Don Vappie

Don Vappie Trio

New Orleans Creole jazz New Orleans, Louisiana
Photo Credit: David Spielman
Don Vappie

Banjo maestro, Creole cultural expert, and jazzman extraordinaire Don Vappie is a living embodiment of 300 years of New Orleans music. Among the city’s most celebrated and respected musicians, Vappie’s contributions on the tenor and six-string banjos, and as a guitarist, vocalist, composer, arranger, historian, educator, and cultural ambassador firmly position him among the leading figures of New Orleans music. With celebrated, veteran collaborators bassist Richard Moten and pianist Mike Esneault, the Don Vappie Trio breathes fire into obscure and classic New Orleans jazz songs and tunes, as well as vibrant, new compositions rooted deeply in their city’s multilayered history.

Vappie was born into a well-known New Orleans jazz family, receiving his first lessons from his cousin Marie Moten (mother of bassist Richard Moten). His grandmother, Stella Joseph Walker, played banjo and guitar; his great uncle, bassist Papa John Joseph, was an associate of legendary cornetist and oft-dubbed “father of jazz” Buddy Bolden, and later played with famed clarinetist George Lewis. Vappie studied music at Loyola and Xavier Universities, beginning his career on Bourbon Street playing funk, R&B, and pop on electric bass and guitar, later transitioning to traditional jazz on upright bass. He credits New Orleans legend Danny Barker with convincing him to pick up the banjo: ‘“Play it, play it!’ He kept insisting,” Vappie remembers. “I think he was really telling me, ‘If this instrument is going to survive, you better play it.”’

Vappie began playing at Preservation Hall in the late ’80s, touring with their famed jazz band from 1999 to 2005. For over 25 years, he’s appeared regularly with Wynton Marsalis and Jazz at Lincoln Center, and led New Orleans’ premier jazz orchestra, the Creole Jazz Serenaders, with whom he’s recorded his transcriptions of early King Oliver recordings and debuted newly discovered Jelly Roll Morton compositions. Vappie identifies as Creole, which he describes as the mix of French, Spanish, African, and Native American heritage that forms the foundation of New Orleans culture, and links it to other cultures in the Caribbean. A meticulous researcher, Vappie has centered his career around investigating the Creole-Caribbean elements of jazz, the African and African American roots of the banjo, and the French-Creole patois language native to Louisiana. He has presented educational programs for institutions including Jazz at Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall, NPR, and the Smithsonian, recorded eight albums, and composed music for film and television, including Treme, Zora Neal Hurston—Jump at the Sun, and American Creole: New Orleans Reunion, a PBS documentary featuring Vappie, which he also co-produced. His acclaimed 2019 album, The Blue Book of Storyville, features original and classic selections inspired by New Orleans’ recent tricentennial.

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