In the shadow of a musical legacy that includes legendary trumpeters from Louis to Wynton, Heitger belongs to a class of often-overlooked musicians who ply their trade in the French Quarter nightclubs, hotel bars and riverboats. Having led the Natchez Paddlewheeler's Steamboat Stompers trio six days a week for the past several years, Heitger also has maintained almost nightly gigs at joints like the Can Can and the Palm Court Jazz Cafe. He's recorded three CDs as a bandleader and scores of others as a sideman, with bands including Banu Gibson's New Orleans Hot Jazz, Jacques Gauthe's Creole Rice Jazz Band, and the Squirrel Nut Zippers. That last collaboration scored him his platinum record, which along with its gold twin, nicely flanks a framed black-and-white jazz poster in the office of his Uptown apartment.
If the public doesn't recognize his name at first mention, other musicians surely do. Tom Maxwell, the former Squirrel Nut Zipper who took a chance on Heitger sight unseen for the band's 1997 release, Hot, sees it as one of the best gambles he ever took. After a single day in the studio with Heitger, according to Maxwell, the Zippers bundled Heitger off to Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop with a proposition in mind: "We begged him to join the Zippers. F--king begged him, pleaded with him. Plied him with booze. Man, we could have used him!" says Maxwell. Though Heitger turned them down, the MTV video for the hit single "Hell" features a little tribute to Heitger during a lengthy solo: a disembodied trumpet by itself, spiraling crazily through the air.
"They went on and I started hearing it on the radio," says Heitger, "walking into clubs and hearing it on the jukebox. Next thing you know it was approaching gold and then it hit gold and you know the rest of the story. It was really neat to be a little part of pop culture for a while. You're in this little circle, traditional jazz in New Orleans, and next thing you know you're on MTV."
Traditional jazz has been a part of the Toledo, Ohio, native's life since he can remember. Heitger's father has played a weekly gig in Toledo with his Cake Walkin' Jass Band since 1968; Duke himself started playing and touring with his father at age 12, paying for private high school as well as college out of his musical earnings. Jacques Gauthe heard him with his father's band at a Colorado jazz festival in 1990 while Heitger was still in school and made an offer on the spot; a year later and with a bachelor of arts degree in geology under his belt, Heitger finally accepted.
He took over Eddie Bayard's Steamboat Stompers shortly after coming to New Orleans, toured extensively with Banu Gibson's band (with stops including the Hollywood Bowl) and played in Hungary, Switzerland, Norway and Germany. This past summer, his swing band, the Big Four, toured Scandinavia. He's been featured four times on Garrison Keillor's A Prairie Home Companion with pianist Butch Thompson. And in November 2000, his grin graced the cover of regional traditional jazz magazine, The Mississippi Rag.
After steady success in the "little circles" of traditional jazz, Heitger is considering a slight change of pace. His devotion to the music and the tourist crowd is evident, but the 32-year-old, who has also been playing monthly gigs at the Shim Shamettes' burlesque performances, wants to bring the sound of early jazz to a younger crowd: "My goal, maybe a short-term goal, is to change my playing venues in the next few years. And that's rather than playing a community concert in somewhere Iowa, which I've done a zillion times, play the hip club."
Heitger's quick to emphasize, though, that it's the music that counts. "By no means [on the steamboat] are we getting into just the regular routine, regurgitating the old favorites," he says. "We're pulling from over a thousand tunes, easily. There's such great tunes, just gems you don't hear anymore just fantastic melodies that I guarantee, you introduce some of these melodies to the hippest of crowds and they would just love them."
And possibly, it's his good-natured love for the music -- combined with his superb playing -- that endears him the most to his fellow musicians. "He's certainly the best living trumpet player I've ever heard," says Maxwell. "And frankly, he's as good as a lot of dead ones."