INTERVIEW WITH DON VAPPIE
Videotaped at the Black Banjo Gathering in Boone, NC, April 2005. Don is a wizard of the tenor and six-string banjos and is widely considered to be one of New Orleans's premier musicians. His transcriptions and arrangements of early jazz by Jelly Roll Morton and King Oliver led to collaborations with Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.
MARC FIELDS: Growing up in New Orleans in the 1960s, how did you end up playing the banjo?
DON VAPPIE: There's a misconception that you play this or you play that, that you're a New Orleans player or a funk player or a modern jazz player. I grew up playing the pop music of my time -- Earth Wind and Fire, that kind of stuff... Started up playing bass and guitar... There was a wonderful radio station called WWOZ, and they have a traditional jazz show... so I learned a lot of tunes, standards. Doing that, I fooled around with the banjos in the store [the music store where he worked], just cleaning them and stuff. So a buyer said, "Why don't you play a couple songs on it just to appease the tourists -- it would be nice." I said I'd think about it…
I heard them [banjos] in what I played before, in funk. They had that muted sound. So the guitar players would do things like [plays] So it sounded normal to me, so I got one, tuned it like a guitar and played it like that. Next thing you know, I had a gig on the riverboat Natchez, doing a solo walkaround. It's kind of weird how it happened -- the guys convinced me to quit my day gig... I didn't want to go back to the day job so I came up with a name. Had a great uncle Papa John Joseph, they called him Papa John. Well, he's not around so I'll call myself Papa Don, and it worked. Got a gig on a boat, I was there for maybe 7 yrs., gigs around town. It's funny, some of the local guys, I remember one of them comin' up to me, saying, you heard of this guy Papa Don? Where does he come from? It's funny. That's how I got into the banjo.
At that point it was just working... I got known around town as a banjo player. So I actually got a call to do something with Wynton Marsalis in the early 90s. It was Jelly Roll Morton and Oliver, so I went out and got some recordings, checked that out.
…So it was a 6 string banjo. Because St. Cyr used to play these bass lines on it, so I said I gotta get me one of those. At that time for me, I was tuning the 4 string, the tenor, with the same tuning that I do these four strings here [indicates six string banjo]. So for me it was exactly the same. But when I got this [6 string] it wasn't long after that I thought, I have to learn. Because that's something banjo players said -- he's not really a banjo player because he doesn't tune it like a tenor. ... Anyway I must of have been doing something right, because when Al Lewis got sick, he was at Preservation Hall and one of the people there called me to come over and cover, cuz there aren't a whole lot of banjo players in New Orleans.
So I started doing that gig. I immediately got approval form the elders -- they all liked me, they all liked the way I played. I had the feel -- that's a big part of it. After I started tuning this instrument like a tenor, in fifths, I understood why in a personal way guys chose this to play in the bands. Cuz they play so loud, and you can bang away on this, and the tuning is more open so it cuts thru a lot more.
MF: How would you characterize the way the banjo was used in the early jazz bands?
DV: I think early on it was sorta like the pulse of a band. Now when you hear jazz the drummer is playing on the high hat or the ride cymbal, but they didn't do that back then -- the banjo did that [PLAYS]. And the drummer's going [VOCALIZES]. So the banjo's like that pulse. Early on, that's what it was. But we also had the Creole stuff, which is kind of new to me. And I'm saying new, within the last ten years. Because you have all these experts now telling you, this is how its done. But there's not one way of doing it.
MF: So who were your models for that sound?
DV: Listening to Johnny St. Cyr early on, listening to him with Jelly Roll, with King Oliver. There's a feel there. It's hard to really verbalize this, but the feel is so important, and that's what I got from these guys. The feeling --what needs to happen. Django Reinhardt's band had that feel. It might have been slightly different, but it's that [GESTURES].
Louisiana, the dominant culture was basically Creole French. And there was a lot of people who came from the islands into that Gulf Coast area. And you can't deny -- Jelly Roll Morton talks about the Latin tinge, that's where it comes from. Now today you can get recordings of these Creole bands, and you can hear that some of those bands were playing New Orleans jazz…. That's one of things that made me start the Creole Jazz Serenaders, because that stuff was dying. Danny Barker, one of the great players, man, he was the only guy I ever heard do that stuff. He's gone.
MF: Tell me more about Danny Barker…
DV: I think my experience with Danny, I got to work with him as a bass player. For my solo, I played the melody. And on the break, he comes up to me and says, "You keep playing the melody, you're going to go a long way." But he liked me from then....
He played the 6 string. Danny tuned his banjo, he used a lighter gauge and tuned his open string to a G instead of an E. I think that's to get closer to a tenor banjo range. But he would play things like [PLAYS ISLAND-SOUNDING TUNE] That feel, which is very island but he could also play the regular thing.
So he hands it to me and says "check it out". It was almost exactly like this one... and I played it a little bit. But it was a special moment, almost like he was telling me that I was somebody who would bring it someplace else. It was like he was saying, I can't carry it anymore, because he was still carrying it. And he was one of the guys playing the banjo in New Orleans when we've got all these negative stereotype images, nobody in my generation wants to play a banjo. They thought it was just Uncle Tommin' for the white folks, I mean that's what it was about. The generation before me, and I kinda understand some of those things...
