Award winning Créole Banjoist guitarist vocalist, considered one of the best banjoists in the history of New Orleans and credited with preserving Créole culture.
Don Vappie, New Orleans musician/entertainer, is the number one New Orleans Jazz banjoist performing on the planet today. He’s been a headliner at festivals and concert halls around the world including Carnegie Hall in New York City. Honoring the tradition of his predecessor, banjoist Danny Barker, Don has kept alive Créole songs of New Orleans and has been honored with awards from Créole society for preserving this cultural treasure. He embodies all aspects of the unique melting pot of cultures that is New Orleans. This is evident through the list of artists he’s performed with. They include Wynton Marsalis, Eric Clapton, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Peggy Lee, Otis Taylor, Diana Krall, Bette Midler, Preservation Hall.
He also embodies the banjos evolution from Africa through seamless performances with artists from Mali, Cheik Hamamla Diabate and Basaku Kuyata, and from Senegal, Dema Dia.
Don can be heard on numerous recordings of his own and various other artists including the classical world where he arranged and orchestrated three of HARRY Reeser’s classic banjo solos pieces from the 1920s into an orchestral suite entitled the Reeser Suite and was also the soloist for the naxals recording with the Hot Springs music Festival Orchestra in which received critical acclaim as a banjo virtuoso. Don speaks the language of jazz with the New Orleans accent.
This project with David Horniblow, Dave Kelbie and Sebastien Girardot, combines all genres of New Orleans from traditional to modern day funk with the classic early tradition of a string band. The result is “Jazz Créole”.
“What’s exciting about this project is that we get to explore the music as it evolved in the Crescent city through the medium of the string band and the roles that our instruments played in the music. The very first bands of New Orleans were string bands. From the beginning strings played a big part in New Orleans music. The banjo was a staple of the rhythmic pulse in early jazz just as the the guitar spoke the language of the blues. The string bass took over from the tuba and by mixing 2/4 grooves with 4/4 grooves created a smooth pathway to the R&B shuffle. Interestingly, the bass lines of modern-day New Orleans R&B and Funk are reminiscent of the melodic unifying role played by the African predecessor to the banjo, the ngoni.
Our journey is to explore the widest range of possibilities our instruments can offer through a nontraditional approach within the tradition of Créole songs, R&B, New Orleans funk, second line and all that New Orleans has inspired around the world. After all, it was James Brown who said, “every instrument is playing the drums”. And this beat will go on.”
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ALBUM REVIEW. JAZZ DA GAMA C 23.03.2020
Don Vappie & Jazz Créole: The Blue Book of Storyville
History is recorded in the bones of men and women who are long since ghosts of our past. But the cultural topography upon which they have treaded can be kept alive if we can be still and listen to the stories that have been somehow, shaken and set free to roam in the wind. These are the stories of griots – ancient and modern – who heard things from the songs and stories told and sung by their ancestors. Much of this is lost, today, in the noise of everyday life, but not in New Orleans…. Still, the griots sing… the jazz griots… they sing their stories and their poems… vocally and instrumentally they make and pass on history, just like Danny Barker did not long ago and just like Don Vappie does today – spreading the gospel of music from a pulpit somewhere in New Orleans.
Mr Vappie is one of the great créolité griots of New Orleans. He embodies the quality of being Créole the highest degree just as Monk Boudreaux does. And like Monk Boudreaux he is fervent evangelist all things créolité. Mr Vappie sets stages aflame wherever he goes and he is just as magnificent on record as well. The Blue Book of Storyville is one such recording. The 17-strong, hour and almost ten-minute-long recording is brimful of masterfully delivered narratives – many of which he sings in his gloriously-cultured and highly-emotive tenor, always accompanied by his effervescent banjo. The brainchild of this performance – or at least the one who masterminded its production is the English musician, archivist and entrepreneur who just so happens to also be an ethnomusicologist and dyed-in-the-wool disciple of the Jazz tradition – whether its source is manouche or – in this case – créolité.
