Tony Sbarbaro

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Born Antonio Sparbaro, this child of one of Louisiana's many Sicilian immigrant families was drumming as early as 1911 with the Frayle Brothers Band. From there, he joined Papa Jack Laine's Reliance Band,…
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Born Antonio Sparbaro, this child of one of Louisiana's many Sicilian immigrant families was drumming as early as 1911 with the Frayle Brothers Band. From there, he joined Papa Jack Laine's Reliance Band, the message of which must have been a musician's need for self reliance, since members such as this artist needed to freelance elsewhere to make ends meet. Sbabaro's side projects included bands led by Merritt Brunnies and accompanying the interesting pianist Carl Randall. In 1916, the drummer headed North for Chicago and a gig with the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, the first jazz group to be documented on a recording, resulting in the first so-called jazz record ever released. The two sides made by the band in early 1917 -- one for the Victor Talking Machine Company and then one for the Columbia Graphophone Company -- helped create a new musical fad called "jass" by the general public. The spelling of the word with two z's only became common a few years later. At the time of its recording debut, the group also included cornetist Nick LaRocca, clarinetist Larry Shields, trombonist Eddie Edwards, and pianist Harry Ragas. For Sbarbaro, the job is certainly in the running for setting a record for longest occupied drum chair; 50 years later, the drummer was the only original member still in the lineup when the band finally decided to call it quits. He wrote some of the group's best-known original numbers, including the dour "Mourning Blues." He also took over leadership of the band sometime around the 30th year of its existence, a good a time as any to take charge of an operation. His close association with the Dixieland scene, particularly the allegiance to the Chicago-based revival band, stereotyped him as a typical New Orleans drummer, not in itself a bad thing. Perhaps a bit like being called a "typical filet mignon." Also sometimes using the stage name Tony Spargo, the drummer actually came from a different percussion tradition that involved more emphasis on flashy showmanship and concentrated on rhythmic improvisation instead of the expert groove-keeping for which New Orleans percussionists are known. Sbarbaro came more out of ragtime and circus band playing traditions, and percussionists who enjoy the elaborate drum setups of some drummers from this period would enjoy checking out this man's recordings, circa 1917. Hopefully, he had some help carting his stuff into the studio that day as he utilized a full woodblock set, cowbells, and custom snare and bass drum setups. He was a master of an early percussion technique known as double-drumming, in which the player uses the butt of the drum stick to strike the bass drum. This form of playing of course predates the use of the notoriously squeaky bass drum pedal. Sbarbaro's set was typical of what a ragtime drummer would use, with bass drum offset by Chinese tom-toms, a pair of cymbals, wood blocks, cowbells, and a large kazoo that was used for novelty effects. The slang "traps" to describe drums is said to have originated with some of this drummer's zany shenanigans influenced by vaudeville, sometimes utilizing stuffed animals inside the drums. To prove that there is nothing new under the sun, avant-garde musicians have embraced Sbarbaro's style. Drummers, such as Paul Lovens, collect Chinese tom-toms, while Japanese-American percussionist Toshi Makihara performs an elaborate drum duet with a squirrel stuffed animal. Sbarbaro was featured at the New York's World Fair in 1941. In the '50s, he recorded with popular singer Connee Boswell. In his later years, his playing became less flamboyant although it still included arresting showmanship. He also kept a playing scene going for himself with musicians from the classic genre of jazz in New York, a colorful crew of varying sizes that included the wonderfully named Miff Mole, Big Chief Moore, Pee Wee Erwin, and the infamous Eddie Condon. Several small jazz labels documented some of his small band activities from this period. He stopped performing in the '60s, overwhelmed by rock & roll.