As a longtime bandleader on the Steamboat Natchez, Duke Heitger has befriended world-renowned musicians, and he’s become somewhat of an expert on New Orleans-style jazz.
He believed that it was time for an event that highlights the connections between jazz and the Mississippi River, so he created the Steamboat Stomp.
The third annual event takes place this weekend on the Steamboat Natchez — one of the last authentic steamboats still operating in the United States — and features a series of concerts focused on New Orleans-style jazz and classic New Orleans fare.
“Everyone knows that jazz originated in New Orleans, but what people overlook is the role that steamboats played in those days,” said Heitger. “And steamboats are one of the primary ways that jazz made its way out of New Orleans.”
He explained that Louis Armstrong, early in his career, played music on a steamboat that journeyed up and down the Mississippi River.
“That was the world’s introduction to Louis Armstrong,” said Heitger, who hopes to generate a deeper interest in New Orleans-style jazz through the Steamboat Stomp.
The event begins with a concert at the JW Marriott on Canal Street, with shows by New Orleans Classic Jazz Orchestra, Paolo Alderighi along with his wife, Stephanie Trick — both pianists, and the Yerba Buena Stompers, led by banjoist John Gill. This year, the Stompers present vocalist Miss Ida Blue.
On Saturday afternoon, the festivities take place on the Steamboat Natchez during two regularly scheduled cruises — one at 11:30 a.m. and another at 2:30 p.m. Boarding begins about 30 minutes prior to departure. Each cruise features two stages of music and three musical acts, beginning with the Steam Calliope by Debbie Fagnano. Performers include the Yerba Buena Stompers, the Tim Laughlin Trio, the Steve Pistorius Quartet and Duke Heitger’s Steamboat Stompers.
These daytime cruises are followed by a concert reception at 5:30 p.m., which is also aboard the Steamboat Natchez. Guests can enjoy the musical stylings of Paolo Alderighi and Stephanie Trick, along with Banu Gibson and New Orleans Hot Jazz, among others.
The festival comes to a close on Sunday with a traditional gospel jazz brunch, featuring Topsy Chapman and Solid Harmony, with the Paolo Alderighi Trio at 11 a.m. and with the Yerba Buena Stompers at noon.
Attendees can purchase a ticket for the whole weekend, or for individual affairs, by visiting SteamboatNatchez.com. But sometimes, Heitger said, impromptu performances occur beyond the scheduled events.
“When you get a group of dedicated New Orleans jazz musicians together, sessions of jazz music that weren’t scheduled just happen,” he said, adding that this weekend is somewhat of a reunion for the musicians, who are visiting from various parts of the country. “One band has musicians from New York City, San Francisco, and New Orleans, and the band only gets together a few times a year, so (this event) is really an opportunity for them to play together.”
As for food, the Steamboat Stomp will offer a full buffet with New Orleans-inspired dishes for the first time. Lighter snacks will also be available for purchase. But presenting a handful of esteemed musicians, and underscoring the connections between jazz and steamboats on the Mississippi River, is the main objective of the festival. And, most of it happens in an ideal setting — aboard a majestic steamboat, rich with history.
“There are some locals who haven’t been on a steamboat in a while and this is the weekend to try it, particularly Saturday night,” Heitger said.
“You’re going to have world-class music combined with this wonderful, unique atmosphere on a steamboat on the river. In my opinion, it’s hard to beat.”