Don Vappie, the New Orleans-based four-string banjo virtuoso, has been awarded the prestigious Steve Martin Banjo Prize. Vappie, who has performed with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and Wynton Marsalis as well as leading his own groups for years, shared this year’s prize with bluegrass stalwart Alan Munde. They each received an unrestricted check for $25,000.
The award was created and funded 10 years ago by the noted comedian, actor, and writer (and banjo player) in order to support both emerging and established banjo players. Past winners include Rhiannon Giddens, Danny Barnes, Eddie Adcock, and Noam Pikelny. This year Martin partnered with the Freshgrass Foundation to widen the award’s impact beyond bluegrass and old-timey music. “I am so proud to have my name on the new, expanded Banjo prize, with its wider scope and broader considerations,” said Martin in a press release received by JazzTimes. “The world of the banjo is expanding and our goal is to bring it under one roof.”
Vappie was presented with the award by Marsalis in a livestream ceremony on Oct. 6, which can be viewed here. Marsalis first heard of Vappie because the banjoist had integrated the Christian Brothers school that Wynton and his brother Branford later attended. A few years later, when Marsalis was 14, he and Branford saw Vappie play bass in a local funk band called Track One. “Later I heard him play banjo,” Marsalis said in a phone interview from his tour in Germany. “He also played in [singer/guitarist/banjoist] Danny Barker’s band. Danny was really about teaching everybody about the history and the legacy of the tradition. Don picked up a lot of stuff from Danny. Back then people weren’t interested in traditional music. They were interested in funk and pop. I didn’t know until later just how deep he was into knowing the history of the culture and maintaining the quality of it. He’s qualified for it because he’s passionate and intelligent.”
Initially, the bass was Vappie’s instrument of choice. “In my heart, I love playing bass more than anything,” he explains. “I had a great bass teacher and his concept was that of learning a string instrument. So I’ve applied that to the guitar and banjo.” As Marsalis noted, Barker was indeed an important influence on Vappie, who played bass in a few gigs with the New Orleans legend. Vappie recalls getting a little tip of the hat from Barker during a gig with Bob French. “I even remember the song: ‘I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,’” he says. “When it came time to take a bass solo, which I wasn’t all that keen to take, I just played the melody. I thought everybody else had done their thing. After the song, Danny looked at me and said, ‘Son, you’re going to go a long way with the melody.’”
A second pivotal moment with Barker was during a concert with Marsalis in New Orleans in the early ’90s. “Turns out that Danny had a six-string banjo with him. It was an old vintage instrument. I said, ‘Danny, that’s a beautiful instrument.’ Danny says, ‘Yeah? Check it out.’ He hands it to me. I’m looking at it and I said, ‘It’s nice.’ He shouts this order to me: ‘Play it!’ I started doodling with it. He kept looking at me, ‘What do you think? Huh? What do you think?’ I didn’t think about that moment until much later.”
While working at Werlein’s, a New Orleans music store, Vappie picked up a tenor banjo and played it. “I thought, That sounds good. My initial thought was that it reminded me of the guitar lines you’d hear in funk bands like Earth, Wind & Fire. [Sings] Pling … pling. Then with a line underneath. I thought banjo would be perfect for this because it’s percussive and melodic and you don’t have to mute it. It’s got this punch to it.”
Vappie had already moved away from funk and was playing with small groups around town, mostly at private parties. He got a gig as the strolling banjo player on the Riverboat Natchez in the mid-’80s, developing his repertoire by listening to the trad-jazz show every morning on WWOZ. “I’d listen to that and learn tunes,” he explains. “That was the catalyst. I’d play solo, so I could mess up and no one would know. They’d think it was my arrangement. Along with learning the songs, it was good practice for being a frontman because I had to deal with people. I’d always been a bandleader, but this was an interesting moment. I’d talk with people. Get their requests and try to play it or something close.”
That led to a gig at the food court, yes, the food court of the Esplanade Mall near the New Orleans Airport, playing trad jazz with clarinetist Don Suhor and drummer David Lee. The folks at Preservation Hall Jazz Band contacted him about subbing with them, and Vappie ended up touring with that group for several years.
All the while, Vappie was learning not only how to play the banjo but also about its history in Black culture. “In my research I saw that Johnny St. Cyr played a six-string guitar banjo in Louis Armstrong’s Hot Fives and Sevens,” he says. “I looked for one. I found one at Richelieu’s Music Shop in Madison, Wisconsin. I have a 1921 Vega Fairbanks Tubaphone six-string banjo. I love it. It’s just different. Then I started really studying Johnny St. Cyr and the Hot Fives and the things that the banjo did back then.”
Vappie took the lessons he learned and developed presentations for schools in New Orleans, as well as for the first Black Banjo Gathering, held in 2005 in Boone, N.C. “The Black Banjo Gathering opened up another world for me,” he explains. “I always liked bluegrass. I thought it was interesting. I thought the guys played great, but I’m in New Orleans and there wasn’t nothing like that around me. I checked out a bunch of stuff, but it turns out that the Black Banjo Gathering didn’t have hardly any Black banjo players. When I did a presentation, I mentioned that and I said, ‘I understand; we hated the banjo because it had a Jim Crow image, or as Wynton said, a plantation connotation.’”
According to Vappie, Dom Flemons was inspired to form the Carolina Chocolate Drops at that particular gathering. “Dom heard my presentation and was fascinated because he didn’t know about Johnny St. Cyr, Manny Sales, and other Black banjo players. They played the tenor banjo in jazz and it stayed in jazz. It didn’t leave Black folks. When I played, I didn’t play the three-finger arpeggio style that Earl Scruggs came up with. So it was different. I could play chords and single-note lines. They were impressed. It opened up a door and I became more inquisitive about a lot of stuff.”
Vappie says that his greatest challenge now is to continue striving for new sounds on the instrument. “I’m never going to stop reaching. On the banjo I’m going to try and figure out how to play more. With four strings to make a full sound happen, you really got to choose your notes carefully. What are the important notes in the chord that will convey the intent of what you’re doing? I’d like to include the tenor banjo in other forms of music. I feel like the banjo could be part of any kind of music. It’s an instrument that you can write and arrange for.”
“Don is very creative,” Marsalis says. “With him, music is never a stagnant thing. It always has a meaning, a depth. It’s what he is, it’s who he is. He brings a lot of passion to the banjo. With Don, it’s passion, intelligence and humor. And a strong heart.”
Vappie sees his greatest contribution as demonstrating the banjo’s significance and relevance to Black culture—past and present. “The most important thing I’ve done is that I’ve helped Black folks like the banjo again,” he says. “I’m very proud of that. What could happen to make people hate their own instrument? It’s just a byproduct of racism.”