Heroes #3: Tony Sbarbaro, 1897-1969

“The ‘trap drummer […] the most important man of all” – London Daily News, 1919

Tony Sbarbaro


When I first started making a list of ‘Twenties jazz drummers to write about, I inevitably first thought of my current favourites – lesser-known musicians whose work I’ve been researching recently, which is slightly more off the beaten track. But I soon realised that if these little essays were to mean anything to the casual reader I ought to begin with the big boys, the drummers who most influenced the subsequent course of jazz. Having ticked off Baby Dodds and Zutty Singleton – the two peerless and undisputed Heavyweight Champions of 20s drums – I found myself at a crossroads. Who to write about next? Which other drummers were so innovative and influential as to completely alter the way percussionists approached their instrument in the early 20th century? Despite two considerable caveats surrounding him and the band he played in, it’s Antonio Sbarbaro (later Tony Spargo, self-styled), who must come next.

To be writing about him this year also feels particularly appropriate: 2017 marks a century since the Victor Talking Machine Company in New York issued a shellac disc – catalogue number 18255 – performed by the Original Dixieland ‘Jass’ Band of New Orleans, or ODJB. Side A was ‘Dixie Jass Band One-Step’ and on the reverse side ‘Livery Stable Blues’. This was ostensibly the first jazz record ever released: March 5th, 1917. Tony Sbarbaro played drums.

The recordings were made acoustically, with the musicians crowding around a large horn (rather like an old-fashioned gramophone horn – which in essence is exactly what it was, working in reverse), the sound being cut instantaneously into a wax disc. Victor’s recording engineer, Charles Sooy, was able to ‘mix’ the record only by physically positioning the musicians closer or further from the horn. That all the instruments are not only audible but sound reasonably balanced is proof of Sooy’s skill at this arcane science. Despite the supposed problems surrounding the recording of drums – demoting drummers to mere cymbal-tappers even on many much later recordings – Sbarbaro is very present in the mix and is playing a complete kit:

“Tony used a gigantic, twenty-eight-inch street drum and made himself heard blocks away. At least one and preferably two cowbells were essential to the new style, plus a large-sized woodblock for continuous use during the choruses, when it replaced the snare drum. Sbarbaro’s practice involved use of the snare on verses, ‘minstrel style’ woodblock on choruses, returning again to the snare drum on the last half of the last chorus.” – H.O. Brunn.

Brunn’s inventory of Sbarbaro’s equipment is accurate – we can tell as much from the photo at the top of the page – but he neglects to mention that, at least on the 1917 recordings, Sbarbaro did not have a reliable bass drum pedal. Photos of the band during that year reveal what appears to be an ‘overhang’-style pedal, one of many archaic contraptions which predated the Ludwig pedal which was the eventual forerunner of all modern bass drum pedals. In addition to this, Sbarbaro also utilised the lost art of ‘double drumming’, an early attempt to combine the job of a bass drummer and a snare drummer in one person. Ragtime drummers would often play the usual vertically-positioned bass drum with one hand and a snare drum with the other, inclined steeply to allow ease of access to the playing surfaces of both drums (see picture). Thus, when Sbarbaro plays the bass drum on these early recordings it’s with his right stick, and he has had to lean down slightly to reach it – in other words, those deep booms you hear (0:57, for example) are important moments that he’s gone out of his way to accentuate. The early ODJB sides are some of the only recordings we have of this style of playing. It’s also worth listening to his imaginative use of the cowbell, often playing variations on a classic ragtime motif – accenting every third 8th-note – which implies a 3-over-2 ‘clave’-type rhythm also associated with the traditional music of New Orleans and the Caribbean. The snare drums used by Sbarbaro and his contemporaries were usually single-tension instruments tuned with t-rods similar to the 1910s ‘Snapper’ design.

