Farewell Music for the QE2

Farewell Music for the QE2

The Queen Elizabeth 2’s final round-the-world cruise was a hot ticket, and an expensive one. But two alumni actually made money aboard the storied ocean liner and did it with a song in their hearts. Stew Bystrzycki (Knoxville ’04) and Brad Martin (Knoxville ’91) were mainstays of the Queen’s Room Dance Band–Bystrzycki as the bandleader and Martin as drummer. Both studied in the studio music and jazz concentration in the School of Music in the College of Arts and Sciences.

The 40-year-old QE2 will be retired in November in Dubai, where she will become a floating five-star hotel and tourist attraction off the island of Palm Jumeriah. Her last circumnavigation of the globe in early 2008 featured such exotic ports of call as Easter Island and Tasmania.

Martin, who lives in Sevierville, Tennessee, boarded in Chile to join the band.

“I joined the ship a month into the world cruise. Ports of call included Easter Island, Tonga, Tahiti, New Zealand, Aus­tralia, Tasmania, Vietnam, Singapore, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Osaka, Honolulu, Maui, LA, Acapulco, the Panama Canal, Montego Bay, Ft. Lauderdale, New York, and finally Southampton [QE2’s home port].”

Brad MartinMartin says his favorite port was Sydney, Australia.

“Floating into Sydney harbor was such an exciting thing to see as the sun came up. It has always been a dream [of mine] to visit the ‘land down under.’ Sydney has to be one of the most beautiful cities there is.”

The Sydney experience was made more memorable with a “meeting of the Queens,” as the Cunard Line’s newest liner, Queen Victoria, rendezvoused in Sydney harbor with the QE2. The two liners began their 2008 world cruises–the Queen Victoria’s first and the QE2’s last–with a tandem trans-Atlantic crossing from Southampton to New York in January.

The QE2 Queen’s Room, from which the band takes its name, is a ballroom dancing venue. A typical workday for the band members included one 45-minute dance set and two 1-hour dance sets.

“These sets include different dance styles, such as the waltz, fox trot, quickstep, rumba, cha-cha, samba, and a few other styles,” Bystrzycki says.

Martin says occasional jazz sets are scheduled in the middle of the day “as special treats for the passengers–and the band!”

Despite the many exciting ports, working on a ship can become humdrum, Martin says.

“When you’re not on duty, activities are pretty limited. You can sleep, eat, work out (which I did), sunbathe (that too), read, or practice (if you can find an area that allows you to do so). I have completed several contracts in the cruise industry since 1998, so I’ve found creative ways to spend my time while onboard and off duty.”

Bystrzycki agrees life aboard ship has its pluses and minuses.

“My position onboard the ship is simply ‘musician,’ but I’m considered a crew member. I have emergency duties and have to follow all the ship’s rules like every other crew member.” Crew members get room and board–usually a small cabin shared with a roommate and basic meals. As bandleader, Bystrzycki says he received the perk of a private room. “All in all I love my job,” he says. “There is much more good than bad.”

Stew BystrzyckiMartin agrees. “After a while on the ship, it can turn into ‘just a job,'” he says. “But, at the end of the day, getting to an amazing place like Sydney or Hawaii makes the job a little special — not to mention the actual job’s being to play music!”

Both of the UT alumni have “cruised” through at least part of their careers. For Martin, who’s from Pulaski, Tennessee, the QE2 global voyage was his sixth cruise ship contract “and probably my favorite, considering some of the amazing ports of call.” Most of his other contracts have been cruising the Caribbean and Alaska.

He also makes music when he’s not afloat: he is the bandleader and drummer for the Dreamland Drive-In show at Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, and also teaches at Sevier County High School. Bystrzycki, a Greensboro, North Carolina, native, worked his first contract for Celebrity Cruises in July of 2004, just after graduating with his trombone major.

“I did two contracts on Celebrity and three contracts with Princess Cruises. I took a break from the ships in 2006 and moved to Wilmington, North Carolina, to live with my two brothers. In Wilmington I worked a couple of odd jobs and also performed with the Wilmington Symphony Orchestra.” When his agent asked him if he wanted to join the QE2 for its 2007 world cruise–the liner’s 25th global voyage–“the offer was too good to refuse, so I went back to sea in January 2007. You can’t beat getting paid to travel.

“The QE2 has something special about it,” he says. “Even though it’s smaller and older than a lot of ships, it has a nice family atmosphere.”

The fabled ship has traveled more than 5.5 million miles as the longest-serving vessel in the Cunard Line’s history. She still is recognized as the world’s fastest ocean liner and arguably the most famous. Cunard is building another Queen Elizabeth, scheduled for delivery in 2010.

QE2 passengers have included Queen Elizabeth II, Nelson Mandela, and Paul McCartney. The ship’s mystique draws many voyagers to travel on the QE2 again and again. Crew members also tend to stick with the legendary liner. “Some crew members have worked on the ship twenty years or more,” Bystrzycki says. “They just can’t walk away.”

Though he’s been part of the crew only a couple of years, he feels part of the QE2 family, as well. He says he will be with the ship “until the end.”