The repertoire is a judicious mix of originals by Mr Vappie, Jelly Roll Morton, Kid Ory, Spencer Williams and traditional music that receives Mr Vappie’s unique treatment and interpretation. Mr Vappie is a born storyteller – an urban griot, who has lived the music and has consigned all of it to the centre of his being. Each of the songs speaks to him in a highly personal manner in the epicentre of his heart from where – and with which rhythm – it is released through his lips. He is a vocal artist of the first order. His instrument is lustrous, bathed in warmth and radiantly burnished. His phrases are eloquently delivered. He sings and recites the lyric like a gentleman of extraordinary créolité nobility, accompanying himself on the banjo with unblemished virtuosity. Each and every work constitutes a new benchmark version. “Eh la Bas”, “Buddy Bolden’s Blues”, “Mischieu Banjo”, “The Roof Blues” and “Fais Dodo” are particularly unforgettable.
Mr Vappie is joined here by wonderful musicians. Mr Kelbie keeps perfect time (sometimes almost too unobtrusively) on acoustic guitar, Sébastien Giradot anchors the bass line melody and clarinetist David Horniblow soars in perfectly sculpted arcs and parabolas, often soloing in response to Mr Vappie’s voice and banjo. The best part of the performance of these musicians is that each is perfectly attuned to Mr Vappie’s vision and artistry as well as to the subtle rhythm and narrative of New Orleans créolité music. This music is also captured with an extraordinary warm acoustic. Music and engineering, indeed the whole package speaks of what historic masterpieces are made of.
Track list – 1: Eh la Bas; 2: The Blue Book of Storyville; 3: Buddy Bolden’s Blues; 4: La Ville Jacamel; 5: Port Bayou St John; 6: Mo pas laimé ca; 7: Couleur de Creole; 8: Basin Street Blues; 9: I Would if I Could; 10: Abandon; 11: C’est l’autre Cancan; 12: Red Wing; 13: Mischieu Banjo; 14: Tin Roof Blues – Créole Blues; 15: Panama; 16: Les Oignons; 17: Fais Dodo
Personnel – Don Vappie: banjo and vocals; David Horniblow: clarinet; Dave Kelbie: guitar; Sébastien Giradot: contrabass
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ALBUM REVIEW. JAZZ HOT FR 29.02.2020
Don Vappie & Jazz Créole – The Blue Book of Storyville
Don Vappie n’est plus à présenter tant comme artiste-musicien néo-orléanais que comme activiste de la cause créole. Il a déjà de nombreux disques de qualité à son actif. Celui-ci a été réalisé à Londres pour le label du guitariste Dave Kelbie qui s’est aussi consacré à Fapy Lafertin-Evan Christopher (A Summit in Paris) et au clarinettiste David Horniblow (The Complete Morton Project). Les titres originaux sont des compositions de Don Vappie, intelligemment intégrés à un programme de standards traditionnels louisianais comme «Eh la bas» qui débute le disque et que firent connaître Kid Ory, DeDe Pierce et Danny Barker entre autres. Il rappelle d’emblée que Don Vappie n’est pas seulement un solide banjo virtuose mais qu’il est aussi un chanteur délicieux. La clarinette de David Horniblow se marie bien avec un discours simple servi par une bonne sonorité. «The Blue Book of Storyville» composé par Vappie est lancé par la contrebasse toute en rondeurs de Sébastien Girardot, rejointe par la clarinette plaintive puis le chant du blues (en anglais) de l’auteur. Le Blue Book était le catalogue des charmes proposés par le quartier chaud de New Orleans, Storyville, dont le rôle dans la genèse du jazz a été amplifié. Les jazzfans sont des romantiques et ils préfèrent souvent les histoires à