Date Posted: 2020-07-11
by Paige VanVorst (from Sept. 2019 Issue Jazzology Newsletter)
Duke Heitger's been recording for GHB- Jazzology for twenty-five years now; we've featured him on eighteen CDs, but he's never been featured in the Jazzology Newsletter. Duke is a performer who always amazes me- he has complete control of his instrument and it's almost impossible for him to play routinely. He's a real professional who plays his best in all circumstances – no matter what band he plays in. Very much like his hero, Louis Armstrong, who always rose to any challenge.
Heitger was part of a very special group of players who contributed to a well- remembered "Golden Age" of New Orleans jazz in the 1990s. There was an uptick in the hotel business during a booming period in the economy and a lot of the hotels and bars in the French Quarter started hiring small jazz bands. Musicians would trickle into town by word of mouth- someone would land a three-piece afternoon job, then have the opportunity to add a piece or two or furnish a larger band for an evening gig, and a call would go out and the French Quarter would add another musician or two to an already-fluid pool of musicians.
Bands during this era often included musicians who'd been in New Orleans for a long time, like Lars Edegran, Jacques Gauthé and Chris Burke, and new migrants from almost everywhere, including Hal Smith, Tom Saunders, Mike Owen, Dave Boeddinghaus, Chris Tyle, Brian Ogilvie, John Royen, Scott Black, Jamie Wight and Tom Fischer. The groups did a lot of recording – GHB/Jazzology and Stomp Off were actively recording younger bands, Good Time Jazz produced several CDs featuring the young tigers on the New Orleans scene, and there were also a lot of self-produced CDs.
But the emphasis was on live playing- many of the clubs had afternoon and evening bands, and on many nights one had the choice or two or more younger bands, as well as going to Preservation Hall and the Palm Court Jazz Café. It seemed for a while like the music would never end. As Duke said, "the nineties were incredible."
But times change, and many of the jazz rooms of the '90s altered their policies or closed as the nightclub industry added legalized gambling to the entertainment menu. This moved the focus away from Bourbon Street and more towards places like Decatur Street and Frenchmen Street.
Duke Heitger arrived in New Orleans in 1991, fresh out of college, and he's never left, other than an annual working tour of Europe. He's got one of the best jobs in New Orleans, leader of the daytime band on the Steamer Natchez. He began filling in for Eddie Bayard, longtime leader of the band, and took over as leader when Bayard retired in 1998. They do daily river cruises and Duke is free to work other jobs in the evenings. He also produced three annual Steamboat Stomp festivals, featuring traditional jazz bands from all over.
Raymond Albert Heitger III was born in Toledo, OH in 1968. His clarinetist father leads the Cakewalkin' Jazz Band and had an extended engagement at Tony Packo's in Toledo, so Duke was exposed to a lot of jazz at an early age, both live and listening to rarities from his father's extensive record collection. He fooled around with several instruments at an early age—clarinet, drums, piano—but settled on the cornet when he was eight. After a year or two of formal lessons he was sitting in with his father's band. By his late teens he was already making enough money to pay his way through private school and then on to the University of Toledo. He made his first recording for Stomp Off, in a session featuring some of the Black Eagles and Orange Kellin, and started getting calls for out-of-town gigs with other bands.
Playing with his dad's band at the Central City (CO) Jazz Festival in the late 1980s, he was heard by Jacques Gauthe, a Sidney Bechet disciple who led a popular band in New Orleans. He immediately invited Duke to join his band, but Duke wanted to finish college first—he was working on a degree in Geology. Duke graduated in 1991 and mulled over an offer from Vince Giordano (which ultimately went to Jon-Erik Kellso) before heading to New Orleans. There he joined Gauthe who had an extended engagement at the Meridian Hotel. He also picked up a few nights here and there with Steve Yokum and John Gill. The Meridian gig ended in 1993 and Duke joined Banu Gibson's Hot Jazz, a group that did mostly road work at that time. He was with Gibson about five years and during this time also worked in Bourbon Street clubs like the Can Can and Mahogany Hall.
Eddie Bayard started hiring Duke as a replacement on the Natchez as he was heading toward retirement, and when Duke was offered the leadership of the band in 1998 he jumped at the chance. One of his first projects after that was GHB BCD-399- Duke Heitger's Steamboat Stompers, an interesting album that features two different but similar bands, showing off the depth of the band by allowing some alternation of personnel. It also showcased the band's depth, ranging from King Oliver's repertoire (Just Gone) to Armstrong favorites like A Kiss to Build a Dream On. About the same time, he recorded a celebrated CD, Rhythm is Our Business for Good Time Jazz, celebrating some of the great small band sides of the swing era.
One well-remembered project from that era was Hot (1996), a CD from the Squirrel Nut Zippers, a retro-swing band from North Carolina. They needed a trumpet for some special material and someone suggested Duke- he gave them enough powerhouse trumpet to push the album to platinum status, and he has a plaque to prove it.
Later projects included a series of tours with Butch Thompson's Big Three, a trio featuring Thompson on piano and Jimmy Mazzy on banjo. This group recorded Tain't Nobody's Business (JCD-341) while in New Orleans between tours. Duke has appeared at most of the traditional jazz festivals in the US at least once and also spends time in Europe performing with mostly local bands, making several dates a year at various jazz festivals and cruises.
In addition to his musical commitments, Heitger returned to school a few years ago to complete a Masters Degree in Geology. As he put it, "I wasn't planning to drill for oil or determine where to put the footings for a building, but it seemed smart to get my degree, even though I was fully committed to a music career at that point."
The band on the Steamer Natchez varies from day to day, but Heitger relies on a regular coterie of men, many of them are longtime associates. The piano chair generally holds Steve Pistorius or Dave Boeddinghaus, who have been active in New Orleans since the 1990s. The clarinet is often Tom Fischer or Tim Laughlin, both of whom have been also been around since the glory days of the 1990s. Tom Saunders is a walking three-bass hit- he doubles (or more appropriately, triples) on tuba, string bass and bass sax. He came from an active jazz family in Detroit and moved to New Orleans at Banu Gibson's urging in 1984. Drummer Benny Amon is a relative newcomer to the New Orleans jazz scene. A native Californian and graduate of UC Berkeley, he settled in New Orleans in 2011.
Duke Heitger went through the boom years of the 1990s and has continued to work nonstop through the rather lean years that followed. The music he performs with the Steamboat Stompers can appeal to both casual tourists out for an afternoons cruise on the Mississippi river as well as the more hardcore jazz mavens. It is often that jazz musicians who are visiting New Orleans make it a special point to visit the Steamboat Natchez and join the band for a few tunes.