“When I got into and started really playing New Orleans jazz more often, it was me working my way back,” says Don Vappie, on break between classes at Loyola University, where he teaches jazz guitar. “It wasn’t just me going back and saying, ‘Oh this is great music.’ This was me coming from where I grew up playing in funk and Top 40 bands and working my way back and seeing how the stuff that happened before me fit into what I’m doing now. How did that fit into this? And I kept going back and that’s when, for me, I realized that early New Orleans music was the basis for everything. It was the original music of America that influenced everything that was happening here. I mean Jelly Roll Morton is in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame!”
Vappie is a multi-instrumentalist, arranger, bandleader and music educator who comes from a multi-generational New Orleans musical family. His grandmother played guitar and banjo and was part of a musical sibling group that included Papa John Joseph, the bass player and barber whose shop Buddy Bolden used to frequent. Vappie’s cousin, Plas Johnson, was one of the famed “Wrecking Crew” session players, and is best known as the sax on Henry Mancini’s “Pink Panther Theme.”
It’s no surprise that Vappie has followed in the family tradition. He’s played in funk cover bands, traditional jazz bands, and with full orchestras in venues as diverse as Bourbon Street and Carnegie Hall. He was featured in the PBS documentary American Creole: New Orleans Reunion. His sprawling resumé spans genres and generations, and reflects his life-long mission to share his cultural heritage with the world. His latest endeavor will be a tribute to Joe “King” Oliver, cornetist and famed pioneer of early New Orleans music, at this year’s Jazz Fest.
How does Joe “King” Oliver fit into the landscape of New Orleans music?
Well, I think King Oliver is sort of the blueprint for how an early New Orleans jazz band should sound. Even in the revival period—his instrumentation, the elements that he used, and breaks for individual soloists. Originally I think New Orleans jazz had more polyphonic improvisation, meaning that multiple players improvised together. Not in chaos, it’s a conversational type of improvisation. Everybody’s playing off each other, but at the same time there’s a role for each instrument, there’s a certain place where each instrument fits inside of things. It’s sort of like in society. Trumpet plays what we consider to be the main message, the melody. But everyone can comment on the melody. They can agree with it or not agree with it. It’s very democratic, but not completely chaotic. Absolute freedom is chaos. It’s freedom within the confines of a set of rules. I feel like Oliver set that up. I really do.
What makes Oliver’s style distinctive?
One of his real strengths was that he was considered to be a genius with a mute—how to make a horn talk. He was Louis Armstrong’s mentor. When he got the chance he got Louis to come up to Chicago and record with his band in 1923. That’s got to be the ultimate recording of New Orleans music. There was the Astoria Hot Eight, the Sam Morgan band, the New Orleans Owls, there were a lot of different bands at the time. But Oliver’s band was sorta like the Jazz at Lincoln Center of its day in terms of openness, of different styles they played. Of course we can’t just cover 1923. We have to cover Oliver from 1923 to 1930. He understood the evolution. He understood that you have to grow. So he got his cousin Dave Nelson to come up from Donaldsonville and start writing arrangements for him. That’s where we get the classics like ‘Too Late,’ ‘Struggle Buggy’ and ‘Nelson Stomp,’ which sound so modern, so big band, but they still have that Southeast Louisiana feel to them. There’s some high-hat cymbal stuff that happens in ‘Nelson Stomp’ that reminds me of Chick Webb, so maybe Chick Webb was influenced by that, you know?
Will you be playing with the Creole Jazz Serenaders for this tribute? Who’s in your line-up?
Some of them. But let me say this: Bluegrass is thriving. I think it’s thriving because Bill Monroe always had young people playing. The revival period, in the ’40s and ’50s, made this impression that it had to be old people playing this music. Now that could be part of a Preservation Hall marketing thing when it came about in the 1960s. So when I started doing the Creole Jazz Serenaders I thought, ‘I’m gonna use younger people or even people who are considered outside of the traditional jazz thing.’ All the guys who play with me play all kinds of music.
For this show I decided to get Ashlin Parker because he’s a trumpet player and he’s benefited from Oliver and Armstrong and I think he will understand the significance when he plays this old stuff. I’ve also got Leon ‘Kid Chocolate’ Brown. I’ve got Mike Esneault from Baton Rouge, he’s a pianist and arranger. I’ve got Peter Harris on bass and Karl Budo on drums. Derek Douget and Alonzo Bowens are both on sax. I’ve also got Tom Fischer. It’s gonna be a varied group of musicians, but I think that’s gonna make it even better.
Why should Jazz Fest attendees make your show a priority?
Everywhere I’ve been in the world, I can find a New Orleans jazz band. In Russia, all the Scandinavian countries, Estonia, France, England, Spain, Italy, Austria, Germany, Japan, Brazil, Nicaragua, India, everywhere! There’s somebody trying to play New Orleans jazz everywhere. That should say something right there. What an honor to have so many people trying to copy what you do. What an honor for the style! It traveled without the internet, without TV, without radio. That makes me so proud to be from here.
CREOLE JAZZ SERENADERS WITH DON VAPPIE: SUNDAY, APRIL 29—ECONOMY HALL TENT, 12:30 P.M.
DON VAPPIE: FRIDAY, MAY 4—ALLISON MINER MUSIC HERITAGE STAGE, 12 P.M.
DON VAPPIE’S TRIBUTE TO KING OLIVER: FRIDAY, MAY 4—CULTURAL EXCHANGE PAVILION, 4:20 P.M.