THE STEVE MARTIN BANJO PRIZE goes to…..
by Norman Warwick
My now middle-aged son still has (and wears) a t-shirt he bought as a teenager that self-proclaimed him to be the ´fourth best banjo player in Rochdale´. He has improved considerably since then and plays with some panache and, I say this only because I can´t believe that the banjo is a widely played instrument in the country he and his family now live, he might soon be whipping down to his local Primark to buy a shirt that bears the the legend ´´ third best banjo player in South Korea-´ What he won´t be having printed on the back is ´winner of the Steve Martin Banjo Prize 2021´.
It was actually my son, Andrew who informed me, in one of our weekly Skype conversations, that comedian and actor Steve Martin is actually also a brilliant banjo player. In fact I now have some Steve Martin tracks on my own various playlists and Andrew watches him on You Tube all the time in an attempt to improve his own prowess.
Don Vappie, (right) the New Orleans-based four-string banjo virtuoso, has been awarded the prestigious Steve Martin Banjo Prize for 2021. 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 cheque for $25,000.
´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 and editorialised by JazzTimes. ´The world of the banjo is expanding and our goal is to bring it under one roof´.
Lee Mergner, Contributin Editor at JazzTimes has since reported in that magazine that Vappie was presented with the award by Marsalis in a live-stream ceremony on October 6th, 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 (left) said in a phone interview from his current 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´, Vappie 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, Danny 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 (right) 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 at that particular gathering and was inspired to form the Carolina Chocolate Drops, of which Rhiannon Giddens was a member. We have featured her on these pages previously in a post entitled Those Who Tell It Like It Is in September 2020, that is still available in our music archives.
´Dom heard my presentation´, Vappie recalls. ´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 humour. And a strong heart´.
Vappie himself 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 by product of racism´.
Also awarded The Steve Martin Banjo prize this year was another great player from a different genre.
Alan Munde is a bluegrass musician, from Oklahoma and began his bluegrass banjo career while attending the University of Oklahoma. He and fellow student Byron Berline, fiddler extraordinaire, spent much of their time away from classes honing their performance skills at various fiddle contests and musical events.
When Alan graduated from the University of Oklahoma in 1969 he moved to Kentucky, where he recorded with Sam Bush and Wayne Stewart on the legendary, ground-breaking album Poor Richard’s Almanac.
Alan moved to Nashville in late 1969 and began playing with Jimmy Martin and his Sunny Mountain Boys. He toured and recorded with Jimmy Martin for two years appearing at many of the early festivals and participating in the recording of the much-acclaimed Jimmy Martin gospel album Singing All Day and Dinner on the Ground. He also performed on Jimmy Martin’s album, I’d Like to Be Sixteen Again.
Leaving Nashville in early 1972, Alan rejoined his musical schoolmate Byron Berline and bassist Roger Bush in California, where they formed the seminal bluegrass band Country Gazette. The Gazette traveled extensively for over 20 years and made regular tours to Europe and Japan. The group’s first album, Traitor in Our Midst, was a top selling album for United Artists. The Gazette recorded over 30 projects together (albums and CDs).
Alan also released many highly acclaimed banjo instrumental albums such as Banjo Sandwich and Together Again (for the First Time), with Sam Bush. His latest recording project is a pair of CDs with mandolin player Billy Bright titled Bright Munde in 2017, and Es Mi Suerte in 2019, both receiving excellent reviews.
During his career Alan also spent much time developing bluegrass banjo workshop/seminar materials and presentations that have become a mainstay of the summer music camp scene. Munde was one of the first high-profile bluegrass banjo players to make his recorded solos available in written form and also one of the first artists to present workshops. Much of his musical output is available in instructional material for Mel Bay Publications, Texas Music and Video, and his self-produced material.
