Norvo, Red (actually, Norville Kenneth)

views updated

Norvo, Red (actually, Norville Kenneth)

Norvo, Red (actually, Norville Kenneth),innovative jazz xylophonist, vibraphonist, marimba player, pianist, leader; b. Beardstown, 111., March 31, 1908; d. Santa Monica, Calif., April 6, 1999. Norvo showed a consistent interest in inventive writing and innovations, working with Paul Whiteman, who emphasized writing, and later hiring Eddie Sauter to write for his band. He recorded in 1945 with Parker and Gillespie, then formed a trio with Charles Mingus in the early 1950s and recorded third stream classical works in 1956.

Norvo played piano from early childhood, then studied xylophone. Mallet instruments were widely regarded as novelties when he first encountered them in his early teens. He began playing professionally at 17 in territory bands and vaudeville acts like the Flaming Youth Revue. In 1925, he toured the Middle West with a marimba band called The Collegians but left them in Chicago to work with the established dance bands of Paul Ash (who changed Red’s name to Norvo) and Ben Bernie. He played regularly in local radio stations and also had a solo vaudeville act that including tapdancing. He then enrolled as a student and studied mine engineering at Univ. of Mo. (1926–27). Norvo returned to full- time music, led his own band on Station KSTP (c. 1929) and worked with Victor Young’s Radio Orch. (NBC) in Chicago. Two solos recorded for Brunswick in 1929 were never issued. His four-mallet virtuosity on Bix Beiderbecke’s “In a Mist” attracted the attention of Paul Whiteman, whose band already boasted Mildred Bailey. Norvo was regularly featured with Whiteman until mid-1932. In late 1933, he and Bailey married. Norvo attracted notice performing with Whiteman; Bernard Addison dragged Rex Stewart through a blizzard to hear him play with the band in Paterson, N.J. He made extensive freelance recordings and worked occasionally with Charlie Barnet. His unusual 1933 recording “Dance of the Octopus,” with Benny Goodman on bass clarinet, lost him further Brunswick dates, but attracted John Hammond who bought two dozen copies of the 78 and offered Norvo additional recording dates. More significantly, the records prompted Eddie Sauter to seek him out. From October 1935, he led a piano-less, drummer-less octet (recorded by Decca) at 52nd Street’s Famous Door with Sauter, Dave Barbour, and Herbie Haymer. In May 1936, encouraged by the William Morris Agency, he expanded the group from six to 10 pieces for a Hotel Commodore engagement. Bailey was doing well in radio in N.Y., but, when she and Norvo’s band were simultaneously booked into Chicago’s Blackhawk, they realized they were an irresistible combination. “Mr.and Mrs. Swing,” as George Simon dubbed them, led a subtly swinging unit that Ellington called “Superleviathanic.” During 1936, Norvo made several recordings on piano under the pseudonym Ken Kenny. Recording under both Norvo’s and Bailey’s names, their band waxed dozens of tracks between 1936 and 1939. From 1937–44, they led bands of varying sizes including a 10-piece unit at Palisades, N.Y., in 1940. His Overseas Spotlight octet (organized to play for servicemen) featured Flip Phillips and Ralph Burns in two recording sessions for V-Disc. From about 1943 onwards, he worked mainly on vibraphone. In late 1944, he disbanded his current group, a sextet, and joined Benny Goodman. By this time he and Bailey were working separately again and in 1945 they divorced but remained close. During 1945, he led a celebrated date with Parker, Gillespie, and Teddy Wilson. Norvo left Goodman in December 1945 and worked with Woody Herman until December 1946. He moved to southern Calif, in 1947, working as a freelance and leading own group. He did studio work and continued to experiment with recording bands of all configurations for various labels, playing with guests including Benny Carter and Dexter Gordon. He recorded for Capitol in 1948 with Stan Hasselgard and then returned to N.Y. in September 1949 to lead a sextet with Tony Scott, Dick Hyman, and Mundell Lowe. In 1950, he formed a trio, first with Red Mitchell and Mundell Lowe, then with Charles Mingus and Tal Farlow. His trio later included Jimmy Raney and Red Mitchell. He first toured Europe early in 1954, then led his own small groups in U.S. and recorded for numerous labels. He reunited with his brother-in-law Shorty Rogers; remade Sauter charts with Helen Humes replacing Bailey; experimented with third stream works, notably Bill Smith’s Divertimento. After touring Australia in 1956, he opened own club in Santa Monica, Calif., and worked in Las Vegas from 1957–58. After he guested with Goodman on TV in 1958, Frank Sinatra prompted him to expand his group into a sextet for a 1959 tour that traveled as far as Australia. His quintet joined Goodman and four others for a 10-piece tour in late 1959 and also worked in the Goodman Sextet in spring 1961. During the 1960s and 1970s he rarely played in N.Y., working mainly in Calif, and Nev, including a long residencies at the Sands Hotel. An ear operation left him out of action from March-July 1968, but he was able to tour Europe as a soloist in late 1968. Norvo worked with George Wein’s Newport All Stars (1969), led his own group (1970–72), took a year’s sabbatical, then resumed playing. His hearing continued to deteriorate and he had a stroke about 1986, and didn’t play again, except once on a jazz cruise, where he performed with one hand, in late 1990.


“Dance of the Octopus” (1933); “Just a Mood” (1937); “Smoke Dreams” (1937); R. N. and Mildred Bailey (1938); “Wartime Vibe-rations” (1943); Legendary V-Disc Masters (1943); Fabulous Jam Session (1945); Town Hall Concert, Vol. 1, 2 (1944); Improvisations on Keynote (1944); R. N. Trio with Tal Farlow (1950); Move! With Tal Farlow and Charlie Mingus (1950); “September Song,” “Move,” “Budo” (1950); With Jimmy Raney and Red Mitchell (1954); R. N. Trio (1955); R. N. Ad Lib Featuring Buddy Collette (1956); Music to Listen to R. N. By (1957); Forward Look (1957); Pretty Is the Only Way to Fly (1962); R. N. and His All Stars (1968); Swing That Music (1969); N....Naturally (1972); Vibes a la Red (1974); Second Time Around (1975); R. in N.Y.(1977); Live at Rick’s Cafe Américain (1978); R. and Ross (1979); Just Friends (1983). frank sinatra:Frank Sinatra with the R. N. Quintet: Live in Australia, 1959 (1997).

—John Chilton Who’s Who of Jazz/Music Master of Jazz and Blues Catalogue/Lewis Porter