience members appreciated the virtual performance format, Jon says, “the absence of an immediate human response to each tune did present its own challenges, yet the joy that music brings –even in this distanced way, was clearly evident on the myriad screens used by viewers during the broadcast.
“For me,” Jon says, “it has opened up a whole world of musical connectivity.”
Creating new cruise shows
Jon also created two dozen completely new orchestrations for his cruise shows, including Herb Alpert, Queen, Judy Garland, Peter Frampton, Phil Collins, Al Hirt, Strauss and Tchaikovsky. “All to offer the widest range of musical surprises aboard this 2021 season,” he says.
In early June, Jon will travel to Ketchikan to begin a 10-day sojourn concluding in Juneau where the seven-day Alaskan adventure aboard the American Constellation begins for two months. Then, on August 26, Jon will be aboard the inaugural sailing for the new American Melody where he will entertain for the remainder of the 2021 cruise season.
“Likely including the very special holiday cruises where the vessels are decked out beyond imagination and individualized seasonal experiences are expertly curated for all those aboard,” he says.
Although he is approached by other cruise lines keen for his “Velvet Piano” touch, Jon says that American Cruise Lines keeps asking him back and he keeps returning.
Cruising on America’s rivers and waterways “has been one of the defining joys of my traveling life,” Jon says. “The minute-to-minute changes before your eyes. Glorious landscapes constantly evolving. The every-moving mystery of water in motion. The play of light dependent on time of day. The always illuminating interaction with guests and fellow cruise-line workers. It’s like living in a movie, really.”
From England to America
Growing up near Dorchester in England, Jon was the grandson of a vaudeville pianist. “I guess I got it from my grandmother,” he says. “There were three pianos in our home and I can’t remember when I didn’t play.”
When he was 19 years old, Jon was given a career boost by his father. “My dad submitted a tape of me playing to Cunard and told them, ‘If you are ever looking for a piano player, my son is a great one.’”
Two weeks later, Jon got a call from Cunard. That was back in the early 1980s. “And I’ve been doing it ever since.”
In fact, Jon has sailed around the world five times and entertained on most cruise lines. Each cruise, he is happy to see many repeat travelers. “ACL have among the very highest return-guest ratio so familiar faces are quite a common sight,” Jon says. “New friends become old friends with surprising speed.”
When he’s not performing on land or sea, Jon lives in Connecticut with his wife Margaret and daughter Lilia. Jon moved to America in 2000 but still has an open door to visit his childhood home.
“I have one sister who still lives in the old home place in England so I can go back and visit there,” he says.
As for how his life and career have evolved, Jon says it is the best of all worlds.
“I grew up by the sea and I grew up with music so I have the sea and music in my soul,” he says. “This is the perfect job for me. I love what I’m doing.”
You can see much more of Jon England on his YouTube page
Cover photo American Jazz, courtesy American Cruise Lines