Don Vappie is a New Orleans banjo player, carrying on the tradition while embracing all his musical influences. With a particularly funky touch, and a warm tone on his open-back OME tenor, Don makes the banjo sound real pretty.
You can find Don Vappie playing solo banjo in the French Quarter every Friday 4pm-7pm at Brennan’s (unless he’s out of town for a gig). Banjo Boogie was on the scene in June 2019 capturing some of the performance, having an informal chat, sitting in on a couple tunes (after having some obligatory bananas foster.) Here are a few excerpts from our chat, in his own words.
“I welcome people in, and they just look at me. I say, “welcome to Brennan’s”
They just look at me… I got a banjo, ‘don’t talk to him!'”
On Musical Taste
I was always into harmonically rich stuff, but I was into the funk thing.
Earth wind and Fire…
There were already tunes coming out in my time, the late 60’s and early 70’s, …
They had progressions and the same harmonies you might hear in classical music…with a beat…, like Stevie Wonder.
His Guitar Influences
The Crusaders, they were a jazz group back then. Joe Sample… and Larry Carlton was in the band. Larry Carlton kinda had his own sound. To the point where people wanted him on their record. They’d send him the tape, he had a studio at home and put his guitar in where he thought it could go. It’s not like he was burnin’ or nothing, but he was just putting it where it needed to be. So, that’s kind of what I wanted. Then Gino Vanelli came out, you know all those arrangements, that guy’s great. Then John McLaughlin, there’s an album he did that I loved. I don’t even know the name of it, I can’t find it. I just remember it ended with footsteps, and door closing. But it was one those albums you listen to, and then you go back and it’s like, “I don’t really get it,” and then you put it away for a year or two, come back and “Whoa!” That kind of thing.
“I quit playing in funk bands…”
(On a gig) we were playing “Bad Mama Jama” for like 35 minutes. I was playing bass, and I was drinking long island iced tea. I didn’t know it was alcohol. Thought it was iced tea. So we kept ordering them. Then the club owner… at the end of the night he had docked the drinks from the band’s money. “Oh well that’s a lesson to learn.” [The band leader got upset and had some harsh words for Don] So I said, “ok well I quit.” He had a right to be pissed because he doesn’t drink. But it’s like Confucius said, “If a mosquito lands on a man’s testicles, that’s when you realize force is not the answer to everything.” I mean I might be paraphrasing, but it’s a good point.
About the Black Banjo Gathering
The first one, and the second one.
[2nd one] I don’t know what they wanted. I’m not sure what the point was…I mean I’m not sure what everyone was expecting. I mean, I thought it was pretty cool (but) I thought they could’ve called it something else.
I’m a New Orleans guy, so my reservation was just that, it’s great to be here but I don’t see any black people. I don’t see anybody here celebrating the professional black banjo players from the beginning of the 1900’s, the 20th century. I mean, Johnny St. Syr, he played a 6-string banjo. They were all 5-string players, so… Ikey Robinson, he’s good, played with Jabbo Smith. He was from Chicago, he recorded with Jabbo. The early stuff… they were competing with the Hot Five, the late 20’s early 30’s. Bud Scott, Manny Sales, Eric (*indiscernible), all those people.
I did the “Recapturing the Banjo” record with Otis Taylor. Like you know, “we recaptured it.” In New Orleans we never really let it go! I mean Jazz kept the banjo, otherwise most my generation hated it, because like Wynton said it had a plantation connotation. I can understand that because there were books…where this …type character was called Banjo.
“Come here Banjo, go get that thing.”
So all that shit.
On Finding The Banjo
What really got me on the banjo, first of all, I had quit playing music. I quit the band and I quit music, for three months. I sold all my shit, and then tried to buy it back. I sold a Les Paul custom from the early 70’s, like ’72. Two Les Paul customs, a black one, and a sunburst that had bigger frets. The black one had the jazz frets. I sold 3 or 4 strats, I really only used one of them. It was real pretty…I can still see it in my mind. Thinking, “you dumbass.” I sold my Tele, from like ’71 I think it was. Original, cream color, noisy and I hated it. Anyway, the guitars I sold could’ve paid off my house. Les Paul from back then? At least $20,000.
I was in a music store (working), and just pulling them (banjos) down cleaning them, wiping them off put them back. I played (things) I learned on guitar. That shit sounded like the funk lines you play, when you mute the strings, on some of the early… tunes. So that’s the first time. Then I started reading about it and how came over with the slaves, it’s basically an African instrument. It evolved, but it evolved from an African instrument. Everybody I knew just figured it was something white folks played in the hills, but it got there from slaves leaving through the South, heading up. That’s what Black Banjo (Gathering) was celebrating. The old instruments, how they were played, the players that brought it up, and the new players that were there too. That’s kinda how I got into it. Then I started playing with these trios around town.
About Learning the Banjo
I’d listen in the mornings (on the radio) from 9-11, they had a trad show. I used to play along with the records on the radio. I’d just practice solo. Solo nobody knows if you messed up or not. Walking around [on a riverboat gig] playing shit…play it over and over. Nobody knew, on the boat, they’re oblivious. That’s how I got into it. Then Wynton called about this Johnny Dodds and Jellyroll thing. I had my four string tuned like a guitar. So, I got a hold of a 6-string, got a 1921 Vega 6-string banjo. When I got that I tuned this one tenor, I thought, I already got a guitar. I tuned it in 5th’s, figured out major and minor shapes, and went to work at Preservation Hall. Not criticizing anyone, but for me, we were playing the same shit over and over, and it was simple… for me. I could hear it, you know one four five six, two five one. So that’s what I’d do, and from there I met Robert Parker who helped invent the ceder system, removing pops and cracks from old records. He was a collector, he turned me on to Harry Reser. I started learning Reser’s stuff as an exercise.
Advice for Playing Reser
Start learning it in sections. Lollypops [sings the first part] that’s all pentatonic. You just learn one section at a time. And the thing is you need to practice where to shift. For me I learned it in Bb, it’s really in A. Because I got to play it with Dick Hyman. He had the original music because he played with Harry Reser. And it was in A, and he was reading. I said, “I just can’t play it in A right now.” He said, “well wait a minute…I think I can transpose it.” He’s gonna sight read it and transpose it at the same time. What a bad dude. Yeah, you practice the shifts (singing), you can work where each note is. I learned on my own, but I’m actually using the same fingers that a cello player would use. Which makes sense, because it’s the same tuning. So you practice it slow, (forward) then backward. If you’re messing up the shift, practice the shift from the 3rd finger to the 1st finger (back and forth). Slowly, it doesn’t take long. You’ll get it. That’s how you do it. With any stringed instrument, shifting is the key. First thing my bass teacher told me shifting..is…and hand position.