“The ‘trap drummer […] the most important man of all” – London Daily News, 1919
With THE ORIGINAL DIXIELAND JASS/JAZZ BAND (ODJB) 1917-24.
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 Carribbean.
Sbarbaro came from New Orleans and was one of the many early jazz musicians to emerge from the Sicilian immigrant community. He had cut his teeth as a musician in the 1910s playing with parade bands around the city, notably that of the legendary ‘Papa’ Jack Laine, through which most of the promising New Orleans musicians seem to have passed at some stage in their young careers. The band that would become the ODJB originally left New Orleans under the leadership of drummer Johnny Stein (about whom I may write some time in the future!) but over a job in Chicago the band fell out with Stein and invited Sbarbaro up North to join them. He first played with the band – now led by cornettist Nick LaRocca – on June 5th, a few weeks shy of his twentieth birthday. Soon they attracted the attention of a New York theatrical booker and began a residency in Reisenweber’s Cafe in Manhattan. They were a huge hit with young New Yorkers and consequently began a successful recording career, first with Victor and then 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.
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 an alto saxophonist 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.