l’Histoire. En tout cas, nous avons là une bonne interprétation. Le fier et très talentueux créole Jelly Roll Morton a lui aussi contribué aux rêves notamment en alimentant la pure légende de Buddy Bolden. Nous trouvons donc ici l’incontournable «Buddy Bolden Blues» admirablement chanté par Don Vappie et agrémenté des inflexions bien venues de David Horniblow. Kelbie et Girardot sont aussi discrets qu’efficaces. La «touche latine» chère à Morton mais dont il n’a pas exagéré l’usage, surgit ici dès «La Ville Jacmel» chanté en créole. Vappie a aussi composé «Port Bayou St John» (latin et très virtuose), «Couleur de Créole» (genre dansant mais pas simple pour la clarinette) et «I Would if I Could» (merveilleusement swing, avec un solo de Girardot en prime). L’album, on s’en doute, fait une large place à Haïti, au Brésil (Pixinguinha, idole de Thomas L’Etienne), à la Martinique (mélancolique «Abandon» de Loulou Boislaville). Horniblow est bien parti, comme on dit, dans «Tin Roof Blues/Créole Blues». Excellent slap de Girardot dans «Panama», et il prend un bon solo qui est juste la mélodie dans «Red Wing». Nous avons aussi une bonne version balancée de «Basin Street Blues» et de plaisantes reprises de «C’est l’autre cancan» qui fut enregistré par Kid Ory (1944) et des «Oignons» imposés en France par Sidney Bechet (dès 1949).
Le livret est soigné avec de belles photos, mais on est surpris de trouver le trompettiste Papa Celestin dans la liste des banjoïstes louisianais alors que n’y figurent pas Narvin Kimball, Lawrence Marrero, Papa French et Creole George Guesnon notamment. C’est histoire d’être taquin, car ce disque va ravir les enthousiastes de «créolités».
ALBUM REVIEW. LA GAZZETTE BLEUE FR 20.02.2020
Don Vappie & Jazz Créole – The Blue Book of Storyville
N’oublie jamais ceci : jouer du jazz, c’est comme raconter une histoire » : Est-ce que que Don Vappie avait un livre de Maxence Fermine dans ses bagages pendant l’enregistrement de ce nouveau disque ? Peut-être, ce qui est sûr, c’est que le musicien originaire de la Nouvelle-Orléans revient « The Blue Book of Storyville », un projet faisant honneur à ses origines créoles et au jazz traditionnel de la Louisiane.
Mélange de compositions originales et de standards du début du 20ème siècle rendant hommage à Spencer Williams, Jelly Roll Morton, Kerry Mills (entre autres), c’est un quartet ingénieux composé du grand Don Vappie au banjo et au chant, David Horniblow à la clarinette, Dave Kelbie à la guitare, et de Sébastien Girardot à la contrebasse, qui nous accompagne dans plusieurs ambiances grâce à une complémentarité remarquable. Tantôt ambiance nocturne sous fumée de cigarette dans un bar de Baton Rouge avec « Eh Là-Bas », tantôt rues de New York des années 40 avec « Buddy Bolden’s Blues », c’est un véritable voyage dans un temps révolu que nous offre ce disque à travers ses dix-sept morceaux. Des portes se présentent, et chacune d’entre elles nous permettent d’accéder à une nouvelle atmosphère, un nouvel environnement.
Véritable mélange de cultures, cet album est une ode aux sonorités d’ailleurs : on y chante français dans « Les Oignons », créole dans « Mo Pas Laimé ça », anglais dans « I Would if I Could », en découvrant un mélange de jazz, de swing, de blues, de sonorités sud-américaines. Une, deux, même trois ambiances peuvent se retrouver dans un morceau, à l’image de « Port Bayou St John », qui nous amène au fur et à mesure dans les contrées du Far West, puis au beau milieu d’un village aux sonorités latines grâce à la guitare du brillant Dave Kelbie.
