Think of "traditional"
or "classic" New Orleans jazz and what comes to mind?
The scratches, hisses, and pops of a mono recording from the
dawn of the recording era? A group of venerable musicians faithfully
playing the same old tunes, "The Saints," "Down
By The Riverside," etc., according to the same old formula:
play the melody, take solos, repeat the melody? Did you just
stifle a yawn?
Well, that's changing now, thanks
to Don Vappie and his group of "Creole Jazz Serenaders,"
who, like an afternoon dose of café au lait and beignets,
are putting the life back into this great artform.
What makes them different? The choice
of tunes for one thing. A gong ceremoniously opens Creole
Blues, their debut album. The first cut is "Peculiar,"
a tune written by the largely forgotten Harry Bonano and Harry
Shields, and the record continues to delight with lost gems
by the likes of Jabbo Smith ("The Dizzy Gillespie of
that era"), Papa Charlie Jackson and, rarest of all,
a few traditional French Creole tunes, such as the title cut.
Vappie, who plays tenor and six-string
banjo, guitar, bass, vocals and washboard on the record, had
grown tired of playing the old stand-bys. "Why keep playing
'Bill Bailey'?" he questioned. "Not that 'Bill Bailey'
is a bad song, but I mean, that's what it's turned into. People
come to New Orleans, they want to hear 'The Saints,' 'Down
by the Riverside,' 'St. James Infirmary,' 'Tiger Rag'... You
know, all of those tunes are great, but that's just a small
part of the galaxy... That's just like one address in a city."
He and his wife, Milly, a cultural historian, went in search
of tunes that capture "the real spirit of early jazz."
They mined collections in New York and Europe, where it is
revered more so than in its native New Orleans, and discovered
wonders like Sam Morgan's "Short Dressed Gal."
song has a fresh, "double-dutch" rhythmic quality
that makes it jump with spunk. Suddenly you can understand
why, even though it is structurally complex, this was hot
dance music. "See, that's 1927 or 28, but to me, that's
funk," says Vappie. "And it does not fit the rules
that people set down for a traditional New Orleans jazz band,
yet these guys [Sam Morgan's band] were one of the most popular
Born in 1956, Vappie comes from the
unique Creole heritage of New Orleans that is so often overlooked
(Jelly Roll Morton and King Oliver were Creole). His great-uncles
"Papa" John and Willie "Kaiser" Joseph
were among the earliest jazz musicians, and their descendent,
Stanley Joseph, Vappie's long time drummer, is proof that
music still runs strong in the Joseph blood.
It may seem strange now, but Vappie
came of age musically in the late-sixties and seventies, and
first gained notoriety as the electric bassist for the popular
funk group, Trac One. Surprisingly, he sees this experience
as training for what he does now. "A bass line in a funk
group, you lay down a certain thing, and the combination of
all these things together creates the funk. And that's so
similar to New Orleans jazz.
Everybody's got a role, a part to play...You know, when I
was growing up it might have been the last generation of bands,
where you had the same guys in the band pretty much all the
time and the band had it's own identity. And that is traditional
New Orleans, that is in the tradition of King Oliver. No,
we weren't playing 1920's pop music, which is early jazz,
we were playing 70's pop music, but we were doing it in the
New Orleans tradition. That is tradition, not having your
shoes spit shined, and wearing a suit from the fifties, and
sounding like George Lewis. That is not tradition. That is
Vappie's band today is composed of
Victor Goines (sax/clarinet), Jamil Sharif (trumpet), Larry
Sieberth (piano), Tom Fischer (sax/clarinet), Stanley Joseph
(drums) and Richard Moten (bass). These are extremely versatile
young musicians with backgrounds ranging from classical to
modern jazz. Instead of focusing on the solos for inspiration,
they focus on the joyous ensemble playing that was actually
popular at that time in New Orleans.
Instead of trying to duplicate the exact phrasing and instrumentation
of the original music, they use that period's stylistic ingredients
more creatively. On "Short Dressed Gal," for example,
Vappie spices it up with a "walking" rhythmic line
on his banjo which wasn't in the original music, but was a
popular device of that era.
