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.”
Don Vappie performs as part of the Nickel-a-Dance series at Ray’s Room on November 9, and at Snug Harbor November 15.