Saugus Dixieland Jam Honors Memory of Joe Darensbourg

Times Staff Writer

Musicians and friends of clarinetist Joe Darensbourg paid tribute to him Sunday at the Limelight Club in Saugus with 12 hours of the music Darensbourg played and loved best: Dixieland.

Darensbourg, 79, of Woodland Hills, died May 24 of cardiac arrest at Valley Hospital Medical Center in Van Nuys, where he had been recovering from a stroke.

He began his career playing on Mississippi riverboats and in medicine shows in the 1920s. In the 1960s, he joined Louis Armstrong for a world tour, playing in virtually every country but the Soviet Union. In his later years, he played at local clubs.

The author of “Yellow Dog Blues,” a record that sold more than a million copies and brought his band, The Dixie Flyers, the honor of Downbeat magazine’s record of the year, Darensbourg was best known for a style of playing known as slap-tongue, which is quickly disappearing.


One ‘Slap’ Needed

In a publication by Los Angeles’ Dixieland preservation organization, the Jazz Forum, Darensbourg explained: “Slap-tongue is like spitting something off the end of your tongue while playing the reed. You have to create a suction between the tongue and reed, so as to make the ‘slap’ sound.

“I practiced five or six months and finally got one slap. Once you get one you’ve got it made and you wonder why in the hell you couldn’t do it before.”

At Sunday’s tribute, Darensbourg’s widow, Helen, tearfully accepted a check for $6,973 contributed by Darensbourg’s friends and fans to help pay his hospital bills. The funds were raised a week ago in a few minutes at the Sacramento Jubilee Jazz Festival as 100 bands played “Sacramento Jubilee,” a song written by Darensbourg as the festival’s theme.


The Saugus tribute, which lasted from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., began with a short service in Darensbourg’s memory. Two eulogies were given between musical acts, one by musician Chuck Conklin, leader of the Angel City Jazz Band, and another by Vince DuBarry of the Los Angeles musicians’ union.

Russ Bissett, a nightclub owner who hired Darensbourg when the clarinetist first moved to Los Angeles, said he received more than 400 phone calls from all over the country about the tribute. Bissett said he was not surprised at the generosity of the contributors and mourners because, he said, Darensbourg had a reputation for turning down paying jobs to do charity benefits.

“Anytime anybody needed him he was there,” Bissett said. “He played for churches, hospitals and anybody else who needed him.”

‘For You, Joe!’


By Sunday afternoon, about 450 people were at the tribute. Neon lights cast a glow on the polished floor as couples danced to “Sweet Georgia Brown.” Patrons sipped beer and browsed through a selection of classic Dixieland recordings.

A ragtime pianist in the club’s dining room finished a rollicking set of standards, threw his hands up in the air, looked heavenward and shouted “For you, Joe!”.

Musicians and friends said Darensbourg’s death will be a great loss to the tradition of Dixieland jazz.

“He was one of the few low-register clarinetists around,” said Bissett.


“He was a legend,” said singer Marge Murphy, who worked with Darensbourg on his last recording. “He was not only a fine clarinetist but an individual stylist. He was different from any other clarinetist I’ve ever heard.

“He was laid back and he was cool and you could hear 50 clarinetists and always pick his style out.”