"To me, that's what traditional
jazz is about, if you want to call it that. It's about, okay,
what kinds of things did guys do in that period? The banjo
did these things, there were breaks, modulations.
all the aspects of the style, and you can play any song you
want. You can play 'I Feel Good' by James Brown if you incorporate
all the style. It's a matter of how you arrange it, you know?
Because it's not about a repertoire, it's about a style."This philosophy has served the Creole
Jazz Serenaders well. Creole Blues has received good reviews
in such unlikely places as the folk magazine Dirty Linen,
and their performances have demonstrated a wider audience.
Their first Jazz Fest in '96, they were scheduled at 12:30
on Thursday, hardly a choice slot, but by the third tune the
tent was overflowing. When they finished, people jumped out
of their chairs to give a rousing ovation. This year they
close out the Economy Hall tent on Sunday, May 3rd from 5:15
- 7pm. For that show, and on April 29, 30
and May 1st at 8pm at Le Petit Theater, they will present
"The Lost Manuscripts of Jelly Roll Morton."
will be the world premiere of Morton compositions which recently
turned up in Bill Russell's jazz collection (currently on
display at The Historic New Orleans Collection), including
advanced big band arrangements Morton wrote before his death.
According to Milly Vappie, the musicians were "stunned"
during rehearsals to discover that Morton could write such
intricate, "out there" material.For the Le Petit Theater shows (and
not at the Fairgrounds) the Serenaders will also unveil the
music from their latest major project, In Search of King Oliver.
This record is a collaboration with Robert Parker, the famous
Australian producer/sound-engineer and host of Public Radio
International's syndicated series "Jazz Classics in Stereo."Parker, who has spent his life re-engineering
classic jazz records so that they could be enjoyed by a modern
audience in stereo, discovered Vappie's band only a year and
half ago, but immediately recognized the opportunity to complete
a life long dream: "To hear what the King Oliver band
would have sounded like if you could have heard it in Chicago
in 1923, instead of having to listen to the really truncated
sound which comes off the early horn recorded 78's."In 1923, a young Louis Armstrong had
recently joined King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band in Chicago.
The records they made are essential links to jazz origins,
when, as Parker says, "the music was so inventive, so
vital and so young." The problem is that the sound quality
of these recordings is especially bad; some instruments fade
in and out and the drums and bass can hardly be heard.For many years, Parker dreamt of recreating
these recordings under the right conditions, but he knew it
would take someone who could flesh out the arrangements and
play with the right spirit.
"It needed someone like
Don Vappie to emerge," he says, "and it could only
happen here [in New Orleans], which is so fascinating. I could
have tried to do this with a group of British musicians and
it wouldn't have worked. Because there is a cultural input
to this music which is still very much alive here. Don and
his cousins who make up the rest of the rhythm section, they're
all of a mind. They've grown up all their lives hearing the
rhythmic patterns of New Orleans jazz, which pervade everything
here, still."Vappie puts it another way:
grow up with a natural ability to feel rhythm in New Orleans.
I mean we live it. We live the rhythm in New Orleans."After testing a variety of locations
for the perfect acoustics, Parker and the Serenaders went
into the St. Joan of Arc church in Uptown New Orleans last
December to record the King Oliver music, which had been painstakingly
transcribed and arranged by Vappie. Wherever something was
missing on the records, a section of a cornet line, for instance,
he brilliantly "filled in the blanks." Together
with his band, he managed to unlock the vibrant energy imbedded
in the music. It's like a statue come to life.
"To get back to what King Oliver
was doing is really exciting," says Parker, who is putting
out only 1,000 signed editions of In Search of King Oliver
in its first printing (they will be available at the Le Petit
Theater shows). "Because this is really complex, difficult
music, that can only be played by the most accomplished and
skilled musicians, which those guys in 1923 were."
he didn't originally see the need to resurrect songs like
"High Society," because they are already so well
known, but now he feels differently. "It was a real thrill
to hear it. I thought, man, this is counterpoint at its best.
It sounded so New Orleans to me.
Songs like 'I'm Going Away
To Wear You Off My Mind' and 'Canal St. Blues,' they're beautiful.
If I close my eyes I can hear the streetcar rocking back and
forth. That's how connected this whole thing feels to me."
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