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  • Writer's pictureJessika Brust

Superior Genetics

Updated: Mar 14, 2020

Sailing east to cross an ocean is miserable: each day, you lose one hour as you enter a new time zone. In crossing the Pacific, the largest body of water on Earth, this stretch of 23 hour days lasts a week or more. For the first two days, you feel relatively normal, but on the third day it hits. ‘Shiplag’ is worse than jetlag – and when it kicks in, you no longer have any concept of time or space. Guests and crew alike stagger around the ship, listless and numb, and it takes about a week to recover circadian rhythms even after eastward sailing has ceased.

Sailing west, however, is an invigorating, restful experience. As you enter each new time zone, you gain an hour, and you feel rejuvenated! And energized! Twenty-five hour days are so wonderful, you wonder why the world hasn’t decided to spin at that speed. To be blessed with 25 hours a day for a full week while crossing the Pacific makes you feel like you're developing superpowers.

Unfortunately, we were sailing east this time: French Polynesia to Pitcairn Island, Easter Island, Robinson Crusoe Island, then finally to Valparaiso, Chile, on the coast of South America. That voyage took well over a week, and before anchoring off the coast of Easter Island, all on board were experiencing shiplag pains.

When voyages are particularly long, many cruise lines bring in guest entertainers to provide travelers with more variety. When they were on board, guest 'ents' facilitated the happiest times I spent at sea. They made my life as a production vocalist more pleasant, since they were a fresh mind to talk to, untainted by too much time spent trapped on a ship. They were still connected to the outside world, and knew what was current and relevant. They mentored me in growing as a musician and gaining smarts on the business side of the industry. Always intelligent, considerably successful, and usually hungry to socialize with people cut from the same cloth as them – especially after being surrounded by your average cruisers – guest ents permitted my company and seemed to enjoy it, and were happy to let me pick their brains. Through their generosity, I gained invaluable insights into possibilities for my future that I never could’ve gained anywhere else.

Aboard this voyage, we had stride pianist, jazz vocalist, and NPR radio personality Judy Carmichael. On a previous voyage, she had adopted us live-in artists as her nieces and nephews, and had been generous with her knowledge of repertoire, constructive advice, and her stories: of meeting jazz greats, interviewing celebrities, and growing up as a petite blonde in the music world, where she had to fight for her peers and her audiences to acknowledge her credibility, just because she was a woman.

There was a new band working on board this contract, or at least new to Judy. Getting musicians on cruise ships “is like a box of chocolates: you never know what you’re gonna get.” Guest ents are granted one rehearsal with the band, and then perform their show later that night. Language and cultural barriers between guest ents and 'musos' are very prevalent, but not insurmountable; yet sometimes one doesn’t have the luxury of time to figure out the in’s and out’s of getting the best from your players. As the person who had been aboard that ship the longest (no lie, I still hold the record for being on board 16 straight months), and as the person who collaborated the most with the musos, I found myself to be in a useful position. I was able to assist Judy in translating what the musos needed to hear from her, to give her that swing feel that would land her music into the audience’s hearts. As a result, while we were confined for days on end on that 681 person maximum ship, we ended up being survival buddies.

Through the large swells; between encounters with guests who were becoming increasingly demanding and aggressive with cabin fever; around the tempers flaring among the crew; we found we could vent to each other. She’d sneak me into her cabin, (Hey, it had a window and a couch! Can you blame me? My cabin had no such comforts.) and we talked about being the only girl in most professional situations in an industry consumed by men, and she recommended literature that showed facts and statistics of women pushing forward in their careers to close the gender gap. Then she shared with me her own excitement about writing a book to share her personal experiences.

One day we rendezvoused for lunch, and she evidently had just broken free from an irritating encounter with a guest, and she exclaimed upon seeing me, “Jessika. Why must a woman’s worth be measured by her marital status?! Why is a woman regarded as a waste if she doesn’t have children?!”

I wasn’t totally prepared for things to escalate that quickly, but I couldn’t believe this woman stood before me in frustration and pain, going through the same bullshit I’ve been going through my entire life. Hadn’t she proven herself already? Immaculate musicianship, a discography longer than my fiddle bow, international gigs year round, critically acclaimed and praised by Count Basie himself, writer and host of her own radio show Jazz Inspired which has aired hundreds of broadcasts interviewing top name celebrities – that list doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of her achievements. On top of that, she’s wildly intelligent, articulate, witty, healthy, fit, glamorous, approachable, fashionable, confident, charismatic, feminine, sexy, and powerful. Is society really going to detract from her worth because she was single and had never chosen to be a mother? I realized I had never asked her any of those questions. That information didn’t influence me one way or the other…and maybe that’s why she liked my company. This brilliant woman, who had accomplished so much and enriched the world with her genius, drive, and talent; who redefined what success meant for a woman in jazz, or for anyone in jazz for that matter – this woman was still being told by strangers that she’d be happier if she had a husband and kids?

I wish I knew what to say to make the situation better. All I could do was shake my head.

“Do you get that treatment too?” she demanded.


“Why is it still that way!?”

After a sigh, I figured it out. “Well Judy…it must be because we have superior genetics.” I grinned and shrugged.

Her mouth fell agape, and she sized me up as if for the first time. Then she cracked her wide signature smile and chuckled.

“You know what, you’re right!” She threw her head back and all out laughed. “I’m going to use that quote in my book!”

Me? Quoted in her book? A little unknown, pipsqueak singer on a cruise ship, quoted in the legendary Judy Carmichael’s book? Surely the editor would cut it out. But wow…quoted in her book, as a fellow woman warrior marching forth to free womankind from the shackles of culturally defined femininity while being joyfully authentic to who we were born to be! I’d better live up to that legacy.

From that day on, I redefined professional success as being interviewed on Jazz Inspired by Judy Carmichael.

To follow Judy's performance and NPR career, click here.

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