To say that Don Vappie has had a busy musical career would be an understatement. He has several overlapping careers as a banjoist, guitarist, bassist, singer, arranger-composer, educator, lecturer, record and event producer, and expert not only about New Orleans jazz but its place and importance in the contemporary music scene.
Born and raised in New Orleans, he was surrounded by music growing up. Many of his relatives played music and his great uncle was Papa John Joseph who had played bass during the era of Buddy Bolden. A cousin gave Don piano lessons but he had a greater interest in playing bass. He played electric bass with a funk group from the age of 13, taught himself guitar when a member of the band left, and worked in Bourbon Street clubs as a teenager. After a few years he began playing bass with jazz trios including with such notables as Placide Adams, Teddy Riley, Wallace Davenport, Bob French and Danny Barker, and he taught himself banjo. While Don studied music theory and classical bass at Loyola University and Xavier University, his main musical education took place on the bandstand.
He made his recording debut as a leader in 1986, started his own Vappielle label, began yearly visits to Europe around that time, and in 1990 recorded Crescent City Serenade with clarinetist Dr. Michael White. After meeting and impressing Wynton Marsalis, Don began working regularly with the Jazz At Lincoln Center Orchestra as a guitarist, banjoist and vocalist in 1994, an association that has continued for 25 years. While best known for his work in vintage New Orleans jazz, Don Vappie has a versatile style on his instruments and has performed and recorded along the way with such notables as Peggy Lee, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Otis Taylor, Bette Midler, Ruby Braff, Howard Alden, Terence Blanchard, Wycliffe Gordon, Marcus Roberts, Ellis Marsalis, Doc Cheatham, Benny Waters, Bob Wilbur, Dick Hyman, Jon Faddis, Diana Krall, Eric Clapton, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Daryl Sherman and the New Orleans Orchestra among many others. He has
also led eight albums of his own including with his Creole Jazz Serenaders, a group that emphasizes superior obscurities from the 1920s.
Don Vappie has also been involved in many special projects. He starred in and co-produced the PBS documentary American Creole: New Orleans Reunion, writing the music for that special and for Zora Neal Hurston – Jump At The Sun, Mandeville: The Good Life, The Homefront, NCIS New Orleans and Treme. Don’s transcriptions of many early jazz recordings are available from Warner Bros. Publishing. He has done extensive research on the Creole music of New Orleans and the Caribbean, and as a speaker has lectured about everything from the influences of early jazz to the history of the banjo. In addition, he is a popular and prolific educator. Don is the jazz guitar instructor at Loyola University, an instructor at the Don “Moose” Jamison Heritage School of Music, works with many public schools, teaches privately (guitar, banjo, bass and mandolin), conducts master classes, clinics, workshops and seminars, and has presented many programs on New Orleans music for such organizations as Jazz At Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall, Tulane University, NPR, and the Smithsonian. In the future, he plans to offer online lessons.
Don Vappie is constantly creating music and spreading the gospel of New Orleans jazz. “Traditional New Orleans jazz is the foundation for all of the music that is around today. Although I’m best known for playing the older music, I still play modern jazz too. The music all connects together. When I came up, the older guys in New Orleans played everything. They would say that they play music. That is what I do too.”