Tag Archives: Duke Heitger

What Bix Means to Me: Duke Heitger

The New Orleans-based trumpeter shares his feelings about Bix Beiderbecke:

“I was fortunate that Bix Beiderbecke recordings were a part of my earliest jazz memories. When I finally decided to take up the cornet seriously, I tried to copy Bix’s solo on I’m Coming Virginia. Even at the age of 12, I knew there was something special about this recording. What I didn’t completely understand was how special and influential the player on that recording was.

“In Bix, the world was introduced to a truly unique jazz musician whose approach influenced countless jazz musicians, many of whom became legends themselves. Between his sound, harmonic choices and lyricism, Bix provided us with some of the most hauntingingly beautiful music to date. We should all celebrate the life of this great genius.”

Tomorrow: Jim Galloway.

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The Swashbuckler

The first time I saw the American clarinettist Evan Christopher in concert, I feared for his personal safety. It was a balmy Friday night at the 2004 Edinburgh Jazz Festival, the Spiegeltent (a venue less beloved by jazz fans than by drinkers) was packed, and the liveliest section of the audience was a table of well-fuelled women who were clearly in party mode. As Christopher and his fellow thirtysomething Duke Heitger (trumpet) tore through their programme of traditional New Orleans-style jazz, the hen party went nuts – and I’m sure I wasn’t the only person in the audience hoping that the musicians were as accomplished at dodging volleys of flying knickers as they were at serving up hot solos.

It was a great concert – and the reaction of the hens helped to underline the fact that this may be the oldest form of jazz but it is still vibrant, fresh, sexy and able to stir a crowd, and not necessarily a crowd of aficionados. What particularly struck me at the time was that, in Evan Christopher, here was a poster boy for traditional jazz. He had a swagger, a sense of showmanship and a swashbuckling air about him when he played that made you sit up and take as much notice of him as the music coming out of his clarinet. It’s little surprise that he has since become something of a TV star in France where his current, hugely successful band Django a La Creole – gyspy jazz with a New Orleans twist – was born while he was effectively living in self-imposed exile after losing his home in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

There may be an air of what some of the veteran musicians would regard as youthful arrogance and insouciance about Christopher (though he is now 41 years of age), but when he’s not playing, he is actually a surprisingly shy character who, it turns out, has had more than his fair share of obstacles.

Born of a Thai mother, he was adopted as a baby and raised in a predominantly white neighbourhood of Long Beach, California. For reasons he claims not to know – presumably he was gifted or exceptionally bright – he was sent to school two years early and consequently always found “the social side of school a little awkward”. He jokes about it – “basically it meant that chicks and sports didn’t enter the equation until later” – but two years is a big difference in high school, and it seems to have shaped Christopher into a self-sufficient, self-reliant character.

Indeed, he brushes off the inevitable question about how his musical talent was discovered, saying: “Music just happened to be something that I wasn’t bad at. It was something I could work at on my own; it didn’t require that I be around other people.”

It wasn’t until Christopher was in his final year of high school that his talent was taken seriously: he was invited to attend an arts boarding school. Up to that point, his experience of jazz had been gleaned from playing in the school band and from cassettes made by friends of his father, and from the LPs that his dad had in the house; Johnny Dodds (from Louis Armstrong’s legendary Hot Five and Hot Seven line-ups) and Artie Shaw emerging as his favourite clarinettists.

At this arts boarding school, Christopher was “discovered” by a bass player named Marshall Hawkins who was working as a sports teacher. “Nobody at school knew he was a professional musician but he’d go and play gigs with whoever was in town – Joe Henderson or Eddie Harris or whoever. I had broken into a classroom to play a piano, and he found me there. I didn’t get into trouble … but he corrected some of the chord changes .. He became my first jazz mentor.”

After university, Christopher did stints in Los Angeles, New Orleans and San Antonio, Texas. He was living in New Orleans, using it as a base for tours and the occasional gig on the riverboats with the afore-mentioned Heitger, when Hurricane Katrina hit, in September 2005 – a year after that famous Edinburgh gig.

When hurricane struck, Christopher was playing at a jazz festival high in the mountains of California – and with no signal on his phone. Over the course of the weekend, his then-girlfriend (now wife) tried to contact him to say that she was going to evacuate (“No big deal – we had evacuated the summer before,” he says), and asking where his passport was and whether she should take any of his instruments with her. Unable to pick up any of these messages, Christopher only learned what had happened when he saw the news a couple of days later, just at the point when the federal levees failed.

