Following an extended stay in Europe - including performances at the Dixie Days Festival in Le Havre, France, and nine days with the Irvin Mayfield Jazz Playhouse Revue at Switzerland’s Ascona Jazz Festival - Don Vappie comes home to Louisiana for a concert with his Creole Jazz Serenaders at St. James Episcopal Church in Baton Rouge, part of the church’s Summer Sounds concert series.
The resourceful Vappie plays tenor and six-string banjo, guitar, bass and mandolin. A singer as well, his repertoire spans pop, funk, rhythm-and-blues and the classic 1920s through 1940s jazz he performs with the Creole Jazz Serenaders.
The latter musical period, Vappie said from Switzerland, “was one of the most creative in the history of music. It happened in New Orleans and it is nothing less than genius.
“Normally, when you hear ?New Orleans jazz,’ you think of Dixieland, which is more like the New Orleans jazz-revival period of the 1950s and ‘60s. But you rarely get to hear the earlier sounds that earned New Orleans the title ?birthplace of jazz.’ “
Vappie and the Serenaders play the music of New Orleans jazz pioneers Jelly Roll Morton, King Oliver, Louis Armstrong and the Astoria Hot Eight as well as non-New Orleanians Duke Ellington, Jabbo Smith, the Mills Blue Rhythm Band and many more.
Following Hurricane Katrina, members of the Creole Jazz Serenaders were among the thousands forced into exile from the New Orleans area. Vappie’s house in Covington, however, was spared.
“Katrina was a setback,” he said. “At one point, band members were spread across three or four states, but now everyone is back in Louisiana.”
The 2006 public television documentary, American Creole: New Orleans Reunion, depicted Vappie’s efforts to rebuild his career after Katrina.
“It has a special place in my heart,” he said of the film. “The whole idea of ?Creole people’ is so misunderstood and misrepresented. Though the definitions vary depending on who you talk to, I wanted to give everyone an idea of what it is to be Creole by inviting them into my extended family and letting them see and hear us. Katrina interfered with that plan but we managed to get an interesting story out.”
In addition to the Creole Jazz Serenaders and Irvin Mayfield Playhouse Revue, Vappie performs with the Don Vappie Trio, Don Vappie Quartet, New Orleans musicians Bob French, Evan Christopher and Lillian Boutte, the Bobby Campo Quartet, Baton Rouge keyboardist Mike Esneault (on many Wednesdays at Sullivan’s) and many others.
Vappie’s versatility also means surprises come along, a recent example being the Jazz at Lincoln Center presentation Wynton Marsalis and Eric Clapton Play The Blues.
“It was a pleasure to work with Eric,” Vappie said. “He is a real down to earth guy. When he played solos, he did his thing, which is steeped in the blues. What he did fit great into what we did. After all, the blues is a part of jazz. And Eric enjoyed it very much, we all enjoyed it very much.”
A review in The New York Times of the Marsalis-Clapton collaboration made note of Vappie’s “briskly strummed banjo.” Banjo wasn’t his first instrument, but it’s probably his best-known instrument.
“I grew up in New Orleans and had memories of hearing the banjo,” he said. “But my generation hated the instrument because of the negative icon it had become. In our time, it represented the racism of black-faced minstrels and other stereotypical images of black people.
“But I got past that when I realized that the banjo was brought here from Africa. And after seeing an old man in St. Lucia play the banjo with other musicians, I made the cultural connection between New Orleans and the Caribbean. That’s when I began to try to educate as well as entertain people.
“Since then, I’ve performed with African musicians from Mali. They told me that not only was the banjo part of their music but so was I. An African musician told me that when he played with me it was like playing with his family. What greater compliment can you receive? It said that I didn’t have to go to Africa to learn the music because it was already in me. It’s part of the musical and cultural legacy that New Orleans gave to me.”
The Summer Sounds concert series at St. James Episcopal Church continues July 13 with Mike Esneault and Ed Perkins, July 20 with the Heart-Voice Trio and July 27 with the Campanile Trio.
Vappie will also perform Friday, July 8, at the LSU School of Music Recital Hall as part of the Hot Summer Nights, Cool Jazz concert series.