In a regular year, cruise ships bound for Alaska sail past the town of Alert Bay almost daily in the summer. And in a regular year Jerry Higginson, who lives in the small island community off the northern tip of Vancouver Island, would be playing trumpet for those cruise ships as they chug past.
It started over a decade ago, when Higginson was having a bad day. He was in his skiff, and decided to try to connect with cruise ship passengers to cheer himself up. At first he made some goofy gestures to a woman at the back of the boat, but then he remembered he had his trumpet on board. He always carries his trumpet.
“I pulled up ahead and played O Canada — it was the best I think I ever played it. The sound echoed back to me, and I’d never heard anything like it.”
But remember, Higginson was having a bad day, so when he finished the anthem and didn’t hear a peep from the people aboard, he hung his head.
“Then a roar just hit me — it was incredible the sound — all the people just cheering like crazy,” he says. “I was mesmerized.”
So he drove his boat up another quarter mile or so, cut the engine, and played The Star Spangled Banner as the cruise ship rolled past again. He said the crowd cheered even louder, since that’s where many of the ship’s passengers were from.
That was it, he was hooked. And ever since he’s been known as the Alert Bay Trumpeter, serenading cruise ships as they sail the Inside Passage between Seattle and Alaska.
Cruise ships were anchored for most of 2020, and through 2021 American ships haven’t been allowed to stop at Canadian ports. That means it’s been a year-and-a-half since the Alert Bay Trumpeter has performed, and Higginson says it’s left him feeling more than a little depleted.
“Playing for the hospitals and the cruise ships, that’s my fix. The crowd gives you so much love and appreciation, it just fills you full.”
It’s clear passengers love it too. In a blog post about her Alaska cruise, Cathryn Wellner writes, “His simple gesture was one of the highlights of the trip.” Once, Higginson noticed a woman all by herself on the balcony and shouted “This is for you in the pink!” before playing Somewhere My Love.
“She ran into her suite and then threw her panties at me,” he laughs.
His first performance was impromptu, but since then Higginson has studied ship schedules. The pilots who shepherd vessels safely through BC’s waters are all fans, and make P.A. announcements encouraging passengers to assemble on their balconies. They even set up a website to help Higginson collect tips, but he says he’s not much of a computer guy so it’s been hard to maintain. Plus, it’s not really about the money. He says the trumpet unites both him and the crowd.
“It’s not something I’M doing, it’s US.”
Have trumpet, will travel
Higginson says he learned to play in Grade 8 band, but a year after he picked up the trumpet, he moved to a new town without a band teacher. Then he moved again, to a town that didn’t have a band but did have a hockey team. He started playing his trumpet at games.
“If the team was losing they’d say ‘Get that trumpet going,’ and then they’d start banging in the goals. You could see the adrenaline in their legs as the trumpet got everyone screaming at the top of their lungs.”
That’s where I first met Jerry Higginson — in a hockey arena — when I played a women’s recreational tournament in Port McNeill with his niece. He played 3 Blind Mice when the referees called a penalty, and When the Saints Go Marching In when we scored.
He’s played at Vancouver Canucks games, and during a Canada-Russia Summit Series game in the mid-’70s. If he plays at a minor hockey tournament, the refs often make up rules to limit his influence on the game.
“They said I could only play after goals, but then they scored 17 goals,” he laughs.
Not the best, but certainly the loudest
When the cruise ships return, Higginson will be ready. He keeps up his chops playing with a few bands in town, and has had major dental work done — one of the keys to a loud and consistent sound.
“I’m not the best trumpeter in the world, but certainly the loudest,” he says, musing that his gift for uniting a crowd may come from his ancestors, who were chiefs in Bella Bella and the Comox Valley. His cousin is acclaimed artist Beau Dick.
For a chance at hearing him play, book a cruise to Alaska for 2022, or drive five hours north of Victoria, hop the ferry to Alert Bay, and keep your ears open for the sound of a trumpet.
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