To further the educational aspects of his career, Munde joined the faculty of the Creative Arts Department at South Plains College in Levelland, Texas n 1986. As the bluegrass expert in the Commercial Music Program, Munde further developed his unique teaching concepts that resulted in several publications including Getting into Bluegrass Banjo, a book that offers a systematic path to learning the bluegrass style banjo.
Alan retired from the school in 2007, but at the age of 75 he maintains an active performance, teaching, and recording career. Alan and co-author Beth Mead-Sullivan have a book available from publisher Hal Leonard titled The Great American Banjo Songbook containing banjo arrangements of 70 songs from the golden age of American popular songwriting. Alan also operates an online business called “Al Munde’s Banjo College” where he sells his instructional books, DVDs, bluegrass banjo recordings, and downloadable lessons. My son in South Korea improves his own bajo skills by studying from some of those books and on-line tuitions.
Steve Martin, (left) the donor behind this prize, is an American actor, comedian, writer, producer, and musician. Over his distinguished career, he has earned five Grammy Awards, a Primetime Emmy Award, and was awarded an Honorary Academy Award at the Academy’s 5th Annual Governors Awards in 2013.
When somebody is so highly gifted and successful in one aspect of the arts it can feel almost impossible that they could be just as able in other art forms too. (Though we should remember the Denis Compton played for England at both football and cricket!)
The way Steve Martin is perceived by both the greats of banjo-playing and by those who are simply aspiring to learn to play the instrument is an indication of his true standing, and we are further reminded in an on-line piece by Corbin Buff, who has been playing guitar for 10 years now. He started an on line site called Acoustic World to share everything he has learned about acoustic guitars in the past decade. His goal is to help other guitarists by putting everything he wishes he had known known when he was starting out. he has put this information now into an easy-to-access, helpful website.
One of the most amazing things about Steve Martin, according to Buff, is his wide variety of talents and achievements. And yet, some people who have heard that Martin is a talented banjo player, still wonder if a comedy actor can really that good of a banjo player?
Buff proclaims, though, that in addition to his acting career, Steve Martin is a world-class banjo player. He has played banjo since an early age, and included music in his comedy routines from the beginning of his professional career.
Steve has actually increasingly dedicated his career to music since the 2000s, acting less and spending much of his professional life playing banjo, recording, and touring with various bluegrass acts, including Earl Scruggs, with whom he won a Grammy for Best Country Instrumental Performance in 2002.
This year Steve has joined forces with the Freshwater Foundation in rewarding those making outstanding contributions in the worlf of banjo music and to the betterment of the rest of the world via banjo music.
The FreshGrass Foundation announces its mission is to create and celebrate innovative grassroots music.
It is their belief that the simple acts of making and sharing authentic creations are among the most effective ways to spread joy and love, to improve lives and communities, and to make a profoundly positive impact on the world. To achieve that, they produce FreshGrass Festivals in North Adams, MA and Bentonville, AR; they offer a variety of grants, commissions, and awards to musicians and writers for new works; they produce and publish No Depression, the quarterly journal of roots music; they produce, publish and stream Folk Alley, the 24-hour online listening for roots music; they are a founding partner of Artists At Work, a program that provides living wages for living artists; they administer the Steve Martin Banjo Prize, a prestigious award founded by Steve Martin (actor/comedian) that recognizes an individual or group for outstanding accomplishment in banjo; and we operate and manage Studio 9 in North Adams, MA, a state-of-the-art recording studio and venue. Through a cutting-edge, multi-disciplinary and collaborative approach, FreshGrass continually strives to help promote new artists and create new art through each of its entities.
FreshGrass is committed to making their organization completely sustainable and carbon neutral.
Bluegrass music is a genre of American roots music that developed in the 1940s in the United States Appalachian region. The genre derives its name from the band Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys Unlike mainstream country music, bluegrass is traditionally played on acoustic stringed instruments. Bluegrass has roots in traditional English, Scottish and Irish ballads and dance tunes, and in traditional African-American blues and jazz. Bluegrass was further developed by musicians who played with Monroe, including 5-string banjo player Earl Scruggs and guitarist Lester Flatt. Monroe characterized the genre as: “Scottish bagpipes and ole-time fiddlin’. It’s Methodist and Holiness and Baptist. It’s blues and jazz, and it has a high lonesome sound.”
