JOE DARENSBOURG BY PAIGE VANVORST
Date Posted: 2005-05-25
Back in the 1970s there was a breathless announcement in the paper that guitar guru John Fahey had recorded with a musician so down-home he`d actually once worked in a medicine show. I read on, figuring I`d hear about some hitherto-undiscovered legend, and was disappointed to find out that Fahey had merely discovered Joe Darensbourg, one of the most-beloved and widest-traveled New Orleans musicians. Far from being an obscurity, Joe Darensbourg`s music had been heard by virtually everyone in the world via his presence on Louis Armstrong`s record of Hello Dolly We`ve got two CDs featuring Joe Darensbourg in the current release so we`ll turn our spotlight on this well-respected reedman.
Joe Darensbourg was born in Baton Rouge LA on July 9, 1906. He was of classic Creole lineage- his ancestors had come to Louisiana from France and virtually all of them pursued the family trade- shoemaking. Darensbourg`s father was considered the best shoemaker in Baton Rouge and he made shoes for all of Baton Rouge`s elite as well as traveling show people- he made shoes for all five Ringling brothers and had a glowing testimonial on the wall of his shop from John Ringling himself.
There was one musician in the family, an uncle, Willie Darensbourg, played the trombone with circus bands and young Joe yearned for that kind of life. He began his studies on violin and piano before settling on the clarinet when he was about ten. He studied with Manuel Roque and worked his first jobs with Roque`s band. As a teenager he spent his summers visiting an aunt in New Orleans and took some lessons from Alphonse Picou, who`d met his father when he visited
Baton Rouge with Papa Celestin`s band.
Darensbourg became a fulltime musician about 1920, joining the crack Baton Rouge-based band of banjoist Toots Johnson. Johnson`s band included New Orleans legends Guy Kelly (a Baton Rouge native) and Captain John Handy. Little Brother Montgomery, who worked that territory in the 1920s said that you didn`t want to mess with Johnson`s band, as they`d blow away just about any other band.
Joe started wandering in earnest in 1922, heading to Los Angeles where he worked for several months at non-musical jobs, playing a little on the side with Mexican bands. He returned to Baton Rouge and joined the Martel Family Orchestra, a formal group that had a lock on the dancehall business around Opelousas LA. Joe had one goal in life during this period, and that was to join a circus band. He ran off with the circus once, traveling as far as California working as a roustabout.
After a period with the Martel family, he joined a traveling minstrel show, the Sunshine Minstrels, then spent six months with Doc Moon`s Medicine Show.
Joe worked the ballyhoo with the band, did some all-around entertaining, and even helped the good Doctor cook up his elixir, which was 60% alcohol mixed with green soap and grenadine- it was a powerful laxative and good for removing corns. Doc Moon had one of the more successful medicine shows in the business, and they traveled in a custom-made vehicle like a Greyhound bus which even had a mixing room so they could prepare the medicines while on the road.
The tour was headed toward Gary IN but Joe left when the got to St Louis. He fell right into the musical scene there- he worked off and on with Charlie Creath`s Jazz-o-Maniacs, even cutting a never-issued session with them for Okeh Records. He worked in East St Louis with Jelly Roll Morton, worked a few riverboat jobs with Fate Marable, and settled into a run at a roadhouse near Harrisburg IL. There was a war going on between rival gangs of bootleggers and Joe was shot and beat up as part of the retaliation.
When he recovered from his wounds, Darensbourg joined the Al G Barnes Circus sideshow band, which was headed toward his home town. Joe had the chance to do what he always wanted- to parade down the main street of his hometown playing his saxophone. He felt he`d finally made it.
After a short time back home the road beckoned again, this time with a traveling band, Hill and Vesthon`s ODJB, which was heading toward a booking in Los Angeles. The band broke up in LA and Darensbourg settled there, joining Mutt Carey`s Jeffersonians, whp were working a taxi dance hall, and during the daytime they were often called upon to play music on movie sets; motion pictures were still silent, but bands were often hired to play in nightclub scenes, and sometimes they were just hired to provide mood music on the set.
In 1928 Joe started working on a boat which ran from Los Angeles to Seattle, and he fell in love with Seattle, ultimately buying a home there. Joe spent eighteen years there- working with a wide variety of bands. As a racially ambiguous individual he was able to work in both black and white bands with equal ease. He generally preferred the hotter music of the black bands though. He also did some teaching while in Seattle- Dick Wilson, the brilliant young saxophone star of Andy Kirk`s band, was a student of Joe`s, and later in the thirties he taught a number of students under the WPA.
The jazz revival hit Seattle about 1943 and Joe met a young pianist, Johnny Wittwer, and worked a year in a trio with him. He was an avowed revivalist and insisted the trio play dixieland tunes, which were a change from the swing music Joe had been playing with the other groups in the area. Wittwer introduced Joe to Doc Exner, a radiologist with a large record collection. The doctor bankrolled Joe`s first session, a four-track trio date from September 1944.
The doctor was interested in recording a real New Orleans band and jumped when he heard that Joe knew Mutt Carey and Kid Ory. Joe helped organize a recording session for Exner featuring the Kid Ory band in 1945, and Joe stayed around Los Angeles for several months, recording four sides with Ory for Decca the following month, along with a residence at the Jade Palace. Joe spent several weeks later that year with Joe Liggins and the Honeydrippers, one of the most popular rhythm-and-blues bands of that period.
Joe returned briefly to Seattle in 1946, but he was invited back to Los Angeles to rejoin Ory, and he also played short engagements with Red Nichols, Pete Daily, Red Fox, Jack Teagarden and Wingy Manone. The Ory band recorded a series of broadcasts for school classrooms under the sponsorship of Standard Oil, and these will be reissued soon on American Music. Joe joined the Ory band permanently for their opening at Billy Berg`s in Hollywood, then headed to San Francisco for a booking at the Green Room sponsored by jazz critic Eugene Williams (AMCD-42/43).