As far as he could himself remember, Antonio Sbarbaro was born on Frenchman Street, New Orleans, on June 27, 1897 into a thriving Sicilian immigrant community which was to produce an amazing abundance of great musicians in the years to come. In his 1961 book ‘The Story Of The Original Dixieland Jazz Band’, Harry O. Brunn describes the febrile musical world Sbarbaro entered as a child:
“There was music at picnics, outings and conventions; at weddings, birthdays and funerals; at prize fights, ball games, and track meets; at nickelodeons, cafés, and beer gardens […] With so much music around, it is not difficult to understand why so many New Orleans kids grew up to be musicians.”
Despite not coming from a family that was in any way musical, Sbarbaro began playing the drums in amateur ‘spasm’ bands at an early age, and made his first steps in the world of professional music at just fourteen, with the local Frayle Brothers band. By 1913, he recalled, he was ‘making a dollar’ in the music business. Paul Blum’s Café in Exchange Alley near Canal Street was famous as the spot where musicians would congregate to socialise, hire others for casual musical work or themselves be hired. An important fixer on this scene was the legendary ‘Papa’ Jack Laine, a drummer, bandleader and entrepreneur through whose bands nearly all the great generation of New Orleans musicians seem to have passed at some stage in their young careers. The music they predominantly played was likely a form of loose ragtime, with brass, reeds or violin lead supported by a rhythm section of drums, guitar and double bass, piano being added if the venue had one. Sbarbaro later recalled playing hit rags like ‘Maple Leaf Rag’, ‘Too Much Mustard’ and ‘Down Home Rag’ during these important early years. Whilst working part-time in an office, Tony also began frequenting Exchange Alley and soon fell in with a number of men around his own age including a clarinettist named Larry Shields and two best friends who worked by day as electricians; trombonist and semi-pro baseball player Eddie Edwards, and a fellow Sicilian boy – cornet player Dominic ‘Nick’ LaRocca.

In December 1913, a café owner from Chicago, Harry James, was visiting New Orleans to watch a prize fight and was impressed by a Laine-organised band playing at the Haymarket Café, led by LaRocca’s cornet and featuring Johnny Stein (another forthcoming Hero) on drums. In February of the following year James contacted Stein, asking him to bring the band North to Chicago. Stein and LaRocca between them selected a team, including Edwards, pianist Henry Ragas, and clarinettist Alcide ‘Yellow’ Nunez. ‘Stein’s Band From Dixie’ began their residency at Schiller’s Café on the Chicago’s South Side in early March, but by May tensions between the bandleader and the other four over their earnings came to a head, ending with Stein being biffed on the nose by Edwards and abandoned to go it alone. The four rebels, now led by LaRocca with Edwards as manager (Larry Shields had also replaced Nunez on clarinet), in need of a replacement drummer, recalled their keen young acquaintance from New Orleans. Tony Sbarbaro hadn’t rested on his laurels in the intervening period, gaining valuable experience playing in Ernest Giardina’s band and at the Tango Palace with the famous Brunies brothers. He made the trip to Chicago and joined the newly-renamed Original Dixie Land Jass Band on June 5th, a few weeks shy of his twentieth birthday.

The band caused a sensation in Chicago, opening in June at the Del’Abe Café, then moving up to the Casino Gardens the following month. New York-based theatrical agent Max Hart, following a tip-off from singer Al Jolson, who’d been impressed with the band whilst passing through, travelled to hear the ODJB and immediately signed them to travel East for a fortnight’s residency at Reisenweber’s Café in Manhattan. The band made even more of a huge hit with young New Yorkers than they had in Chicago, and after renegotiating with Reisenweber’s began earning $1000 per week before tips –  astonishingly high wages for the time. Max Hart was inundated with lucrative offers of work for the band, including an approach from the Victor phonograph company, resulting in the previously discussed début session. Over the course of the next few months the ODJB embarked on a furious recording schedule, making twenty-three sides (some repeats of previously-recorded compositions) for Victor and Columbia.

Their records – initially intended mainly as novelty, rather than dance music – spread rapidly across America and this rowdy, syncopated music branded ‘Jass’ (later ‘Jazz’) became a household word.

On ‘At The Jazz Band Ball’

In 1919, the Great War at an end, the ODJB set sail for London, where they caused first outrage, and then sensation: “The Original Dixieland Jazz Band has arrived in London. We are grateful for the warning” – Punch. They performed at the official Victory Ball at the Savoy Hotel, attended by General Pershing and all the crowned heads of Europe, delighted dancers at the Palladium and the Hammersmith Palais de Danse, and recorded eighteen new sides in London for Columbia.