Les mélodies sont variées et offrent un projet riche grâce à un quartet talentueux. Un son positif, une voix chaleureuse ajouté à des compositions entraînantes. Vous souhaitez voyager sans sortir de chez vous ? Don Vappie & Jazz Créole vous en donne l’occasion.
ALBUM REVIEW. SYNCOPATED TIMES US 04.03.2020
Don Vappie & Jazz Créole – The Blue Book of Storyville
Don Vappie has had quite a career as a banjoist, guitarist, bassist, singer, arranger-composer, educator, lecturer, record and event producer, and expert about all aspects of New Orleans jazz. While he began playing music as an electric bassist in funk groups, he gradually moved towards the guitar and the banjo, playing traditional jazz with small groups and as a solo banjoist. He started recording in the mid-1980s, has worked with the Jazz At Lincoln Center Orchestra on and off since 1994, led the Creole Jazz Serenaders, and been an important spokesman on television specials and PBS about the music of New Orleans.
Listening to The Blue Book Of Storyville, it is easy to compare Don Vappie with the late Danny Barker, who was also an important banjoist, guitarist, educator and spokesman, but Vappie has his own sound as a banjoist and singer. For this project he is teamed with Jazz Créole, a trio consisting of clarinetist David Horniblow, rhythm guitarist Dave Kelbie, and bassist Sebastien Girardot. Kelbie and Girardot, both of whom played with Evan Christopher in Django a la Creole, give the two lead voices gentle but swinging support throughout.
Vappie sings songs in both French (“Eh La Bas,” “Les Oignons” and Kid Ory’s “C’est l’autre Cancan” among them) and English (“Buddy Bolden’s Blues,” “Basin Street Blues” and his own “The Blue Book Of Storyville”) and takes inventive banjo solos on the instrumentals including “Panama” and the obscure “Abandon.”
The interplay between Don Vappie’s voice and banjo with clarinetist David Horniblow is a joy on nearly every selection, and makes this CD a gem growing in interest with each listen.
ALBUM REVIEW. BEBOP SPOKEN HERE UK 28.01.2020
Don Vappie & Jazz Créole – The Blue Book of Storyville
Don Vappie (banjo, vocals); David Horniblow (clarinet); Dave Kelbie (guitar); Sébastien Girardot (double bass)
Don Vappie has amassed an impressive back catalogue of recordings as a bandleader and sideman. The Blue Book of Storyville on Dave Kelbie’s Lejazzetal Records is the banjoist’s latest as leader and he is in good company working with David Horniblow, clarinet, Lejazzetal label boss Dave Kelbie, guitar and Sébastien Girardot, double bass.
Seventeen tracks stretching over the best part of seventy minutes are band arrangements of familiar, some less familiar, numbers with a particular emphasis on Vappie’s Créole heritage. The vocals – in English and in French – are Vappie’s and his sunny disposition comes shining through. The Blue Book of Storyville (comp. D. Vappie) is an early highlight swiftly followed by Jelly Roll Morton’s Buddy Bolden’s Blues.
David Horniblow is well versed in the Crescent City style (Horniblow’s The Complete Morton Project duo album with pianist Andrew Oliver on Lejazzetal is recommended listening) and on this 2019 Vappie recording the London based clarinettist makes several incisive contributions.
It comes as little surprise to find New Orleans’ staples Basin Street Blues and Red Wing making the cut alongside Vappie’s own compositons. The Blue Book of Storyville (the title track) is Vappie’s critique of his home city’s red light district, its bawdy houses of a century ago and songs of the period which were rather disparaging of the women working on the upper floors as the ‘piano professors’ worked the bar room below.
The New Orleans Rhythm Kings’ Tin Roof Blues, sounding as good as ever almost a century on, is paired with Créole Blues, a tune, as Nick Spitzer points out in his informative sleeve notes, Vappie learned from the 1947 version recorded by Danny Barker and Albert Nicholas. The rhythm boys on this album – Dave Kelbie and Sébastien Girardot – know their onions (French or otherwise) when it comes to the repertoire and, tune after tune, lay down a solid foundation.
