Barroom Buzzards – Legacy

The Barroom Buzzards….

Founded by Paul Preston and Jim Koteras

A history of the early days*

by Paul Preston

The quartet was formed in 1966.  Jim and Paul had been playing side by side for 11 years with The Yankee Six, and decided to try a new concept with a quartet format.  

The band began performing at The Speakeasy Restaurant in 1966.  Guitarist Phil Santa Maria had been doing a single there and talked the owner into adding Paul and Jim.  Carl Conrad completed the group on tuba.

In 1970, they moved into The Showboat Restaurant in Buffalo harbor.  They performed in the Engine Room bar until 1975 when they moved on to The Miss Buffalo.  This relationship lasted for 28 years and involved both the Miss Buffalo and their dinner cruiser, The Niagara Clipper.

In 1976 the Buzzards began a 26-year relationship with WNED-TV playing for the nationally syndicated Mark Russell Show.

The Bar-Room Buzzards have performed at Jazz Festivals in New Orleans; San Diego; Savannah, Georgia; Indianapolis, Indiana; and Columbus, Ohio, as well as at numerous concerts and events throughout New York State.  In 2002 they were inducted into the Buffalo Music Hall of Fame.  They appeared with The Buffalo Philharmonic in 1989 and have made several recordings.  “Dixieland Chestnuts” is still a favorite.

Jim Koteras passed away in 2005.  Paul Preston unexpectedly retired in 2017.  The baton was passed to Lew Custode, who very capably fulfilled the quartet’s pending performance obligations.

The surviving alumni of the early days are

         Paul Preston – Clarinet and Soprano Sax

         Dan McCue – Banjo and Guitar

         Richard Hull – String Bass and Tuba

         Craig Hodnett – Tuba

* For a more detailed history please read on………

The Barroom Buzzards Celebrate 53rd Anniversary 

by Lewis D. Custode, Jr. – October 2, 2019 

Believe it, or not…this year The Barroom Buzzards celebrate their 53rd Anniversary! Before going on, take a moment to re-read and truly think about the previous statement.  While the average person and music aficionado can certainly appreciate such an accomplishment, there is another perspective that must be considered – that which stems from the working musician.  For those of you who are musicians, give some thought to how difficult it is to keep a band together for five years, and how implausible it seems to think that the band you are playing with today will last ten years.  Only then can you begin to comprehend and appreciate the scope of this accomplishment of Buffalo’s most celebrated Traditional Jazz Band, which got its start in not in Buffalo, but in Niagara Falls, New York.   

It was 1966 and Phil Santa Maria was performing as a single act at “The Speakeasy Restaurant” in Niagara Falls, New York.  Playing banjo, guitar and singing two nights a week, Santa Maria (who understood the value of quality musicianship) convinced the owner of “The Speakeasy” to add more musicians.  With the addition of Paul Preston (clarinet/vocals), Jim Koteras (trumpet/vocals), and Carl Conrad (tuba/bass), Santa Maria formed a raucous quartet that would entertain guests for the next three years.  The group played with unbridled enthusiasm.  Flashing lights, whistles, bicycle horns, sing a long songs, and the tight ensemble work of Paul Preston and Jim Koteras kept the dining room packed and the bar buzzing.  The group was an instant hit with both the patrons and the owner.  It was obvious to all involved that Santa Maria had assembled a winning combination, the only thing left undone, was to name the band.  After much deliberation (and suggestion from Carol Preston) they settled on “The Barroom Buzzards” and the WNY music scene would change forever.   

Utilizing an unconventional quartet configuration (most traditional jazz groups at the time performed with six or seven pieces), The Barroom Buzzards set out to look and sound different from the very beginning.  Perfecting their sound early on through diligent practice, Preston and Koteras learned to play together as tightly as two musicians are able.  Additionally, they employed a unique business model of consistency – professionally, as well as, musically.  Craig Hodnett (tuba/bass 1967-1968) remembers that consistency was paramount to their success…“You always knew what you were getting at every performance.  The sound, the style and musical quality was almost always the same and clients came to rely on it.”  

