`SOUNDING the high seas'' took on new meaning in 1983, when the SS Norway, flagship of the Norwegian Caribbean Lines, added a jazz cruise as a one-week experiment. Jazz proved popular enough to win a place among competing themes, and Norwegian Caribbean is now preparing for its fourth annual ``Floating Jazz Festival,'' to take place during the cruises of Oct. 11-18 and 18-25.
A trip on the last of the 1985 jazz cruises suggests that jazz, America's gift to world music, may be an ideal theme for the competitive cruise industry. The Norway, at least, has learned how to offer club and concert performances that complement the basic cruise experience. It wraps jazz around the regular schedule of ports of call and shipboard activities so as not to infringe upon the nonfan.
No matter how many name musicians a ship carries (and jazz cruises tend to operate with a number each week), or what the theme, the cruise remains the thing -- especially on the Norway, the world's largest cruise ship (formerly the SS France). One of jazz's particular strengths as a theme is that the best of it tends to be played in the evening, when other ships are repeating a single production of Broadway proportions in their theaters and shuffling anonymous small combos and dance bands among their nightclubs.
A respectable amount of jazz activity takes place on the Norway during daylight hours, including occasional concerts, open rehearsals, and ``meet the stars'' interview sessions, with the ever-present jazz videos on the ship's closed-circuit television system.
After dark, both the Club Internationale, an elegant room featuring high ceilings and Viking statuary, and the larger and more casual Checkers Cabaret have two bands alternating each evening from 9 until 1 a.m. (and later when the spirit is willing).
In addition, on four of the seven nights at sea, the Saga Theatre presents more-formal concerts. Listeners (as well as several of the musicians) were thus able to roam the decks and sample the competing performances, or to establish themselves as regulars in one of the rooms.
The musicians have obviously been encouraged to accommodate listeners, who freely collect autographs, photograph with flash and strobe during performances, and even tape the sessions. This allows especially rabid fans to swap tapes with friends and spend spare moments listening to sets they've missed.
The music played on a jazz cruise is fairly conservative, leaning heavily toward styles established before 1960. Jamming is encouraged, and many musicians spend their breaks sitting in with other groups.
Last year, it became fairly common to see Gerry Mulligan strolling the deck with his baritone sax, or Phil Wilson with his trombone. Those born too late to have experienced this kind of concentrated action and collective spirit on Manhattan's 52nd Street in the '40s are unlikely to encounter a closer facsimile.
This year, producers Hank O'Neal and Shelley Shier are once again building each jazz cruise around four headliners, with the emphasis on vocals and the big-band sound. Cab Calloway, Woody Herman, and Anita O'Day are featured on the Oct. 11 sailing; Dizzy Gillespie, Milt Jackson, and Buddy Rich on the sailing of Oct. 18. The lone headliner to repeat is Joe Williams.
The supporting cast of soloists, rhythm players, and singers remains constant and includes the likes of brass players Ruby Braff, Sweets Edison, Clark Terry, and Warren Vache; pianists Dick Hyman, Makoto Ozone, and Norman Simmons; bassists Major Holley and Steve Swallow; drummers Jake Hanna and Mel Lewis; guitarist Tal Farlow; vibist Gary Burton; and vocalist Maxine Sullivan. Other jazz artists on board will include Al Cohn, Scott Hamilton, Flip Phillips, and Buddy Tate.
A particular treat will be the appearance on both cruises of pianist Mel Powell, who joined Benny Goodman's band while still a teen-ager and has spent most of the past three decades as a university professor and dean.
Passengers will also have the opportunity to form groups for the first time; they are not allowed to sit in with the pros.
All this jazz is in addition to the Norway's regular activities.
This year, the ship will stop in Nassau and a private island in the Bahamas; St. Thomas; and, for the first time, St. Maarten. The stop in St. Maarten is on the Dutch side of the island, since the terms of sale prohibit the former SS France from returning to French soil.