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Heitgers Add Spice at Chattanooga
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Stu Parcher

The recipe for the Chattanooga Traditional Jazz Festival is basically set. But presenters Mike and Astrid Griffin like to tinker here and there to make the final dish even better.

   For a bit of added spice at this year’s 12th festival the first weekend in May they brought in the young and talented New Orleans jazz trumpeter Duke Heitger as a guest artist for Saturday’s sets. The result was electrifying. When Heitger took the bandstand, each band seemed inspired to play at its top form, both as a unit and individually.

   We first saw and heard Heitger in New Orleans in 1991 when he had just arrived and had won the horn chair with the Dukes of Dixieland, then playing evenings at Lulu White’s Mahogany Hall. But we particularly enjoyed the more informal sessions during the afternoons at the same venue, when Duke would sit in on occasion with Steve Pistorious on piano, Chris Tyle on cornet and Hal Smith on drums for happy hour. Duke had youthful exuberance, strong chops and a bold tone.

   We saw him most recently at the 2000 French Quarter Festival when he was leading his own band on a Bourbon Street bandstand and playing daily on the “Natchez” steamboat river tours. By then he was in full command of his instrument, and was frequently reminiscent of Armstrong in style and tone. At Chattanooga this year he was a full-fledged star that the other musicians hung around to hear.

   The four bands this year were Buck Creek, Climax, Grand Dominion and High Sierra, an elite group to say the least. There were some personnel changes and some late arrivals. Kit Johnson, leader of the Black Swan Classic Jazz Band from Portland, Oregon, filled in on tuba for John Wood of Buck Creek. Johnson had also been Wood’s replacement a week earlier at the Port Angeles, Washington, festival.

   Climax drummer Jamie Aug was absent, and the ubiquitous (and great) Hal Smith took over. And the High Sierra’s entire rhythm section got caught in flight delays so the regulars (Bruce Huddleston, piano; Stan Huddleston, banjo/guitar; Charlie Castro, drums; Earl McKee, sousaphone/vocals) were replaced for the start of the band’s opening set Friday night with fill-ins from Climax (Chris Daniels, bass; Jack Vincken, banjo; Hal Smith, drums) and Grand Dominion (Bob Pelland, piano). The Huddlestons and McKee eventually showed up, but without Earl’s instrument. The thing is, the band sounded terrific, demonstrating how the great jazzmen can always improvise!

   The Saturday sets with Heitger started when High Sierra’s leader, reed star Pieter Meijers, called Duke to the stand for a rousing “Snake Rag,” a great tune for two lead horns, the other being Bryan Shaw’s cornet. They followed with “Wild Man Blues” and “Emperor Norton’s Hunch.”

   Next up was Climax, and leader Chris Daniels summoned Heitger for “Martinique” and then called on Duke’s sister Nicole to sing a great rendition of “Careless Love.” We first heard Nicole at a Strongsville, Ohio, EARLYJAS festival in 1995. At the time I suggested in Tailgate that “Nicole would be a top candidate to appear at a future Bessie Smith Festival in Chattanooga.” That was when the Griffins brought in a female blues singer on a regular basis. Well, at last they took my recommendation, and the crowd loved her.

   In addition to Duke and Nicole, their dad, Ray, clarinetist and leader of the Cakewalkin’ Jass Band (and member of Tex Wyndham’s Rent Party Revelers) was also on hand. So father and son augmented Climax in fantastic versions of “I Never Knew What a Gal Could Do” and “Weary Blues” to close the set.

   Grand Dominion got its shot with Heitger late Saturday night. Leader Bob Pelland first explained that Duke had sat in with the band on occasion after trumpeter Bob Jackson left. He then called for “Sweethearts on Parade,” “Snag It” and an extended version of “Bugle Call Rag.” But Duke really knocked ’em out during his blistering chorus on “Mahogany Hall Stomp” when he nailed an F above High C (according to my on-scene musical advisor, Gary Wilkinson). The performance left musicians shaking their heads and the crowd cheering.

   Pelland closed his set with “My Buddy.” Heitger took the lead chorus, provided a beautiful muted fill behind Jim Armstrong’s vocal, and then opened his horn to contribute another memorable Satchmo-like performance.

   Finally, in the following and final set Saturday (which kicked off at 11:15 PM), Buck Creek had its innings with the guest. Leader Jim Ritter opened by saying “How do you follow a set like that?” But Ritter first took a seat and had Duke come in to play “Delta Bound,” bringing a beatific smile to the face of pianist Bill Richards. Then it was “Down in Honky Tonk Town” with Ritter and Heitger trading fours, followed by Nicole singing a smoky “St. Louis Blues” with Duke providing lilting trumpet fills. The program ended with a rousing “High Society” which included both Duke and his dad. And THAT’S how you follow a set like that.

   Other Highlights: The traditional late Saturday night jam session got under way about 12:30 and went for more than an hour. Duke stuck around and played some piano, and Washington’s David Jellema, cornet man for the New Traditional Jazz Band, took over lead horn duties. David has settled in Tennessee and always looks forward to attending and playing at Chattanooga. Also, Dan Wilkinson from Memphis, leader of the Beale Street Jazz Band, participated on banjo. Wilkinson sat in on a Buck Creek set earlier that day joining the band’s regular banjo man, Jerry Addicott, on a rollicking “Mad Dog.”

   It’s always a pleasure to listen to High Sierra’s Earl McKee sing. Not only is the voice great but he makes sure you can understand all the lyrics. Like on “Clementine from New Orleans” which contains the line “She plays a lead castinet you can’t forget.”

   High Sierra demonstrated a fancy triple-tongued intro to “Wrought Iron Rag” which they played at warp speed. Pieter Meijers called it one of their most challenging tunes.

   This was the final appearance with Climax by its long-time clarinetist Mick Lewis. He has departed Climax’ home turf in Toronto and moved west. Mick has been charming Climax fans for more than two decades with his hot licks on fast tunes and his haunting tone on slow numbers. The band’s final set featured Lewis on “Perdido St. Blues” and his own composition “Blue Autumn.” Mick received a well-deserved standing ovation.

   Buck Creek employed an interesting “brass trio” of only Ritter on cornet, Frank Mesich on euphonium and Kit Johnson on tuba for their introduction to the gospel tune “In the Garden.”

   Jim Armstrong is probably the best musician-vocalist on the festival circuit. The Grand Dominion trumpet man showed off his singing talent particularly well on “Lights Out” a sweet pop tune from the ’40s which borrows some phrases from the military bugle call “Taps.” Gerry Green provided subtle tenor sax shading behind Jim’s vocal.

   Saturday morning the Griffins scheduled a “forum” during which all of the band leaders spoke about how they discovered traditional jazz and came to play it and offered their thoughts on its future. It was a fascinating couple of hours in which some important issues were raised, and which we’ll cover in a future Tailgate article.

   A large contingent of PRJC members made the trip, as usual. Some, including Dick and Dottie Davis, Peggy and Scott Mitchell and Anna Wahler, have attended all 12 festivals. At the end of Saturday’s full day of jazz Dick Davis made a remark that could have been echoed by everyone who attended: “That was the best music I’ve heard in many a year!”
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