This is not to imply that the group has been free of change.  Like other bands, personnel changes have occurred throughout the life of “The Barroom Buzzards”.  When Phil Santa Maria (1966-1968) left to do graduate work at Kent State, the “Buzzards” had numerous banjo/guitarists before settling on Danny McCue (banjo/guitar 1968-1999), who subsequently stayed with the band for thirty-one years and remembers…“I started as a novice, only playing banjo for a couple of years at that time”.  McCue, who performed on all but one of the “Buzzards” five recording projects, recalls his time with the group as both challenging, as well as, rewarding.  “Back in the day, we really played a lot…probably too much. We never had a break!”  He speaks fondly of those days, and credits Preston and Koteras with helping him grow as a musician… “Those guys taught me everything I know about music – and the music business.”     

The tuba/bass chair has had the most turnover with Craig Hodnett replacing Carl Conrad (1966-1967), followed by Dick Brownell (1968 – 1972), and Dick Hull (1972 – 1994).  Paul Zapalowski (1994 – present) currently holds that position.  During his tenure, Dick Hull considered his fellow bandmates as family stating “We were like brothers as well as musicians.  Everybody in the band pitched-in to help get more work and we practiced regularly; at least once a month.”  Paul Zapalowski (who started subbing with the band in 1984), credits much of the group’s success to Preston’s dedication and professionalism…“Paul’s love for the music was reflected in his hard work and incessant research; it is my good fortune to have been part of this…I learned a lot from this band.”   

To say that the past 53 years have been very good to the “Barroom Buzzards” would be a gross understatement.  One of the highest points of their illustrious career came on September 26, 2002, when “The Barroom Buzzards” were inducted into the “Buffalo Music Hall of Fame”.  Other highlights include the “Mark RusselI Comedy Specials” broadcast on national television, extended engagements on the Miss Buffalo and Niagara Clipper Dinner Cruise ships since 1976, and the “Showboat” in the Buffalo Harbor.   In 1973, the “Buzzards” performed a special “Pops Concert” with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra (not the normal venue for a traditional jazz ensemble.) As part of the national Traditional Jazz Festival Circuit, they have performed at The Heritage Jazz Festival, in New Orleans, the prestigious San Diego Jazz Festival, as well as, festivals in Syracuse, NY, Alexandria Bay, NY, Columbus, OH, and Indianapolis, IN.  Additionally, the “Buzzards” have the following recording credits: “Showboat” LP-1972; “Dixieland” LP-1979; “Fats Waller” LP-1982; “Dixieland Chestnuts” CD-1991; “Little Band Plays the Big Bands” CD-2002.   

Never content to rest on their laurels, the band continues to evolve.  The current line-up includes George Kane (2016 – present) who filled the seat vacated after Warren Stritzinger (1999 – 2016) passed away.  Kane, the consummate musician and natural choice for the guitar/banjo chair, goes on to say… “I really enjoy playing with the group, it’s like riding in a Cadillac!”  Additionally, for the first time in the group’s history, the instrumentation has changed to reflect a front line of trumpet and trombone.  When Paul Preston retired in 2017, Ray Skalski was tapped to fill the void.  Skalski remembers his early days as a musician fondly stating…“My dad took me to see the Buzzards when I was young, and I would sit-in with them.  Both Preston and Koteras were very gracious; it was part of my apprenticeship.”             

On a personal note, taking over the trumpet chair in 2005 was truly an honor; only eclipsed when Paul Preston asked me to assume the leadership responsibilities of the group upon his retirement in 2017.  While I am forever grateful for the opportunity, I also realize the daunting responsibility that comes with the position; fully understanding that I am now entrusted with continuing the rich legacy of the most celebrated trad-jazz ensemble in Buffalo’s music history.  With the creation and nurturing of “The Barroom Buzzards”, Paul Preston and Jim Koteras accomplished something very special, and for that, they should never be forgotten.  Upon accepting leadership of the band, I made a sincere promise to Paul to not only honor the legacy he worked so hard to create, but to also perpetuate the success of The Barroom Buzzards into the future.  With a sparkle in his eyes, and that all too familiar affable look that I had become accustomed to seeing over the years, he looked at me and said…“I know you will”.  Talk about pressure…two years down, here’s to the next 50+ years!