Lejazzetal’s reputation goes before it, this new Don Vappie album serves to reaffirm it. Recommended.
ALBUM REVIEW. SUNDAY TIMES UK 12.01.2020
DON VAPPIE & JAZZ CREOLE. The Blue Book of Storyville
An authentic voice of New Orleans, Don Vappie is a banjo player immersed in the local Creole culture — you may well have heard him in the immaculate band Django à la Créole. This unabashedly laid-back set has songs and vamps that, in true Big Easy style, blend jazz virtuosity with buoyant blues riffs and a splash of Caribbean rhythms. The ghosts of Jelly Roll Morton, Sidney Bechet and Kid Ory roam the streets again.
ALBUM REVIEW. ENTRE LES LIGNES ENTRE LES MOTS FR 03.02.2020
Jazz de la Nouvelle-Orléans. Les mémoires du banjo, mémoires du jazz
Don Vappie fait partie des musiciens produits par la Nouvelle Orléans. Un virtuose de l’instrument indispensable pour le jazz des origines : le banjo. « The Blue Book of Storyville » se veut mémoires de la musique des Créoles, croisement entre les maîtres blancs et français avec les esclaves issues de l’Afrique. Ils constituaient une sorte de classe moyenne dans la stratification de la société louisianaise entre les Blancs et les Noirs des quartiers déshérités de la Ville. Après la vente de la Louisiane par Napoléon, ce statut particulier sera aboli par les nouveaux maîtres. A leur grande colère, les Créoles seront assimilés aux Noirs.
Cet ancrage historique permet de comprendre l’utilisation du français – mâtiné certes, le créole est une langue singulière – dans les chansons qui sont reprises par Don Vappie et Jazz Créole, le nom du groupe : David Horniblow, clarinette, Dave Kelbie, guitare et Sébastien Girardot, contrebasse. Ils reprennent « Les Oignons » que Sidney Bechet avait signé alors qu’il s’agit d’une chanson traditionnelle de la Nouvelle Orléans.
Une musique vivante, dansante, drôle tout en étant pleine de mémoires qui transforme le passé en autant de feux-follets pour permettre de construire un avenir.
Fallait-il, pour autant, faire référence à Storyville, le quartier des bordels – un pour les Blancs et un pour les Noirs – fermé en 1917 ? Il faudrait faire taire la légende qui veut que le jazz soit né dans les lieux de plaisirs – pas pour tout le monde, le plaisir ! – alors qu’il a germé dans la rue, dans les ghettos.
OFFBEAT MAGAZINE USA – 01.11.2008
Don Vappie: Give Me Back My Banjo
In 2007, the Folk Alliance hosted a concert by three banjo players at Memphis’s Marriott Hotel. The three men sat in a semi-circle of chairs, the drum-like bodies of the banjos in their laps, the thin sticks of their fretboards pointing to two o’clock. It was a historic occasion, for all three men were African-American, and they were previewing the music that would be released a year later as the landmark Recapturing the Banjo album.
The burly man with the squinting eyes, full beard and blue baseball cap was Colorado’s Otis Taylor, the man who had organized the project. The even larger man with the long dreadlocks spilling out of the green cap was Memphis’s Alvin Youngblood Hart, a Taj Mahal-like blues revivalist and rock ’n’ roller. The third man, the one with the thick curly hair, silver goatee and dapper black blazer was Don Vappie, a major figure from the New Orleans traditional jazz scene.
The three men were intent on “recapturing the banjo” because the instrument had become so closely associated with bluegrass that most people had forgotten that it was originally an African invention. They were unaware of the major role it had played in the music of American slaves and their descendants until the 1930s. These musicians wanted to remind everyone where the banjo had come from and what it had done for African-American music.