So, this is a perfect opportunity to remind you of the inaugural Bluegrass Festival In Words event that we will be publishing for an entire week from 28th March through Ist April 2022. We will identify the instruments that are integral to the bluegrass sound and look back at those players who created the genre and will seek out those who will preserve and grow its legacy by looking at some of the biggest live bluegrass festivals around the world. We will also carry an interview with a banjo hobbyist who was once the fourth best banjo player in Rochdale.
The primary source for this article was written by Lee Mergner for JazzTimes magazine. Lee Mergner is JazzTimes‘ Contributing Editor. Between 1990 and 2018, he served the magazine in a multitude of roles, including Editor and Publisher.
In our occasional re-postings Sidetracks And Detours are confident that we are not only sharing with our readers excellent articles written by experts but are also pointing to informed and informative sites readers will re-visit time and again. Of course, we feel sure our readers will also return to our daily not-for-profit blog knowing that we seek to provide core original material whilst sometimes spotlighting the best pieces from elsewhere, as we engage with genres and practitioners along all the sidetracks & detours we take.
This article was collated by Norman Warwick, a weekly columnist with Lanzarote Information and owner and editor of this daily blog at Sidetracks And Detours.
He is also a founder member of the Joined Up Jazz Journalists (JUJJ) with Steve Bewick, writer, poet and radio presenter of Hot Biscuits weekly jazz programme, Gary Heywood-Everett, jazz writer and local historian and Susana Fondon, contributor and reporter at Lanzarote Information. The purpose of forming JUJJ is to share a love of jazz music at the same time as growing our knowledge of the genre to provide an increasingly comprehensive service for our readers and listeners.
Norman has also been a long serving broadcaster, co-presenting the weekly all across the arts programme on Crescent Community Radio for many years with Steve, and his own show on Sherwood Community Tadio. He has been a regular guest on BBC Radio Manchester, BBC Radio Lancashire, BBC Radio Merseyside and BBC Radio 4.
As a published author and poet he was a founder member of Lendanear Music, with Colin Lever and Just Poets with Pam McKee, Touchstones Creative Writing Group (where he was creative writing facilitator for a number of years) with Val Chadwick and all across the arts with Robin Parker.
From Monday to Friday, you will find a daily post here at Sidetracks And Detoursas and should you be looking for good reading over the weekend you can visit our massive but easy to navigate archives of over 500 articles.
The purpose of this daily not-for-profit blog is to deliver news, previews, interviews and reviews from all across the arts to die-hard fans and non- traditional audiences around the world. We are therefore always delighted to receive your own articles here at Sidetracks And Detours. So if you have a favourite artist, event, or venue that you would like to tell us more about just drop a Word document attachment to me at firstname.lastname@example.org with a couple of appropriate photographs in a zip folder if you wish. Being a not-for-profit organisation we unfortunately cannot pay you but we will always fully attribute any pieces we publish. You therefore might also. like to include a brief autobiography and photograph of yourself in your submission.
We look forward to hearing from you.
Meanwhile we are grateful to our regular correspondent Michael Higgins and occasional reporter Steve Bewick and the sharing of information by such reliable sources such as
Hot Biscuits Jazz Radio www.fc-radio.co.uk
Jazz In Reading https://www.jazzinreading.com
Ribble Valley Jazz & Blues https://rvjazzandblues.co.uk
Rob Adams Music That´s Going Places
Lanzarote Information https://lanzaroteinformation.co.uk
all across the arts www.allacrossthearts.co.uk
Rochdale Music Society rochdalemusicsociety.org
Agenda Cultura Lanzarote
Larry Yaskiel – writer
The Lanzarote Art Gallery https://lanzaroteartgallery.com
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