Nineteen year-old Conun Pappas began playing piano out of sheer curiosity. Now, as part of the Bridge Trio, he’ll back up Donald Harrison when Harrison plays the Jazz Tent.
At an early age he realized he could pick out the piano parts in songs while listening to his grandmother’s old records. He was also fascinated by his Aunt Donna’s piano, which she always kept locked–except for one day.
“My cousin dropped a bead in the piano, and my aunt opened it up to get it out and she let us play around on it,” Pappas says. “I had the most fun just playing on it. From there, I asked my mom for a keyboard.”
After a young Pappas got his keyboard, he began to learn basic chords and triads by ear because, as he quickly found out, his parents could not teach him how to read sheet music.
“Growing up, you think mom and dad could do everything,” he says. “But I don’t really come from a musical family. I think it was better for me that way though because they said, ‘Okay, since we can’t teach you, we’ll make sure we get the best to teach you.’ Plus, by them not knowing music, I got to play whatever kind of music I wanted.”
When he was in third grade, Pappas’ parents helped him find his first private piano tutor, who taught him to sight read. Then his parents enlisted teachers to perfect his classical piano.
But it wasn’t until he was 12 years old that Pappas first caught a whiff of the jazz he plays today, thanks to the Louis Armstrong “Satchmo” Jazz Camp, under the direction of Edward “Kidd” Jordan. While studying piano at the camp, his piano teachers didn’t teach him the level of a musician’s intensity quite like bassist Elton Huron.
“He wasn’t a piano player, he played bass, but boy did he know his way around a piano,” Pappas says while shaking his head and cupping his mouth in disbelief. “He was my first experience with a very intense teacher. I remember it took me a while before I could pick up jazz, so for about five minutes we sat in silence, and then he told me to visualize the piece. As a 12-year-old, you’re like, ‘What is he talking about, he’s crazy!’ Now I understand the things he said to make it work.”
After Huron’s lessons about mastering musicianship, Pappas would go into the band room to watch a group play under the instruction of Jonathan Bloom and Kent Jordan. When pianist Jonathan Batiste left for Julliard, they asked Pappas to fill in.
“I remember the moment that he left and they asked me to play with the ensemble. I had no experience, because you know, I had never played in a group, and that was a major turning point. [Kent] really pushed me to play with a group and to practice, practice, practice!”
Drummer Joe Dyson is also 19, but he got his start in music from a different source entirely–church.
“I grew up in a musical family,” the quiet Dyson says as he recalls his earliest times playing. “My father is an organist and a bass player, my grandmother is a vocalist, and I have cousins who play, and we all played in Holy Faith Temple Baptist Church, where my father is the pastor. So, that was my early musical environment.”
But before Dyson played his first beat in church, his mother insists that he would pull out pots and pans and start banging on those until he got his first drum set. “My uncle gave me my first pair of drum sticks and I just did the same for my little cousin” Dyson says.
But the banging didn’t stop there. In pre-school, he always fought to play drums during their music classes–a self-professed young “pro” who was already playing at his father’s church.
Next, Dyson was off to McDonough 15 in the French Quarter, which at the time was a creative and performing arts school that also spawned local musician Trombone Shorty. It was there that Dyson learned to read music. Under the direction of Jerry McGowan, he would play for group settings in marching bands and concert ensembles.
Monthly field trips to Preservation Hall and the Jazz National Historic Park greatly influenced the young drummer. One day, while doing a music workshop at the park, Clyde Kerr noticed Dyson sitting all the way in the back of the other students.
“I would always get called on to go up and play,” Dyson laughs. “[Kerr would say] ‘Is that Joe Dyson in the back? Come up and play!'”
The third member of the trio, 20-year-old bassist Max Moran, began his musical undertakings playing the violin at the insistence of his parents when he was five. After moving to New Orleans from Natchitoches, Moran decided at age 10 that he no longer liked the violin or practicing, and tried the guitar instead. It was Dan Sumner’s direction at Lusher Extension that inspired him to play the bass and jazz.
“I knew him before I was at Lusher because I got lessons from him,” Moran says. “I would learn notes, basic chords and simple songs. Then I would learn rock songs I liked, like System of a Down, and play that.”
Moran played in the band at Lusher, and in 8th grade Sumner needed a bassist for a jazz band, a position Moran gladly accepted. A friend needed a bass player for his band as well, so Moran bought a bass and began to rock out in rehearsals.
“I immediately felt like a bass player, and I was never going back,” Moran says.
Playing in the jazz band at school was influential to Moran, who remembers that trumpet player Bryce Miller would come during practices and help out. Because of these experiences he decided that he liked jazz, and got into gigging at an early age with classmates. His pre-teen band landed an early gig at the Funky Butt every Wednesday, playing for tips and food from the restaurant.