His partner was safe but their ground floor home was completely flooded – “Our area was worse than average, about eight feet of water on the street, six in the actual dwelling.” He drove his girlfriend to her parents’ home in Omaha, and he returned to his home state of California. “I set about trying to salvage my tours. I made a great effort to find other musicians and get them connected and make sure that everybody had each other’s contact information. A web designer up in New York donated some money to help me put together a website with resources for places they could get financial assistance. I hooked them up with Jazz Foundation of America if they needed instruments replaced and things like that. It was something to do.”

A month after Katrina, Christopher returned briefly to New Orleans (he only moved back full-time in 2008) to try to salvage what he could, but it was “considerably worse” than he had expected. He’s philosophical about it all. “At the end of the day, it was just an apartment-ful of crap. There are still books I go to the shelf and look for every now and then, and then I remember. There were plenty of people who lost more than I did. Imagine someone who’d actually lived there for a couple of generations..”

Has his Katrina experience changed his outlook at all? Is he less attached to stuff? “Well, I’ve never been hugely attached to anything. I didn’t appreciate losing everything though! I do get mad – I get mad when I find we have accumulated multiple items that we don’t need. Oh, I know one thing that changed – I don’t shelve wine as much any more! I pretty much buy it and drink it…”

This piece was first published when Django a la Creole was playing the 2011 Edinburgh Jazz Festival. In autumn 2012, the band is touring Scotland, England, Wales and the Republic of Ireland. For full details, click here.

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Norwich Jazz Party 2011: Monday evening

The last night of the Norwich jazz jamboree started in what has become its traditional style: with Jim Galloway’s Sandy Brown set. One of the joys of this jazz event for me personally – and one which I always remind myself about during the hellish seven-hour train journey from Glasgow – is the chance to hear Galloway and assorted British and American stars execute with panache the very distinctive music written by the late, great Scottish clarinettist.

This was the third Sandy Brown set in as many years and, as usual, the quirky and catchy Brown originals were a delight to hear – Blues-A and Own Up proved to be the ideal tunes for getting the night’s party started. Galloway takes great care to avoid duplication of numbers played in previous years so I finally got to hear the evocative Harlem Fats and, for this outing of the Sandy Brown songbook, he also included some of the arrangements that Brown played from the musical Hair. Personally, I could listen to the Brown repertoire all night – and would have welcomed the chance to hear such previously played numbers as Go Ghana and Africa Blues again.

This year’s Sandy line-up bore a close resemblance to the 2009 version: the wonderful Rossano Sportiello again proving to be the perfect pianist for this witty music, and drummer Chuck Riggs and trombonist Ian Bateman both similarly reprising their parts. Stepping into what have been Bucky Pizzarelli’s shoes in previous years, guitarist Dave Cliff did a terrific job. Each year there has been a different trumpeter – we’ve had Jon-Erik Kellso, Randy Reinhart and this time Duke Heitger who certainly measured up to the previous incumbents despite being unfamiliar with Brown and his music.

One trumpeter who always makes a point of listening to some of the Sandy Brown set but who hasn’t yet had a chance to get stuck into Jim Galloway’s uplifting arrangements is Warren Vache. He was partnered with tenor saxophonist Houston Person for his final appearance of the Jazz Party, and it was a heavenly match, especially when it came to the set’s two ballads, Once in a While and These Foolish Things, both of which were played as lovely, relaxed duets.

And speaking of ballads, tenor saxophonist  Scott Hamilton – another great master of the genre – produced some magical moments on Monday, most memorably a dreamy take on the rarely played Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most.

It was, however, the clarinettists – Alan Barnes, Bob Wilber, Ken Peplowski, Dan Block and Scott Robinson – who dominated the closing set of the 2011 Norwich Jazz Party. And, in a superb set, one number stood out above all others: Pee Wee’s Blues, written by Pee Wee Russell, who was described by Alan Barnes as “possibly the most technically brilliant clarinet player who ever lived”.

Not only did it boast a terrific, Pee Wee-esque solo from the great Bob Wilber but it will also be remembered for Scott Robinson’s masterstroke: by way of homage to the slightly oddball Russell sound, he hummed the first part of his solo into his horn – with wonderfully lyrical results.

