“The Ascona Festival is about New Orleans,” says Don Vappie. He will be performing alongside a host of international talent at the upcoming New Orleans Jazz Festival in Ascona, Switzerland from June 25 to July 5. The festival celebrates its 25th anniversary this year and pays homage to the city that is synonymous with jazz music. A small municipality located along the shore of Lake Maggiore and skirted by the Alps, Ascona is one of the most beautiful areas in Switzerland, and as such, it has become a popular and exclusive tourist destination. Each year, jazz enthusiasts from around the world descend upon the community to celebrate a shared affection for the music and culture of the Big Easy.
This year the festival will feature a tribute to renowned New Orleans jazz icon Danny Barker, this being the 100th anniversary of his birth. Barker’s importance within the New Orleans music scene encompassed not only his own individual ability, one which allowed him to play alongside fellow legend Jelly Roll Morton among others, but also his gifts as a teacher. Led by Vappie, a group featuring such notable local artists as Lillian Boutté and bassist Mark Brooks will perform many of Barker’s original compositions, and will focus on music of an essentially Creole character. This project is of particular significance to Vappie, who says of Barker, “It’s important to remember Danny in a good way. He was an influence for me in many different ways. My style seems different than his to most people, but it’s really the same, the same Caribbean and Creole roots.”
Here’s a short guide to the city’s representatives at Jazz Ascona:
Bassist Mark Brooks has a long list of jazz credentials, having performed alongside renowned artists including the Neville Brothers and Fats Domino. His jazz career has taken him from sets at the Karachi Hilton with the late Eddie Bo to Hollywood films such as Ray and The Bridges of Madison County. Reflecting on the opportunities and connections that have come his way from working with so many artists, he muses, “I have to say I’m blessed.”
For Brooks, who has performed at Jazz Ascona before, the devotion and enthusiasm of jazz fans abroad never fails to impress. He recalls one set he played during a rain storm in Berlin. Expecting the show to be called on account of weather and anticipating a quiet evening in the hotel, he instead found a sea of 20,000 jazz fans holding umbrellas. The performance went on as scheduled.
More recently, Brooks had been looking forward to playing with guitar great Snooks Eaglin at the 2009 Jazz Fest, a performance which never took place due to Eaglin’s death from cancer in February. Brooks is currently in the process of putting together his own record and playing gigs around town in preparation for Ascona, where he will be performing as part of the Danny Barker tribute.
Lillian Boutté was named “New Orleans Musical Ambassador” in 1986, and is a well known member of the 7th Ward’s Boutté family with 10 brothers and sisters including vocalists John and Tricia. She credits her musical background to having fundamental music programs in her schools and her brothers and sisters, who were also inclined to playing music together.
In college she performed with New Orleans’ Xavier University gospel choir. Later she was hired by Allen Toussaint as a backup singer, and in the late 1970s she embarked on a five-year world tour as an actor, singer, and dancer in the musical One Mo’ Time.
Living out her desire to bring New Orleans music to the world, Boutté has spent a lot of time in Europe. She led 45 New Orleans musicians including Cajun, soul, jazz, gospel and brass band artists on a 22-city trip through Germany in a tour in 1992 that she called the “Spirit of Louisiana.” She followed that the next year with a similar tour taking gospel to Denmark.
Louis Ford, a saxophonist and clarinet player, is the leader of the New Orleans Jazz Flairs and a fourth-generation New Orleans musician. An Ascona veteran, Ford sees the festival as both an opportunity to play for an enthusiastic audience and a chance to remind people that the music and culture of the Crescent City are alive and well. After Katrina, he recalls, only a handful of the city’s musicians made it to Ascona, leading some to doubt the future of New Orleans music. “They had this perception that there was no more New Orleans culture and not enough New Orleans musicians around anymore,” he says.
Getting to reintroduce the city to fans abroad is one of the many perks of the job for Ford, who relishes the opportunity to involve people in New Orleans jazz, whether that means letting Thailand’s ambassador to Taiwan sit in on practice sessions or educating local students in the city’s jazz tradition. Although he’s been impressed by the jazz talent springing up in new places, he recognizes the desire for that authentic New Orleans sound. He and his band are only too willing to address that need whenever possible, whether playing shows around the world or attending this summer’s Sun Valley Jazz Jubilee, a festival in Idaho in which they will be the only all-black, New Orleans act among a number of bands playing in the New Orleans tradition.
Ford has just finished his fourth studio album and is slated to play at several festivals this summer in addition to Jazz Ascona, where he’ll be performing with German trumpeter Norbert Susemihl’s New Orleans All Stars alongside fellow New Orleanian Jason Marsalis.
Jason Marsalis was raised to play jazz, not just because he is a Marsalis but because his father Ellis bought him his first toy set of drums when he was three. At six, not only did he begin playing on a real drum set, but Marsalis started taking lessons from famed New Orleans jazz drummer James Black.
Marsalis is a product of a New Orleans musical education, learning by playing with his family and in school, then in 1991, at the prestigious New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (NOCCA). He even studied orchestral percussion techniques at the renowned Eastern Music Festival.
After Jason graduated from NOCCA, he began to tour with his brother Wynton’s former sideman Marcus Roberts. In addition to touring, Marsalis continued his education at Loyola University in New Orleans and Southeastern University, where he studied composition with Roger Dickerson. When he is not playing, Marsalis has made the natural progression and teaches at his alma mater, NOCCA, working with the drum students.
In 2008, Marsalis released Music Update, his first as the leader of the band. The album features his work on the vibraphone, the instrument he picked up 8 years ago. He recently returned from Italy where he played with his band, the Vibes, and from California where he played with his old friend Marcus Roberts.
Born in New Orleans, Herlin Riley had the benefit of a musically inclined family which encouraged his gifts from a very early age. As a result, he began to play the drums when he was only three years old. His musical focus then shifted to the trumpet throughout his high school and early college years, but his passion for the drums later led him back to percussion. His musical development continued during his time with Ahmad Jamal in the mid 1980s, and beginning in 1988, he toured with Wynton Marsalis, solidifying his reputation within the jazz community. The group disbanded in 1994, but he continues his musical relationship with Marsalis as both are members of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.
Having appeared at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival since the early 1970s, Riley made his debut as the leader of a band under his own name this year. He dedicated his performance to Danny Barker.
Don Vappie grew up in New Orleans and spent time playing the trumpet and piano before he found his first love, the electric bass. Like so many area musicians, he played the hits of the day while in high school, which for Vappie meant funk by the Ohio Players and Earth, Wind & Fire.
He found his musical true love working in a music store, where he played around with the banjos while cleaning them. In the banjo, he found a link to his African and Creole heritage—one that many African Americans overlooked. “The banjo’s got such a bad rap,” he says.” People really just prefer something like the trumpet, which is often seen as the ‘leader’ of the band. It really doesn’t get the credit it deserves.” Since adopting it, Vappie has played with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and as a part of Otis Taylor’s Black Banjo Project. He has earned outstanding reviews for his work with the Corpus Christi Symphony Orchestra, and he has explored the Caribbean Creole music. His 1997 release Creole Blues was chosen as one of OffBeat Magazine’s 100 essential CDs of the 20th Century from Louisiana.
Published June 2009, OffBeat Louisiana Music & Culture Magazine, Volume 22, No. 6.