The Kid Ory band always had a job somewhere, and Joe stayed with them until he was fired by Ory in 1953, apparently due to band politics. Ory had recently remarried and his new wife took charge of running the band, and apparently she convinced Ory to get rid of Joe.
Luckily for Joe, Gene Mayl appeared in LA about the time he left Ory looking for a clarinetist for the Dixieland Rhythm Kings, based in Dayton OH. They were a young band then, basically a modified Lu Watters-style unit. Joe had recently married a woman from Ohio and thought a residency in Ohio would give him a chance to meet his in-laws. Joe spent about six months in Ohio, finishing up working with a trio after the full band proved uneconomical. While in Ohio he did three recording sessions with Mayl, two for Riverside and one for Audiophile.
With the luck that always seemed to have followed him, Joe returned to LA and wound up immediately in another longterm job. He`d known trumpeter Teddy Buckner during his time with Ory and Buckner was in the process of starting his own group. The group was very successful, working steadily for three years at the 400 Club, recording a number of LPs for Gene Norman`s Dixieland Jubilee label, and appearing at most of the major jazz festivals of that era.
Joe branched out in 1957 to run his own band, the Dixie Flyers, for a gig at the Lark Club. Joe put together a good band, worked up some head arrangements, and opened to turnaway business. One of the band`s fans was interested in recording the group and he arranged a session at Capitol Studios in September 1957.
The band had an unexpected hit with Yellow Dog Blues, an exhibition of slap-tonguing by Darensbourg that caught the ear of disc jockeys all over the
country- no one had ever heard anything like it, and the record sold over a million copies. The Dixie Flyers remained together until 1960, after which Joe spent a year playing spot jobs with other bands. He signed on for a band being formed for the Mark Twain riverboat in Disneyland. As with everything at Disneyland, the band was carefully organized and rehearsed- they worked a grueling
schedule- seven hours a day, but the money was decent.
He`d only worked the riverboat job three weeks when he got a call from Joe
Glaser- Louis Armstrong wanted him to join the All-Stars. Louis had approached him about the job when was playing a concert at Hollywood Bowl with Teddy Buckner`s band- Peanuts Hucko was leaving and Louis asked Joe if he`d like to join.
Joe was ready to go but Joe Glaser wanted to bring Barney Bigard back to the band. After a few months Barney was ready to leave and Joe joined the band in Bala, Ontario, July 17, 1961. Joe stayed with Armstrong three years, touring all over the world.
The band were on the road almost all the time and made relatively few recordings compared with other versions of the All-Stars, though they certainly made up for that December 3, 1963 when they recorded Hello Dolly, a hitherto-unknown show tune, as part of a two-number session for Kapp Records. The band went out immediately on a series of one-nighters and forgot about the tune completely. They were in Puerto Rico when word filtered down from New York that the record was breaking big- the band didn`t even know the tune any more and had to send to New York for the sheet music so they could add it to their program, and of course, the results were instantaneous standing ovations. Louis Armstrong was a big star again.
Joe got tired of the road, and he`d earned enough money with Louis that he really didn`t have to work again, so he left the All-Stars June 30, 1964 and took a year`s sabbatical from music. He joined a master musical instrument craftsman and studied with him for a year, learning everything about musical instruments repair, even working on building trumpets from scratch, which was a specialty at the firm where he worked. He was a quick learner and appeared headed for the ownership of the firm when its founder retired, but he decided he wanted to return to playing and joined the Young Men from New Orleans for several seasons at Disneyland. He left Disneyland n 1969 and worked locally for several years.
In 1970 he was hired to play at the Hello Louis concert presented at Los Angeles` Shrine Auditorium in honor of Louis Armstrong`s 70th birthday. He met the producers Floyd Levin and Barry Martyn , and a few years later they called, asking him to join the Legends of Jazz, a touring group including several veterans of the Kid Ory and George Lewis bands. Joe became one of the stars of the band, working all over the US and Europe for two years. He recorded several times with the Legends as well. When he left the Legends in 1975 he decided to take it easy. He‚ ôd saved enough money from his time with Louis that he didn`t have to work unless he wanted to, and he took it relatively easy for the rest of his life. He bought a nice house in Woodland Hills CA and worked whenever he felt like it. Joe suffered a crippling stroke February 5, 1985 and died of cardiac arrest May 25, 1985.
There are few musicians who`ve had as colorful a career as Joe Darensbourg- he had a magical ability to get along with everyone and work all the time. He was a key member of several fine bands- Kid Ory, Teddy Buckner and Louis Armstrong, to name just three, and while he never became a household word, probably because he spent most of his time on the West Coast, he was one of the most reliable musicians around. And, amazingly enough, he did it with one lung; he was in a terrible auto accident in 1932 that left him with a collapsed lung. He developed tuberculosis and wasn`t expected to live, but he surprised everyone and came back full throttle after a prolonged convalescence in the desert.
This month we`ve got two CDs featuring Joe- a set with the Legends of Jazz and an outing with an all-star group featuring Ernie Carson- you certainly NEED at least one of these, especially if you don`t have much by Joe in your
(Note: For those of you interested in Joe`s full story, try to locate JAZZ
ODYSSEY: The Autobiography of Joe Darensbourg, as told to Peter Vacher, published by Macmillan, London, in 1987 and by the Louisiana State University Press in 1988. Joe was a charming storyteller, and he provides tremendous insight into some of the great jazz pioneers he worked with, particularly Mutt Carey and Kid Ory)