It was then that he decided he wanted to become a musician and study jazz at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (NOCCA) while in high school, and participated in the NOCCA summer program for jazz. Neither Moran, Dyson nor Pappas realized how important NOCCA was to become for their careers.
After meeting Pappas at the Louis Armstrong Jazz Camp, Alvin Batiste, who was the head of the jazz department at NOCCA, urged the young musician to try out for NOCCA.
His tryout, however, was less than ideal. Pappas auditioned for the classical program, not jazz, and was rejected.
“When I got there, they really chewed me out, and I felt like I didn’t know anything,” he says. Not willing to give up on the opportunity to study with musicians such as Michael Pellera, Chris Severin, and Batiste, Pappas tried out again–this time for jazz–and he made it into the program.
“Being at NOCCA made me realize that I have my own identity as a piano player,” he says. “I always kept that with me, even now.”
Getting into NOCCA was easier for Dyson.
“Sophomore year of high school, Mr. Batiste kind of just let me in the program and I didn’t have to audition,” Dyson says. “But I had the most trouble with learning the theory and stuff. Those classes always gave me the most hell.”
Despite his Marching 100 days at St. Augustine, Dyson was given one week to get his act together, and learn some type of msuic theory before he was booted out the program.
“I had to leave behind the title of a drummer, and become a musician,” Dyson says.
Since Moran knew he wanted to be a musician before he even entered high school, NOCCA seemed like an easy choice for his development and he attended its summer program to prepare. He was taught by one of his bass heroes, Chris Severin, but Severin noticed something about Moran that no one had before.
“He told me there was something wrong with my technique. That was something I practiced hard on and still carry with me today,” Moran says.
But it was Alvin Batiste’s lessons about music and life that united the three. They all had “Mr. Bat” for jazz combo and ensemble classes. “He was all about finding your originality. He didn’t tell you what to play,” Pappas says. “He trained our ears based on notes he would play.”
Batiste loved to speak in metaphors as well. Dyson recalls not being able to understand his messages right away because Batiste never told his students the answers; he made them figure them out on their own. “‘Hipness is a profound colloquialism that professes an abstract truth.’ Mr. Bat would say that all the time, and I’m just now starting to understand it,” Dyson says.
The three met before NOCCA, but it wasn’t until they started playing at each other’s gigs in high school that their chemistry took off. “My favorite people to play with were Conun and Joe, so the three of us got a lot closer musically, and really, the reason why we started as a trio was because of Mr. Batiste,” Moran says. “He helped us work on starting to sound like a band.”
Pretty soon the group now known as the Bridge Trio was playing gigs with Batiste’s band at Snug Harbor before they were even old enough to get in the club.
Due to their good grades in high school (St. Augustine for Pappas and Dyson, and Benjamin Franklin for Moran), excellent musicianship, and numerous awards and accomplishments, the Bridge Trio members have landed themselves at some of the top music schools in the country.
Pappas spends his time at the Manhattan School of Music, getting used to the New Yorkers who aren’t as friendly as southerners from the Big Easy.
“They may not act like New Orleanians, but they are truly inspiring,” Pappas says about the students he interacts with in college. “I’ve shown a huge improvement playing in New York. I’ve learned to play with more energy and edge. The students here are much more intense, and I’m inspired.”
Dyson and Moran are currently living out their freshman year of college at Berklee College of Music, both with a full scholarship. “Before we went there, a lot of people told us not to become the typical ‘Berklee student’ and I’m starting to see more and more what they mean,” Moran says. “Sometimes Berklee can be really clique-y and catty. Sometimes the jazz students look down on pop singers, and a lot of R&B cats think we’re pretentious. Too often people try to put us in a box. Joe and I do play more than just jazz.”
While studying hard and playing hard is a necessity 24/7 for these three musicians, it’s difficult sometimes to go to school and also gig with jazz great Donald Harrison. The trio has played with Harrison for three years, and Dyson missed a placement exam playing a date with him in Sweden. “For that semester, I was in classes that I know I should’ve tested out of,” he says.
But Harrison appreciates the work of these three. “I try to groom them to be professional musicians; that’s why I put them on the road with me for gigs,” Harrison says. “Conun is well-rounded, Joe is very professional, and Max has a great feeling towards funk. Their music is beautiful.”
So, with all this experience under their belts, their future looks bright. Pappas is planning to release a solo video game soundtrack concept album sometime in the future, Moran would like to eventually front his own band and own his own music venue, and like Batiste advised him to do, Dyson will always be “striving for the hipness, always evolving and always changing.”
Even though the three now spend more than half of their school year in the Big Apple, they still believe in the culture of New Orleans music.
“More youth should try to understand that this music is a huge part of the culture in New Orleans,” Moran adds. “This tradition is something that’s unique and should be appreciated.”