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In the 1920s, steamboats from New Orleans threaded their way up and down the Mississippi River, carrying not only passengers and commercial cargo but something even more precious: seminal American culture in the form of jazz music. Nearly 100 years later, Henry Butler effectively moves back in time with his New Orleans traditional jazz group, Papa Henry and the Steamin' Syncopators. An evening with the Syncopators is as good as a night on the river.
Originally formed in conjunction with the Satchmo Summerfest, an annual New Orleans event honoring the birthday of Louis Armstrong, the Syncopators' first performance was onboard the riverboat Natchez. For that event, Butler chose to focus on Armstrong's membership in Fate Marable's landmark band, arguably the most important New Orleans band at the time and a huge draw on the riverboats. To prepare, Butler went to Tulane's Hogan Jazz Archives not just for material but for the actual arrangements Marable himself used. "The repertoire is part of the culture and I'm part of the culture," says Butler. "It rings with me. I identify with it musically."
So do the other members of the Syncopators. Some of the musicians who fill the seats in Papa Henry's Steamin' Syncopators can trace their roots back to Marable's men, and all have spent their lives playing New Orleans music. But because they are in high demand, membership in this elite group is fluid. That, too, is a lively aspect of New Orleans music: the ever-changing, ever-fresh dialogue among artists, all of whom have the music in their blood. The result is exceptional musicianship, strong ensemble work on historic arrangements, full-on swing, and a heart-lifting sense of fun. Louis Armstrong wouldn't have it any other way.