Taylor and Hart were most interested in the jug bands, string bands and blues singers from the upper South who made great recordings with the banjo in the ’20s and ’30s. They were trying to jump-start a tradition that had stalled, to retie a thread that had been broken, reconstructing a lost art from those records. When they closed the show with “Walk Right In” by Memphis jug-band giant Gus Cannon, the Carolina Chocolate Drops’ Dom Flemons joined in on backing vocals.
Vappie, by contrast, was trying to extend a banjo tradition that had never been broken. The banjo has been a constant presence in New Orleans jazz from the time Danny Barker played banjo with the Boozan Kings in 1923 until he played it with Wynton Marsalis in 1988. When Vappie played in Memphis, crooning the lilting Creole lyrics to “Les Ognons,” he was playing a music he’d learned from older New Orleans musicians, some of them his own relatives. And he played it on the four-string tenor banjo of his hometown, not on the more widely known five-string banjo of Appalachia.
“Most blacks don’t want to deal with a banjo,” Vappie laments, “but the banjo is a very funky instrument. For a person of color to turn their back on the banjo is to turn their back on their ancestors.”
Vappie played “Les Ognons” again inside the Economy Hall tent at the 2008 Jazz Fest, backed this time by his own band, the Creole Jazz Serenaders. Wearing a dark blue blazer over a black T-shirt, the banjoist introduced King Oliver’s “Nelson Stomp” as “a very modern sound that destroys all the stereotypes about traditional New Orleans music.” It was impressively fresh, and if it didn’t destroy every stereotype, it did dent several of them.
Vappie introduced “Les Ognons” by recalling his recent experience playing with actual African musicians. “I was so happy,” he said, “I started dancing the second line and it fit perfectly with what they were playing.” He infected the audience with that happiness, teaching them how to clap out a second line beat for “Les Ognons.” From that bouncy Haitian song and its dazzling banjo solo, the octet segued into a vintage Danny Barker number and finally, “Eh, La-Bas,” all sung in Creole French. By this point, the crowd was out of its folding chairs, on its feet and twirling umbrellas or dance partners on the grass floor, celebrating at least one banjo successfully recaptured.
“One time I went up to Danny and said, ‘That’s a neat little banjo you have there,’” Vappie says now. “He put it in my hands so I could check it out. I started to hand it back, but he gave me this order that cut right through me. ‘Play something,’ he said. I respect my elders, so I played some tunes for him.
“Now I look back at that moment and I realize that Danny was passing the instrument on to me and asking me to do something with it. Because the banjo is part of us as New Orleans Creoles. You can look at it as a negative stereotype and ignore something that’s part of your heritage. Or you can embrace it. I chose to embrace it.”
Vappie, now 52, hadn’t always embraced the banjo. He had to recapture it for himself before he could recapture it for his people. Before he recorded with Taylor, Hart, Keb’ Mo’, Guy Davis and Corey Harris, before he released his own banjo albums as the leader of Papa Don’s Jazz Band or the Creole Jazz Serenaders, Vappie had shared his generation’s dismissal of the ancient, acoustic instrument.
He had grown up amid New Orleans’ traditional jazz. His mother’s uncle, Papa John Joseph, had played bass for many of the earliest jazz figures, including Buddy Bolden and George Lewis. Vappie grew up taking piano lessons at home and trumpet lessons at school. But what he really wanted to do was play electric bass.
When he finally got one, he co-founded Trac One, an early-’70s funk band that recreated the hits of the Ohio Players, James Brown and Earth, Wind & Fire. They played nightclubs, social clubs and parties; one year they did 35 proms. At more than one battle of the bands, they faced off against the Creators, a rival funk band that featured Wynton and Branford Marsalis in the horn section.
“Even though we were covering the hits, there was a New Orleans flavor in everything we did,” Vappie insists. “When you played for these social clubs at the Longshoreman’s Hall or the ILA Hall, it was almost like an inside picnic. Each family would have a table for themselves and their guests. At one point, the MC would introduce each member, escorted by a wife or daughter. They’d make this semicircle and walk around the room, so everyone could see them. You’d play a second line tune like ‘Bourbon Street,’ and you had to do it New Orleans-style to get the gig. Everyone would join in the second line, and then, boom, you’d go right into the latest tune by Maze.”