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Norwich Jazz Party 2011: Sunday

The timetable may be gruelling – and the pressure may have been on, what with the volume of often tricky arrangements to be rehearsed -but what shone through from Sunday’s sessions at the jazz party was how much the musicians who come to Norwich relish the chance to play together in imaginative programmes with all sorts of different line-ups.

On Sunday, a set of Cannonball Adderley-associated music acted as a sort of touch paper for some particularly fiery, feisty playing by cornettist Warren Vache who recently told me how much he enjoys playing bop – and how seldom he gets to do it. Vache seemed to explode into life on this set, notably on a storming version of the enormously catchy Work Song, and he was aided and abetted by five fellow enthusiasts including Tardo Hammer, whose kittenish way with the keys offset the three-horn front line beautifully; Karen Sharp, whose dynamic baritone playing was a joy, and set-leader Alan Barnes in similarly energetic form. But it was Vache’s forceful, take-no-prisoners playing that stole the show.

If the Cannonball set brought out the tough – yet always lyrical – side of Vache, then his after-dinner set with guitarist Dave Cliff and bassist Dave Green inevitably showcased his sweet side. You only had to see this line-up listed in the programme to know that you were in for a treat. Vache’s taste is flawless – both in terms of the tunes he chooses, and the way in which he delivers them.

Really, the whole thing was a knockout, but it was a particular delight to hear him tease out extra magic from the sublime Richard Rodgers ballad My Romance which he played quietly, tenderly and with what seemed an air of exquisite resignation. You Don’t Know What Love Is and Triste were others which sounded as if they had been written specially for him, banishing as they did every other version from the memory. You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To was vintage Vache: swaying gently from side to side, the cornettist played with his trademark playful and seductive swagger, softly and persuasively at the start; bluesy and more assertively by the end.

Another musician who was on top form throughout the jazz party was guitarist Marty Grosz who may now be 81 but is clearly rejuvenated by performing. Sunday afternoon proved to be the perfect slot for a delightfully good-natured set  on which he was joined by Nick Dawson (piano), Jim Galloway (soprano sax) and Duke Heitger (trumpet); the latter two emerging as something of a noteworthy duo over the weekend.

The mood was established straight-away with an uplifting take on You Are My Lucky Star (probably the first time I’ve ever heard this at a jazz concert), but it was a gorgeous, laid-back take on Love Is Just Around the Corner which lingered in the mind long after the music had ended. It was the perfect example of musical camaraderie.

The same could be said of singer-pianist Daryl Sherman’s late-night set which featured the second You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To of the evening for the versatile Dave Cliff.  Mind you, second time around it was quite a different affair; one which played on the coquettish quality of Sherman’s voice.

The cosy piano-bass-guitar line-up swelled to a quartet with the co-opting of tenor man Houston Person (whose sumptuous Fools Rush In a couple of hours earlier had been inspired by his not-so secret love of Doris Day!)  into the proceedings for a couple of terrific Rodgers and Hart numbers: a lovely Little Girl Blue (also a Doris song), on which Sherman’s suitably wistful, girlish vocals were complemented by Person’s masculine, bluesy sound, and a hard-swinging This Can’t Be Love; a perfect partner to his frisky Isn’t It Romantic of the afternoon…

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Norwich Jazz Party 2011: Saturday

This was my favourite moment in the first night of the 2011 Norwich Jazz Party. Midway through an all-star closing set headed by Toronto-based soprano saxophonist Jim Galloway, the stage emptied leaving just the leader, plus trumpeter Duke Heitger, guitarist Dave Cliff and bassist Giorgos Antoniou. And what did they serve up? An exquisite Sweet Lorraine – perfectly seasoned. Not too sugary, not too fast; just a gentle, laid-back conversational handling of the old standard. The way that Galloway, the impish charmer of sinewy soprano sax melody, and the mellow-toned Heitger gently batted the melody back and forth reminded this listener of a memorable night in Nairn when Ruby Braff struck up a similar musical dialogue with Scott Hamilton and Jon Wheatley. The set ended with what seemed like a nod to my Glasgow granny (and probably Galloway’s too): a hugely enjoyable tout ensemble (11 players) version of Show Me the Way to Go Home.

