Tony Sbarbaro: Thayer Street Jazz Legend

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As early as 1940 drummer Antonio Sparbaro lived inside 35 Thayer Street in the Inwood section of Manhattan.  The 43-year-old  likely stood out in the blue collar building a block south of Dyckman Street.  He was an Italian-American whereas most neighboring apartments were occupied by Irish. He wore tuxedos to work while most in the building wore uniforms or coveralls.  But, once the barriers were broken down, neighbors  like construction worker Lawrence Farrell and mechanic Edward Sullivan saw a regular fella.  The working musician,  supporting two boys, 10 and 16, a wife and mother-in-law, likely struggled just to pay the rent.

But twenty years earlier Sbarbaro and his Original Dixieland Jazz Band were an international sensation.  Could his neighbors have known the incredible role Sbarbaro played in the creation of the music now known as Jazz?

Anthony Sbarbaro, 1916, Hogan Jazz Archive, Tulane University.
Anthony Sbarbaro, 1916, Hogan Jazz Archive, Tulane University.

A Jazz Pioneer

Antonio Sparbaro born in New Orleans in 1897. His father, Peter, a first generation Italian immigrant, worked as a stevedore. He played drums with several New Orleans bands before joining Original Dixieland Jazz Band in 1917.

That year the band travelled to New York City to record a single titled Livery Stable Blues.  The recording session would result in the first jazz single ever issued.

Original Dixieland Jazz Band, (Sbarbaro center on drums), 1936, Hogan Jazz Archive, Tulane University.
Original Dixieland Jazz Band, (Sbarbaro center on drums), 1936, Hogan Jazz Archive, Tulane University.

Billed as “The Creators of Jazz,” the five musicians included Tony Sbarbaro on drums, cornetist Dominick James “Nick” LaRocca, clarinetist Larry Shields, trombonist Edwin “Daddy” Edwards and pianist Henry Ragas.

Antonio Sparbaro on far left with ODJB, 1916.
Antonio Sparbaro on far left with ODJB, 1916.

The wildly popular group toured the world and exposed a generation to a new sound they called “Jass”—the music was soon renamed “Jazz.”

Reisenweber's Cafe, circa 1910, MCNY.
Reisenweber’s Cafe, circa 1910, MCNY.

Soon after their 1917 recording the Original Dixieland Jazz Band began series of regular appearances at Reisenweber’s Café on West 58th Street near Columbus Circle.

O.D.J.B. on stage with stuffed bear and monkey 1920, Hogan Jazz Archive, Tulane University.
O.D.J.B. on stage with stuffed bear and monkey 1920, Hogan Jazz Archive, Tulane University.

The band was famous for it’s on stage antics.  Often the band wore top hats that together spelled out the word “DIXIE.”  The trombonist sometimes played the slide with his foot.  Sbarbaro often added cowbells and symbols to his drum kit.  He was known to have a special fondness for kazoos.  He sometimes played a modified clarinet he called a “ZOBO.” The band had, after all, come of age in the Roaring Twenties and tried to make their performances as wild as possible.

O.D.J.B. at Palais de Danse 1919, Hogan Jazz Archive, Tulane University.
O.D.J.B. at Palais de Danse 1919, Hogan Jazz Archive, Tulane University.

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,” wrote Sbarbaro biographer Eugene Chadbourne.  “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.

Barnyard Blues, Hogan Jazz Archive, Tulane University.
Barnyard Blues, Hogan Jazz Archive, Tulane University.

The band’s chaotic sound—their slogan “untuneful harmonists playing peppery melodies”—had its critics, but they also had a global following.  Louis Armstrong, according to biographer Joshua Berrett, “remembered them as one of his favorites when he started buying records around 1917 or 1918.”

O.D.J.B. 1922, Hogan Jazz Archive, Tulane University.
O.D.J.B. 1922, Hogan Jazz Archive, Tulane University.

Sbarbaro, who sometimes toured under the name Tony Spargo, would eventually make New York his home.

As early at 1940 he lived in a rented apartment at 35 Thayer Street in the Inwood section of northern Manhattan with his wife, Cecilia, and sons, Anthony Jr. and Peter, and 70-year-old mother-in-law, Magdeline Warren.  The apartment building must have been a good fit for the jazz musician and his young family.  The neighborhood offered large, inexpensive apartments with nearby public transportation. With the Dyckman Street subway station just a block away he could make the trip to downtown engagements in less than thirty minutes.

35 Thayer Street in the Inwood section of Manhattan. Former home of Jazz legend Tony Sbarbaro.
35 Thayer Street in the Inwood section of Manhattan. Former home of Jazz legend Tony Sbarbaro.

From his home base in New York he would tour with the band for more than fifty years.

Sparbaro walked away from the music scene when rock and roll became popular in the 1960’s.  In retirement, he and Cecilia lived the Forest Hills section of Queens.  He died in 1969 at the age of 72.

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