MF: Is there much interest or awareness among young people in New Orleans about the banjo's role in their music?
DV: [Describes how he started doing jazz awareness program in schools...] One of the things I'd do, cuz the kids would come in and go "Huh?" and we'd get 'em and I'd say, "Hold up, hold up." I'd ask, "Which one of these instruments up here has its origins in Africa?" Think about it now. What I'm saying is, "Which one of these instruments comes from Africa? If you know, raise your hand." Never get it right. They'd pick the drum, they'd pick the bass... Didn't even know what a trumpet was...
So I would notice when I'd tell them, "Banjo comes from Africa." Brought here by the slaves, and everybody would get quiet... It was like, wow... It was almost like a subtle sense of pride...
MF: Who were your inspirations on the six-string?
DV: St Cyr in the way he influenced me was thru his work with Jelly Roll, Oliver and Armstrong and the Hot Fives and Hot Sevens. He did these like in "Canal Street Blues," [PLAYS] and when the clarinet is playing its solo, he's playing this [PLAYS], doing that kind of thing. It's on a Hot Five, it goes [PLAYS] St Cyr wrote it.
Jelly had it up here [POINTS TO HEAD]. Jelly didn't get enough credit. They think he was a big braggart. But I was proud actually to be a music director for a world premiere of Jelly's music [at the New Orleans jazz and Heritage Festival] that was found… But nobody in New Orleans covered it! Jelly was telling the truth... They just brush him off.
Being from New Orleans, seeing Bourbon Street in the 70s, when I was much younger, and it was much different than it is now. We still had the barkers outside the clubs, come on in, I remember that, the rough voice, and that's how you sell it. And I'm sure Jelly was just selling his thing
MF: What makes a tune "creole"?
DV: [PLAYING TENOR] A creole tune... [PLAYS AND SINGS] The almost latin rhythm, and it's in French. It's very similar to some of the island. [PLAYS] .. Same kind of groove...
Blues is part of it, but it's just one of the ingredients. You can play it like that, the quadrilles and things, like "Tiger Rag." The early bands using the banjo like that, I really think it was taking the place, before the drummers used the high hat. It was that unifying thing, it helped to create the swing. But I think the banjo in the islands did a whole lot more than that. It was melodic.
MF: Ever been tempted to play the five-string?
DV: My wife's from Kentucky, her family reunions are bluegrass. I've always liked Bill Monroe, Ricky Skaggs, Flatt & Scruggs, which is unusual because most of the time in New Orleans when I was growing up, most people tend to be not so open to different things... We're doing a tune we heard on a Flatt & Scruggs record called, "When the Angels Carry Me Home". It was written by Charlie Monroe, his brother. We started doing it, cuz in New Orleans you have these gospel tunes [PLAYS] It's like one of those... Put a little [PLAYS SWING RHYTHM] to get that...
Bill Monroe always had young guys in the band. A lot of people look at Preservation Hall in New Orleans as the place where you preserve jazz. But you gotta be careful. Preserve or conserve? Preserve can kill it. I worked there for "x" number of years. Point is, they didn't encourage young people playing there... Maybe that could be because a stereotype developed to where people were expecting to see old black musicians at Preservation Hall... I will say, I have to be truthful, I'm not going to assimilate a stereotype just to make some money.
MF: But didn't you catch some flack when you started playing banjo on the riverboat?
DV: When I first got the banjo, I needed a job. I got a little derby, put on a vest -- not a striped one -- but I went on a boat, because that seemed to be the look that banjo players were taking. But you know I never tried to lie in my playing. It might have to do with tourism too, because marketers go out and ask people what they expect to see when they come to New Orleans: "Oh we expect to hear, When the saints go marching in, and blah blah" and then they tell you play "the saints" or end with "Down by the Riverside." Make sure you do those "New Orleans" tunes.
I was so excited when Sule Greg [Wilson, one of the organizers of the Black Banjo Gathering] called me. For one thing, I caught some stuff about the banjo. "Hey Vappie's playing the banjo, yuck, yuck..." The image -- I never saw the image like that. I mean I saw what happened, but that's one little piece of a great big picture. If you continue to believe the bull, then you continue to support the picture. So when he told me this was going on, I thought it's about time. The instrument's from Africa... I mean we all celebrate Washington's birthday ... Why can't we all support the heritage of the banjo?
I know we've been thru a lot in this country, but to me… I've always said that jazz is predominantly a huge contribution of African-American of blacks of people like Creoles like myself. If you acknowledge everything, then you really see how huge the black contribution is -- but if you try to exclude people -- and this goes for everything, to me you diminish the whole. But to be at this conference is a dream, celebrating the banjo and the African-American community. So I can stand here and say I'm Don Vappie, and I'm a Creole from New Orleans, and I'm celebrating this banjo in my culture. And I'm happy that everybody else is.