Jazz banjo player Don Vappie has performed in Carnegie Hall, Jazz at Lincoln Center and the Fairmont Hotel’s famed Blue Room. But the former Preservation Hall band member said there’s something special about playing at The Maison, a casual venue on Frenchmen Street with plenty of space for dancing.
“I've always enjoyed intimate settings,” as opposed to 1,200- to 5,000-seat theaters, Vappie said.
Vappie will lead the Creole Jazz Sextet at The Maison on Sunday, Oct. 8. It's part of the 24th annual Nickel-A-Dance series, which features music and dancing from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. every Sunday in October at the same Frenchmen Street site.
Nickel-A-Dance kicks off with a performance by Herlin Riley and The Flat Foot Five on Oct. 1. The monthlong set of shows, which happens once in the fall and again in the spring, attracts jazz aficionados and dancers of all ages, ethnicities and economic backgrounds.
“Nickel-A-Dance brings us back to our roots, both musically and dance-wise,” said Vappie, emphasizing that the elements of music and dance are connected, especially when it comes to early New Orleans jazz.
“As a true New Orleans musician, I'm inspired by the dancers,” he said. “Their movements inspire me, in terms of how I improvise and play what I'm playing.”
Although jazz originated as “dance music,” Nickel-A-Dance is one of the few local events that features live jazz tunes in a venue with a vast dance floor, Vappie said.
Nickel-A-Dance was launched in 1994 by Jason Patterson, Susan Hall and Andrea Duplessis. The group was working with the Louisiana Jazz Federation to produce a Jazz Awareness Month when they came up with the idea for a free concert series.
“Nickel-A-Dance was created to promote jazz to audiences that wouldn't normally be exposed to it,” Patterson said. “We wanted to choose bands that could provide jazz the way it was originally presented and have people go back to dancing to it.”
He describes the series of music as “classic New Orleans jazz,” which was popular during the first quarter of the 20th century.
“We tried to make it as close to the original form that was played in New Orleans, prior to the 1930s,” said Patterson. “We do make an exception occasionally.”
This fall two musicians are making their debut at the series: Roderick Paulin on Oct. 15 and Gerald French on Oct. 22.
The series features acclaimed band leaders from musical families that go back generations in New Orleans jazz history, Patterson said.
Nickel-A-Dance has always attracted “older folks” who appreciate being able to listen to jazz, to dance and to socialize before the sun goes down. But Patterson said he believes the “millennial interest” in this genre of music has diversified the age range of the Sunday crowd.
“There's been a revival of interest in classic New Orleans jazz by a much younger audience. We started getting younger people that really knew how to dance,” said Patterson. “It's great to have people energized and enjoying this kind of music that’s so important to the culture of New Orleans.”
Dance to the beat
Don Keller, a computer programmer, has been attending Nickel-A-Dance for nearly 20 years and has forged friendships with regulars along the way.
“You meet one dancer and then another dancer,” said Keller. “It's funny because you don't get to know the people who just watch. I don't sit down long because I love the music.”
Keller usually dances with his wife, but he acknowledged that “this is a city where everybody dances with everybody,” so it’s not unusual for him to jive with a person he’s never met, including curious tourists exploring Frenchmen Street.
“I've asked some of them to dance — total strangers — and they just love it,” he said. “Some of them say, ‘I've never danced before,’ or ‘I've never danced to this music,’ and they love it.”
The events are less crowded during Saints home games, though guests do show up in team jerseys after an early afternoon game. And if the match is away, regulars may glance at the game on venue’s large TV screens, in between dances.
“You'd hear the groans and the shouts, but they're also dancing,” said Keller.
Some people arrive other from other cities, making the lively affair feel like a reunion.
“It's a community where you recognize and know each other,” said Keller, explaining that the group’s affinity for music and dancing unites them, and makes their differences irrelevant.
“Dancing, and listening to music with friends, is never about money. It's never about jobs; it's never about who you are, what you have, what you did or what you're going to do,” said Keller. “It's about the moment. You're really in the moment, and that's important.”
24th annual Nickel-A-Dance series
When: 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. Sundays in October
Where: The Maison
508 Frenchmen St.