American Creole: New Orleans Reunion »»»Published: September 15, 2009

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  • Jazz musician Don Vappie performs after Hurricane Katrina.

In American Creole: New Orleans Reunion, jazz musician Don Vappie finds his sidemen scattered, his flooded-out Mom sleeping on his couch, and his 8-year-old grandson clamoring to join the band. But in the wake of the nation’s biggest natural disaster, where the landscape that gave birth to jazz has been destroyed and Don’s culture and community have been blown to the winds, what’s left to call home?

An established artist in the New Orleans music scene finds his sidemen scattered by Katrina, his flooded-out Mom sleeping on his couch, and his 8-year-old grandson clamoring to join the band. American Creole: New Orleans Reunion takes the audience on a tour of the front lines of a devastated city’s cultural rebirth: offstage, where race is infinitely more nuanced than black or white; backstage, where which instrument you play can be a political statement; and joyously onstage, where the only thing that matters is music, and local legends make it cook.

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Don Vappie -- musician, bandleader, Creole -- struggles to find work and his cultural identity in New Orleans. This new documentary premieres on PBS on Thursday, September 7th at 10:00 p.m. EDT, just over a year after the killer storm slammed the Gulf Coast. It follows Don as he tries to keep his band together and bring musicians back to the city. Through his journey, Don begins to question what makes a community, and whether the culture he grew up in can survive not just the storm, but also the social crosscurrents of modern America.

Don has played with Wynton Marsalis, Beausoleil and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, along with fronting the Creole Jazz Serenaders, who were recently booked at Carnegie Hall. Rich with music, the film features performances by numerous stars of New Orleans jazz, as well as Don’s far-flung, talented family, which includes a cousin who wrote hits with Ray Charles, another who was a band mate to Paul McCartney in Wings, and a third who recorded with Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, Quincy Jones, and others.

While Don was displaced by Katrina for only a month, more than half of his eight sidemen saw their houses destroyed. All were forced to evacuate to distant cities. Don scrambles to keep his band alive by taking what gigs he can. On the road, Don wonders if he would be better off living somewhere else, like New York. But can he really leave New Orleans, his home?

Don’s questions lead him to friends, mentors, and fellow musicians, each affected by Katrina in his or her own way. They offer views on what it means to be from New Orleans and what it means to be a Creole of Color, a racial and cultural mix of African-American, French, Spanish, and Native American ancestry, with a rich history in Louisiana. With even his family members unable to agree, the answers he finds are as varied as the cultures that make up his heritage.

In the city, the major festivals go on, but it’s not enough. If the musicians are going to come back, they need gigs, and if the city is going to come back, it needs its musicians. So Don decides to host a Rent Party and later a musical family reunion, gathering the cream of the local jazz scene and his scattered musician-relatives, because “When the music comes back, everybody’s gonna come back!”

American Creole was produced and directed by the award-winning husband-wife team of Glen Pitre and Michelle Benoit, whose movies (Belizaire the Cajun, The Scoundrel’s Wife), documentaries, books, and museum design have won them an international reputation. In 2002, film critic Roger Ebert acclaimed Pitre “a legendary American regional director.” Milly Vappie and her company Vappielle, Inc., producers of recorded music and cultural programming, are also co-producers along with Côte Blanche Productions with Louisiana Public Broadcasting.

The documentary was made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and by grants from the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, the Southern Media Fund, the Louisiana State Arts Council through the Louisiana Division of the Arts, and the New Orleans Musicians’ Clinic Gig Fund, through the .

  

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