Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



(b Kenneth Norville, 31 March 1908, Beardstown IL; d 6 April 1999, Santa Monica CA) Xylophone, vibraphone, bandleader. Norvo was not only first to make a jazz instrument of the xylophone, but also an unusually adventurous musician, one of those who realized that the 'swing band' was an ensemble for which good music could be written. He studied piano as a child; went to Chicago at 17 and soon led a marimba band; later had a solo vaudeville act including tap-dancing; led a band '29, became a staff musician at NBC with Victor Young, then Paul Whiteman, met Mildred Bailey: they were married and went to NYC with Whiteman. Two marimba solos recorded for Brunswick in 1929 were never issued; he recorded with a group from the Paul Whiteman band backing Bailey on her first recording of 'Rockin' Chair' '32.

Norvo recorded Bix Beiderbecke's 'In A Mist' and his own 'Dance Of The Octopus' in November '33, accompanied only by a trio of guitar, string bass and Benny Goodman on bass clarinet: he made the most moving of all recordings of Bix's bittersweet piece, but 'Octopus' is still astonishing today, one of the most advanced compositions of its time, its tonal ambiguity demanding that the listener pay attention. Dave Kapp at Brunswick Records tore up Norvo's contract when he heard it; it is said to be only thanks to the producer Morty Palitz that the recording wasn't destroyed, and to John Hammond that it was actually issued the following year; and Norvo allegedly destroyed a stack of compositions in despair or anger.

He made eight tracks for Columbia '34-5, small groups including variously Teddy Wilson, Artie Shaw, Bunny Berigan, Chu Berry, Jack Jenny (b 12 May 1910, Mason City IA; d 16 December 1945, L.A.; a trombonist legendary for silky style and manic pranks). Then Kapp must have forgiven or forgotten; Norvo went to the new Decca label '36 where Kapp was the boss, leading an octet ironically including Eddie Sauter, becoming one of the more adventurous arrangers in the business, tracks like 'Gramercy Square' providing better than average listening. Then it was back to Brunswick with a larger band '36 with Bailey singing, recording both under Norvo's name and as Mildred Bailey and her Orchestra (on Vocalion, same company). Sauter arranged a while longer, including such Bailey vocals as a more famous 'Rockin' Chair' and an extraordinarily dissonant version of 'Smoke Rings', either because Norvo and Sauter disliked the song or because they were sore at Bailey for some reason (in any case she sang it without any difficulty: the musical intelligence of everyone involved was very high). Successful and popular, on radio Norvo and Bailey were known as 'Mr and Mrs Swing'.

Among his freelance activities was a quartet session '37 in L.A. with Teddy Wilson, Harry James and John Simmons (no drums) including the lovely two-sided 'Just A Mood'. He might have been first to hire Frank Sinatra mid-'39 but Harry James got there first; he led a band until '44, switching from xylophone to vibes '43, Bailey working separately; they divorced but remained close. He joined Benny Goodman '45, Woody Herman '46, settled on West Coast '47; recorded for Capitol '48 with Stan Hasselgard; returned East '49 to lead a sextet with Tony Scott, Dick Hyman and Mundell Lowe. He formed a trio '50 with Tal Farlow and Charles Mingus (CDs on VJC and Savoy), later Jimmy Raney and Red Mitchell (on Fantasy OJC): this was true chamber music, highly regarded for subtle beauty. He made his first tour overseas '54; guested with Goodman on TV '58; his quintet toured with Frank Sinatra as far as Australia '59, joined Goodman and four others for a ten-piece tour same year and a gig at Basin Street.

Norvo worked in Las Vegas in the 1960s; on TV with Frank Sinatra, Dinah Shore etc; played jazz festivals, Dick Gibson's Colorado Jazz Parties. Other albums: Time In His Hands '45 with Slam Stewart on Xanadu, Red Norvo On Dial '45 later on CDs from Spotlite UK/Stash USA (twelve historic takes on four tunes, a typically open-minded Norvo octet with Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Teddy Wilson and others), Music To Listen To Red Norvo By '57, sextet now on OJC; Just A Mood CD on Bluebird has '54-7 tracks with Farlow, Ben Webster, Jimmy Giuffre, others. Many albums in and out of print included The Forward Look '57 on Reference; Vibes à la Red, Second Time Around and In New York '77 with Scott Hamilton, all on Famous Door; with bassist Ross Tompkins (d 29 June 2006, St Augustine FL aged 68) on Concord '79, Just Friends '83 on Stash with guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli's trio. He suffered a stroke '88, putting an end to a brilliant career.