Sadly the drums were not as well-recorded by the London engineers as they had been on the American sides. However, in the process of their British performances and recordings the ODJB profoundly affected young European musicians in a manner that no other visiting band ever had. The great Irish drummer Bill Harty, who came to prominence in the dance bands of the ‘thirties later attested to Sbarbaro’s significant stature in London musical circles immediately following the Armisitice:

“One of the outstanding drummers of this period was Tony, of the Original Dixieland Jazz band. Tony’s set consisted of a bass drum, pedal*, side drum, a wood block, one cow bell and an enormous Chinese cymbal. Tony could not read, but produced a fine rhythm, using four-in-a-bar on the bass drum which could pass muster even today.” – Bill Harty, 1934.
* Note that by this point Sbarbaro had acquired a bass drum pedal.

The two arguments against Sbarbaro’s position of importance with regard to ‘twenties jazz drumming are these: 1) Sbarbaro came to prominence and made many of his key recordings before the 20s. 2) The ODJB didn’t really play ‘true’ jazz, as it would later be understood (i.e. swing rhythm, improvised solos, etc.)

I would refute the first point by observing that no musical style comes from nowhere, and that close examination of the work of Sbarbaro and his 1910s drum contemporaries reveals that a good deal of the phraseology, textural devices and rhythmic language developed by later drummers can be heard in rudimentary forms much earlier. As the most famous and widely-heard drummer in the late 10s and early 20s, Sbarbaro’s influence was profound and far-reaching. The second point is more contentious, but once again reference to the records reveals that whilst his ODJB colleagues limit themselves to repeating the same apparently pre-rehearsed phrases over and over, Sbarbaro’s playing is much more unpredictable and heterogeneous – he does seem to be improvising his part, to some degree at least. No less a musicological authority than Gunther Schuller observed that compared to his bandmates, Sbarbaro was: “the only player who tried to vary his playing, not only […] from performance to performance, but within a piece […] he achieved considerable variety by the clever use of a large collection of drums, cowbells, woodblocks and cymbals”. I would contend therefore that Tony at least was playing jazz, regardless of how you might wish to label the ODJB as a whole. More importantly, the ODJB were the first band to make use of the word ‘jazz’ to describe their music – their nationwide and later worldwide success ensured that the term, initially used in a disparaging sense for music with ‘low’ associations, became a buzzword for all that was hip and cutting-edge amongst the post-bellum generation, and the ODJB’s marketing as ‘The Creators Of Jazz’ acted to cement their position as the pre-eminent popular music group at the beginning of the 1920s.

However, as the new decade got under way, things didn’t turn out quite as well as the ODJB might have hoped. They returned to New York and initial success but Victor record executives imposed a vocalist and saxophonist Benny Krueger upon them, and new Tin Pan Alley repertoire in place of their own original compositions. By this point the ODJB had been eclipsed artistically and commercially by the likes of King Oliver, Clarence Williams, Paul Whiteman, Jelly Roll Morton and many other, fresher artists playing what the ODJB would always consider to be ‘their’ music. The band had gradually drifted apart socially too, and LaRocca decided to call it quits suddenly in January 1925. However he allowed Sbarbaro the rights to the band’s name and the drummer would soldier gamely on, keeping the ODJB flag flying even until the 1960s.

Tony Sbarbaro and the Original Dixieland Jazz band made an indelible mark on the world, though they enjoyed their best years and made their masterpieces before the Jazz Age to which they eventually gave their name had even begun. However, they had clearly set the agenda for the next generation of musicians, and Tony can rightly be acknowledged as the very first individual to win fame as that most invidious of creatures – the Jazz drummer.





Many thanks to Paul Archibald and Paul Scott for their assistance with this article.

2 thoughts on “Heroes #3: Tony Sbarbaro, 1897-1969

  1. Hi Paul,

    Yes, you’re right; since writing this page I’ve seen those photos as well. I need to update that article in general – I actually wrote it over a year ago, and it could do with a bit of a revamp.

    Hope you enjoy the other articles – there’ll be a lot more to come! – and thanks for getting in touch,

    all the best,



  2. Kudos to you for including the great, great musician Tony Sbarbaro in your list! I must dispute something, however. Mr. Sbarbaro did in fact have and use a bass drum pedal from 1916 at least. It’s visible in one of the ODJB’s earliest photos taken in Chicago. The “zinger” cymbal, often played with a split pedal, is also visible in several photos. This doesn’t take away from the fact that he did indeed use double drumming to great effect as well.


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