Trac One was offered a chance to tour the country, opening for Rare Earth, but the band wasn’t willing to leave its beloved hometown. Later, when Vappie was playing at Papa Joe’s on Bourbon Street as one of Sammy Berfect’s Perfect Gentlemen, he got an offer to replace Joe Beck as the guitarist in Peggy Lee’s band. He turned that down, too.
“I wasn’t ready to leave New Orleans. It’s a very unique place. Growing up here, you’d see people on the street and they’d say hello even if they were strangers. My neighbor would call out, ‘Hey, Don, ca va?’ He wasn’t just saying hello; he was singing it. I remember all the street vendors, calling out ‘bananas’ or ‘rags.’ They were singing, too. Later, when I went all over the world, I realized I was right—there’s nothing else like it.”
But when disco took over much of popular music in the late ’70s, even in New Orleans, Vappie despaired. He found the music boring and the opportunities for live musicians plummeting. He sold all his instruments and quit music for three months. “But it was like losing an arm,” he says, and he bought most of them back three months later. He took a job at Werlein’s Music where the Palace Café is now. He cleaned instruments, and whenever he’d clean a banjo, he’d fool around with it.
“I was surprised,” he says. “It sounded funky without having to mute the strings. Funk music guitarists muted their strings to get that percussive sound, but the banjo didn’t need that; it sounded cool.”
Vappie was working at Werlein’s Lake Forest branch, where Placide Adams, the bassist for Paul Barbarin, George Lewis and Sweet Emma, regularly shopped. Adams heard Vappie playing the banjo and told the youngster, ‘You sound too good to be working in here. You need to be out gigging.’ So Vappie started picking up traditional jazz gigs, only to discover how little of the repertoire he knew. He began to listen religiously to the morning shows on WWOZ to learn the tunes. Before long, he was playing with Teddy Riley, Lloyd Lambert and Gerald Adams.
But he faced a backlash from friends his own age. For the first generation of blacks born after 1955’s Brown v. Board of Education decision, the banjo was tied to minstrel singers and a plantation culture they were trying to forget—or at least put behind them.
“People would say, ‘Oh, you’re playing the banjo? So you’re Uncle Tomming now,’ Vappie says. “When they came at me with those stereotypes, I’d say, ‘Do you know it’s an African instrument?’ They’d say, ‘Really?’ I wonder why a people would disown an instrument that they brought over with them. It’s true that some people play the banjo just because they can get gigs with it playing for the tourists.
“But I play the banjo by my choice, because I like it, because I can reach out and do new things on it. Unlike a lot of guys, I play single-note melodies and variations on those melodies. I don’t just play the four-beat thing; I feel it different. I play swing rhythms, Caribbean rhythms, funk rhythms. I’ve been called the Jimi Hendrix of the banjo.”
It was a tourist gig, however, that allowed Vappie to quit his day job. The Natchez riverboat hired Vappie as the strolling banjo player in 1983 for its daily cruise that went from Jackson Square to Chalmette and back.
“I guess it provided that riverboat gambler image,” he says with a laugh. “It was early in my banjo playing, so it was paid rehearsal in a way. I could try out new things. I had to entertain people one-on-one, which was good training, too. After a year of that, I was offered the bandleader job.”
A tourist gig like this can be an economic godsend, but it can also be an artistic trap, especially if you get too comfortable and clock in your hours as if it were an office job. Vappie recognized this danger and pushed himself to learn new licks, new approaches, new repertoire. He read books and listened to records. He grew fascinated with Jelly Roll Morton, the New Orleans genius who bridged the pre-recording and post-recording eras of early jazz and regularly employed banjo players.
