CULTIVATING CREATIVITY: Andy Sparling, the Commodores and a lifetime in dancehalls

By Peter Paylor/Quinte Art Council

During their first summer in Belleville, after moving from London, Ont., in 1987, Andy Sparling and his wife, Theresa, found themselves at the Waterfront Festival one evening. “And there’s this big, beautiful band playing under the moonlight on the end of the pier,” says Sparling, “with about 300 or 400 people around having a great time. It fired me up.”

That band was the Commodores Orchestra.

It was an evening, says Sparling, that took him all the way back to his childhood. When Sparling was nine, his father, Phil, played saxophone, clarinet, and oboe in a local big band after a stint overseas with the legendary RCAF Streamliners who put their lives on the line playing swing, jump, and jive for the troops. Sparling soon found himself tagging along with his father each summer, going on gigs, and setting up music stands at theatres and dancehalls.

“One summer I saw the trombone player playing Tommy Dorsey’s famous solo “Marie” and I decided right then and there that I was going to learn to play it,” he says. With the help of a local music teacher – and despite his arms being too short to reach seventh position – Sparling started on the path that would eventually lead to his own 30-year run playing trombone with the Commodores Orchestra.

Playing for the first time on May 28, 1928, and still playing today, the Commodores are believed to be the longest-running band anywhere in the world. Over the past few years, Sparling has taken up the task of keeping the story of the band and its one-time home, The Club Commodore, still going.

“The Club Commodore was an amazing place,” says Sparling. “I’m looking two blocks to the west of me, because that’s where it was, at the Belleville Fairgrounds, and I think back to the late 40’s. That place was going five nights a week and during the course of the week they would easily see 1,500, 2,000 dancers. This was in a city of 17,000 people. It’s just crazy. And they were coming from Peterborough and Kingston and Cobourg and everywhere else, so I kind of fell in love with the story.”

Sparling has recently crafted a documentary about the band, “The Commodores Orchestra: Dance of the Decades.” A selection at Belleville’s 10th Annual Downtown DocFest, the film contains dozens of archival photos and news clippings along with archival recordings of the band’s music that might not otherwise be heard. The soundtrack on its own is an amazing documentary record of the band’s history and a great gift to big band lovers everywhere and to fans of the Commodores in particular.

Fans of big band music should also tune into 91X (91.3FM) Loyalist Radio on Saturday mornings at 10:00 am where Sparling is recreating the magic of Club Commodore with his half-hour broadcast, Swing Jump ‘n Jive, from “high atop the fashionable West Hill in li’l ol ’Belleville by the beautiful Bay of Quinte.”

As soon as live music is once again possible, the Commodores Orchestra will be ready. Sparling credits our great local musical talents, Brian Barlow and Bob Leonard, for that.

In the meantime, he’s still collecting memories. “I walk my dog over that place where the Club used to be and I still find myself sneaking a peek down on the ground in case there’s any part of an ashtray that still might be around, because…well…I kind of grew up in dance halls.”

This article was originally published in the Spring 2001 issue of Umbrella magazine, available now.