Earlier in the night, the Japanese clarinettist Eiji Kitamura and tenor man Scott Hamilton had only really hit their stride by the time they were on the closing numbers of their 45 minute set: a classy take on These Foolish Things, which – unlike some of the earlier tunes – seemed to benefit from Kitamura’s restrained style, and a super-fast Lover Come Back to Me which boasted a classic Hamilton filibuster solo.

Marty Grosz can always be relied on to do his homework, and his arrangements for his set entitled Songs You Thought You’d Never Hear – or Gold for Mouldies were typically colourful and catchy, and it was a treat to hear this superb eight-piece band playing them. Highlights included Cincinnati, which featured some superb solo work by the dynamic duo of Ken Peplowski (clarinet) and Enrico Tomasso (trumpet).

Since Warren Vache and Bill Charlap’s cornet-piano duet version of What’ll I Do has ruined me for any other, I guess Houston Person didn’t stand a chance. But he made sure of it by playing it at break-neck speed during his late-night set.. Luckily, the ballad to which he introduced me two tunes later more than made up for it: Why Did I Choose You? was the perfect showcase for his spare balladeering style and rich sound.

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Edinburgh Jazz Festival: Festival of Swing

FESTIVAL OF SWING, QUEEN’S HALL
*****

It may be 83 years old, but the beautiful old tune Creole Love Call is certainly getting a work-out at this year’s Edinburgh Jazz Festival. And not only that; she’s the belle of the ball. On Tuesday, for the second consecutive night, Duke Ellington’s gorgeously smoochy ballad inspired some magical playing, this time an exquisite clarinet duet by Bob Wilber and Alan Barnes, with Howard Alden’s guitar evoking the famous growls on the original recording, and Ed Metz Jr adding a dash of the oriental with his cymbals.
Actually, it was one of many highlights of a concert which could easily have turned out to be an all-star shambles as there was no Dick Hyman this year to coral the participants (who also included saxophonists Scott Hamilton and Joe Temperley, trumpeter Duke Heitger, bassist Eric Harper and pianist Tom Finlay) into an orderly ensemble. However, what it did have was the equally senior Bob Wilber as leader, and it worked a treat.
The first set was entirely composed of Ellington and Ellingtonian numbers and what was especially pleasing was the fact that we weren’t short-changed on the full, nine-man band front: often at these all-star gigs, there are a couple of crowd-pleasing numbers by le tout ensemble at the start and thereafter it’s a series of individual soloists playing with the rhythm section.
On Tuesday, although smaller bands emerged within the bigger band, there was plenty of tout ensemble action – on such knock-out numbers as hard-swinging The Jeep is Jumpin’ and a laidback Squeeze Me, and, in the second half, on a sensational All of Me and a thrilling Hindustan, one of several tunes which stirred memories of Wilber’s great Soprano Summit band.

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Edinburgh Jazz Festival: CJO & Duke Heitger

KEN MATHIESON’S CLASSIC JAZZ ORCHESTRA & DUKE HEITGER PLAY LOUIS ARMSTRONG, JAMHOUSE
****
Ken Mathieson certainly knows how to pick his musical collaborators. Last year it was multi-instrumentalist Alan Barnes who joined the CJO for a concert of Benny Carter tunes; this year it’s American trumpeter Duke Heitger who proved to be the ideal guest star for a programme of mainly Louis Armstrong-associated music. Heitger, no stranger to Edinburgh audiences, is an excellent trumpeter with a majestic, proclamatory style of playing which recalls the great Satchmo’s sound.
On Sunday night at the Jamhouse, which this year has been given over to the traditional and classic jazz strand, the CJO and Heitger gave the audience a taste of what’s on their new Celebrating Satchmo CD, as well as such extra-Armstrong treats as Duke Ellington’s Happy Go Lucky Local.
This band seldom fails to impress – and no wonder: it has some of the best Scottish players in its front line, notably, on Sunday, Dick Lee and Martin Foster on clarinets and saxes (on Coal Cart Blues in particular). And it’s as strong on its ensemble playing as it is on its soloists’ contributions.
For his part, Heitger served up his own, inspired, takes on the “breaks” with which Armstrong dazzled listeners on such classic Hot Five and Seven tunes as Wild Man Blues, Savoy Blues and – especially – Potato Head Blues, which Mathieson, ever the wag, dedicated to Wayne Rooney.

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