“Jelly Roll’s compositions and his innovations in playing are crucial,” Vappie argues. “He was the first person to comp behind a soloist with a single-note lines rather than chords, like a new melody, an improvised counterpoint. His block chords, like in the tune ‘Freakish,’ pre-date Monk doing that kind of thing. He could write down the improvised polyphony that he heard in his head.
“He’s the anti-stereotype of what people think New Orleans music is. People say, ‘You guys are great. You don’t have to read because you were born with the music in your hands.’ That’s bull. We work hard and study the music; we take lessons and teach them. This whole idea that it’s based on natural instincts is so wrong.”
Vappie’s research and ambitious arrangements enabled him to break out of the tourist gig trap. When the Historic New Orleans Collection discovered some of Morton’s forgotten manuscripts, the non-profit hired Vappie to put a band together to perform the music in public. The Corpus Christi Symphony Orchestra hired Vappie and his Creole Jazz Serenaders to do an evening of music by Morton and other early New Orleans musicians. The Hot Springs Music Festival in Arkansas hired Vappie to arrange and perform a suite of music by the 1920s banjo virtuoso Harry Reser. The results will be released by Naxos Records next year.
In 2005, Vappie released the two most impressive recordings of his career: a Don Vappie & the Creole Jazz Serenaders album called Swing Out and a solo album called Banjo à la Creole. The former showcased the staples of the band’s live show, tunes such as “Les Ognons,” “Viper Mad” and “Down by the Riverside.” The latter featured eight Vappie originals plus fruits from his research into Morton, Reser and Caribbean music. He called it Banjo à la Creole, because the concept of Creole is crucial to his music and his identity.
“You ask 10 people what Creole means, and you get 10 different answers,” Vappie explains in American Creole: New Orleans Reunion, the terrific documentary about him. “What I call Creole are New Orleans people who aren’t white and aren’t black. We’re a mix of French, Spanish, African and American Indian, and that mixture made this city what it is.”
Vappie counts both jazz saxophonist Plas Johnson and Cajun fiddler Michael Doucet among his far-flung cousins, and is sometimes mistaken for a Spaniard or Mexican. He insists that the concept is more important culturally than racially. Instead of worrying about who’s black and who’s white—not always an easy task in Louisiana, he points out—we should be focused instead on the great things that happen when things get blended. Everything that people like about New Orleans, he argues—the music, the food, the architecture—is a result of that blend.
Unfortunately, Vappie’s two albums were released the same month that the levees buckled beneath Katrina’s pressure. The banjoist was in Bangor, Maine, when the storm hit and his house was largely spared. But his boyhood home, where his mother still lived, was devastated. There’s a heartbreaking scene in the documentary (directed by Michelle Benoit and Glen Pitre) where the son visits the house only to find the family photo album full of soggy blurred pictures and his old bed collapsed with rot. In the film, he asks everyone he meets if he should stay in New Orleans or move to another city.
Two things restored his optimism. For one, Don and his wife Milly launched a non-profit campaign, Bring It on Home, to create paying jobs for New Orleans musicians as a way to lure them back to the city. For another, Otis Taylor tracked down Vappie through Ome Banjos, the company that features signature instruments by both men. Taylor explained that he wanted to make an album featuring African Americans playing the banjo. Vappie was all for it.
“I don’t want the black banjo to be part of the past,” Taylor says. “I want it to be part of the future. We’re a modern people; we should play modern music. So the album includes old songs done in new ways and new songs done in traditional ways. It puts together different traditions—the Memphis tradition that Alvin plays and the New Orleans tradition that Don plays. When you do that, you create something new.”
“It was easy to play with those guys,” Vappie says, “because they come out of the blues tradition, and blues was there before jazz. If you can’t play blues, you can’t play jazz. I enjoy playing the banjo outside the box. It’s hard for people to see me outside the box of traditional jazz musician. Otis had me on top of the box.”