What would a Buffalo summer be like without memories of the Bar-Room Buzzards?
It’s unimaginable. Young or old, East Side or West Side, odds are that, at one time in your life, you have grooved to this quintessential quartet. Maybe you were on the Miss Buffalo. Perhaps you may have seen them at M&T Plaza. The band, a prime draw on that series, plays there at noon today, Aug. 4. Most likely, you were at an outdoor venue. (The Buzzards play the Olcott Gazebo from 2 to 4 p.m. Sept. 5.)
For 50 years, the Bar-Room Buzzards have been part of the soundtrack of Western New York. They are part of the soundtrack of a lot of other places, too.
In 1979, they played the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. The guy faced with the tough task of following their act was a teen-age Wynton Marsalis, performing with the rest of his family. The Buzzards have also been featured at jazz festivals across the country. This fall, they’ll be in Rochester, playing for Flower City Jazz Society.
The journey has become bittersweet now that Paul Preston, who sings and plays clarinet and soprano sax, is the only remaining charter member of the group.
“I’m the original Buzzard. That makes me an old Buzzard,” he likes to joke.
Happily, his style is as youthful and virtuosic as ever.
He misses his friend Jim Koteras, who formed the band with him and died in 2005. But the current Buzzards are all top-notch. They are Lewis Custode on trumpet, Warren Stirtzinger on guitar and banjo, and Paul Zapalowski on bass and tuba.
Earlier this summer, the four performed at the Lions Pavilion in West Seneca. The sets were subtle and seamless.
Preston, introducing a song by Harold Arlen. He gave Arlen’s old address – 385 Clinton St. – and of how Arlen led a band on the Crystal Beach boat. A gentle, suave “Stompin’ at the Savoy” followed. There were no drums, and you didn’t miss them. “Lady, Be Good.” Fats Waller’s “Crazy ‘Bout My Baby.” “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” – the band swung through them, Preston and Custode alternating on vocals.
Traditional jazz is hot. Ask the Queen City Jazz Society. Its snail-mail newsletter recently featured an essay entreating seasoned fans to be nice to newcomers. The River Grill in Tonawanda packs them in with the River Dogs, a New Orleans-style group Preston has performed with on occasion. And the Fredtown Stompers, a young group from Fredonia, draws crowds of swing dancers performing old chestnuts from the ‘20s and ‘30s and even earlier.
But the Bar-Room Buzzards were there first. The musicians set the standard with their grace and polish.
Preston generously credits his band mates.
“They all understand the idea of a quartet,” he said. “I’m fortunate to be playing with them.”
The sidemen say the honor is all theirs.
“We play off each other comfortably,” Custode said. “We have a lot of fun.”
Ragtime pianist Don Burns, president of the Queen City Jazz Society, said he respects Preston as a model of professionalism.
“Paul is a purist and he wants the thing right,” Burns said. “As nice a man as he is, I’m sure he doesn’t tolerate anything to go on in the band that isn’t right where it’s supposed to be. He has over the years selected people he wants – very special people he likes to have around him.”
Arriving at Preston’s West Seneca home on a hot, lazy afternoon, you can tell a musician lives there.
Preston greeted a reporter with a legal pad bearing neat lists of dates and clubs.
“You don’t call them joints any more,” he said.
There’s a framed poster of Louis Armstrong, and a poster from the 1979 New Orleans jazz festival. The house is also home to Preston’s enormous vinyl collection. “I tried to give it to the library. They wouldn’t take it,” he said.
Mention any song, and Preston has something to say. Contemplating Duke Ellington’s “In a Sentimental Mood,” he got a faraway look. “Johnny Hodges on alto sax,” he said. He talked about Sidney Bechet, his hero. And Mel Torme. “My favorite singer of all time.”
Most musicians now are trained in academia. Preston is old school.
His father, a manager for Kendall Oil, played saxophone and drums. As a boy, Preston played alongside his dad in a Shriners band. Drafted soon after graduating from Kensington High School in 1950, he played in an Army band. In Japan, he grooved alongside Japanese musicians. He was also thrilled to perform with Bob Wilber, a protegee of Bechet.
Back in Buffalo, he married his wife, Carol, whom he’d known in high school and at church. Sixty-four years later, they have two sons and four grandchildren. Their sons, Chris and Paul, are the “C” and the “P” in the CPR Band.
Like his dad, Paul Preston always held a day job. He was a claims adjuster. But music has been his life.
In the 1950s, he joined drummer Eli Konikoff in Eli’s Yankee Six. He and Koteras began gigging together, too, playing a joint – er, club – on Niagara Street called McKinnan’s.
“I still have some followers from that place,” Preston laughed.
He and Koteras had the idea in 1966 to form a band at the Speakeasy, a club that aimed for a rustic barroom feel. Carol Preston came up with a name that reflected the ambience. And the Bar-Room Buzzards were hatched.
They soon soared. In 1970, they launched a long stint at the Showboat, a glitzy ship docked at the foot of Hertel. Burns, the Queen City Jazz Society president, played piano among the pistons in the Showboat’s boiler room and recalled the Buzzards’ spirit.
“There were bands on all floors. The Buzzards were the prime band there,” Burns said. “All of a sudden in the middle of my set, down would come the Buzzards. Down the stairs they’d come, and play along, and then go back upstairs.”
The Buzzards next swooped down on the Miss Buffalo, where they entertained for 28 years. They played a pops concert with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra in 1973, and in 1976, they became the house band for Mark Russell’s comedy show on Channel 17. In 2002, the group was inducted into the Buffalo Music Hall of Fame.
As he looks back on 50 years, Preston acknowledges things ain’t what they used to be.
Bourbon Street in New Orleans has changed since the Buzzards flew through. “It’s honky tonk now. You used to hear good traditional bands there.”
Preston rolls his eyes at musicians who perform in baseball caps and T-shirts.
“They look scuzzy. It looks like a bunch of guys who got together for fun. People wonder how professional you are,” he said. The Buzzards, in contrast, played a San Diego jazz festival in lookalike green vests. “That looks like a professional group.”
And no matter how popular traditional jazz may be, the club scene has changed.
“We haven’t played a steady job in a while,” Preston said. “There’s nowhere near the volume of work there was in the old days. Of course, there’s not as much for anyone else, either.”
All the clouds will roll away, though, when Preston picks up his horn. On the bandstand, he becomes the man he always was.
“It’s been a great ride,” he said. “I’m a lucky so-and-so.”