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American Routes Shortcuts: Don Vappie

Don Vappie
Don Vappie

This is American Routes Live with Don Vappie and friends. Don is from a New Orleans Creole family and is a studied purveyor of jazz banjo. He knows much about the history of the music and the instrument, going back to origins in West Africa. I asked Don about New Orleans banjo players.

Don Vappie: One of my very favorite early players was Johnny St. Cyr because I actually studied bass, and he did–

Nick Spitzer: Armstrong’s banjo player?

DV: Yeah and Jelly Roll Morton too, and he played these bass lines on his guitar banjo. And then for tenor banjo players there was Ikey Robinson, one of my favorites and uh George Guesnon.

NS: Mhm, Creole George Guesnon.

DV: Yeah, I mean Danny Barker was just an all around favorite musician, man.

NS: And thinker and writer and doer and hero.

DV: Yeah he was like a real mentor for me.

NS: Brought back brass bands. Did all kinds of things.

DV: So uh yeah, but I like the sounds of the old banjos. It’s kind of a darker sound. I guess the plastic heads on top here made ‘em really bright, and I never really liked that, so I did a little research, and I talked to the company Ome, who makes this banjo for me, and we figured out a way to make it a little darker.

NS: Don, tell us a little bit about your relationship to the banjo over the years.

DV: You know I grew up kind of disliking it from the social aspect of it being connected to all those Jim Crow things and all, but actually when I realized it was an instrument that had come from Africa, and it was part of–it was actually a big part of our culture by way of Haiti and everything. So, but even before that, before I realized I liked it, when I first worked at Werlein’s Music Store, I played a banjo, and the percussiveness and the pitch, the whole thing it just *plays* it’s a funky sound, like the funky tunes in the 70s. When I was playing guitar and muting those strings this would have been perfect. *plays* This would’ve been perfect for that.

NS: You could have been in James Brown’s band with that.

DV: I could’ve been.

NS: It’s a coulda shoulda woulda.

DV: *plays and sings “Get Up” in a James Brown fashion*

*laughs*

NS: Yeah, no, when you mute the strings it really sounds majorly funky.

DV: I’m not even muting ‘em! It’s just a staccato sound.

NS: Oh yeah.

DV: With a guitar you have to kind of *plucks muted strings* that’s muted.

NS: Yeah, yeah prevent that sustain thing, but the banjo you can do it.

DV: The banjo’s natural for that.

NS: Yeah, well it’s a kind of a percussion instrument too I mean you got that­–

DV: Exactly!

NS: Yeah, it could have a snare drum right there.

DV: A drum with strings.

NS: I like it. I like it. So in your family though, I mean where do the Vappies connect to jazz over the years because I know you didn’t start with it but you kind of recovered it, it seems to me.

DV: Well, it was more of my mother’s side. It was the Josephs from Donaldsonville, Saint James area, that’s where my mom was born up in that area.

NS: Upriver.

DV: And uh in fact that’s how Richard and I are related, through the Josephs.

NS: You’re related to Richard?

DV: Yeah.

NS: Are you related to anyone else in the band?

DV: Only musically.

NS: Oh I was gonna say or not that we know of. *laughs*

DV: Yeah well you know. Ha! Now you sound like Wellman Braud.

NS: Was he always crackin’ jokes?

DV: Oh him and Papa John, man, they knew each other. Stories. I’m not gonna get into stories here.

NS: Yeah, well you know in New Orleans I mean everyone jokes about who’s related to who all the time. A story of two guys watching a second line go by, and somebody’s playing trumpet and says “Hey hey look that’s how-you-call-it on trumpet,” and the guy says, “No no no, that’s how-you-call-its brother.” *laughs*

DV: Right!

NS: That’s kind of that uh–what should we say–forgetful intimacy that we have around here.

DV: Frog Joseph did that to me and Wendell Brunious. Wendell and I were together on this gig, and Frog was there, and Frog says, he looked at me, and he said “Ay! Whatchu-call-it, come here. Go back there and tell how-you-call-it to come over I wanna talk him.” So I’m Whatcha-call-it.

NS: Well whatchu call the next tune you gentlemen would like to play?

DV: Actually, I kind of want to move forward and do something you don’t normally expect on a banjo: the standard called “Saint Thomas.” How’s that? Y’all wanna play that?

“St. Thomas” Don Vappie and Friends
American Routes Original Recording

To hear the full program, tune in Saturdays at 5 and Sundays at 6 on WWNO, or listen at americanroutes.org.