Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Norvo, Red (Kenneth Norville)

The Dance of the Octopus: that's how early jazz modernist Red Norvo announced his unusual sound to the world in 1933. He brought mallet instruments out of vaudeville into the mainstream of jazz, and performed with the era's most popular acts, including Paul Whiteman and Benny Goodman. But he was always looking - and listening - ahead of his time, and was one of the first to recognize the talents of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Charles Mingus. His style was very fluid and, still today, deliciously modern.

Kenneth “Red” Norville was born on March 31st, 1908 in Beardstown, Illinois, a town located several hours north of St. Louis. The boy was first exposed to music on excursion boats along the Mississippi river, which featured saxophonist Frankie Trumbauer and cornetist Bix Beiderbecke.

As a teenager, Norvo used to visit his brothers, who were enrolled in college in Missouri. He stated that on one of these trips, he saw someone playing marimba, and it fascinated him. This was the beginning of his obsession with the mallet instrument. In an interview with Les Tomkins, he stated that he then sold his pet pony in order to buy a xylophone.

Norvo was entirely self-taught on his instrument, and at first only found work playing with vaudeville acts. In the 1920s, he traveled the country in a marimba band, which brought him to the attention of bandleader Paul Whiteman. Whiteman, one of the era's biggest stars, hired Norvo and he performed with the Whiteman band on NBC radio in Chicago.

The vibraphone as we know it was only invented in 1927, and Lionel Hampton was the first artist to record on the vibraphone in October of 1930, with Louis Armstrong on "Memories of You," a tune he reprised with Benny Goodman in 1939. However, Norvo ranks as a true pioneer, as he played mallet instruments in jazz bands throughout the twenties.

Whiteman eventually relocated to New York City and brought Norvo with him. In the early 1930s, Norvo signed with Brunswick Records and recorded several sides for the label. His first recording came in November of 1933. His first sides, "Knockin' on Wood" and "Hole in the Wall," were pleasing to Brunswick's recording director, Jack Kapp, and he booked Norvo for a second session before leaving town. Unsupervised, Norvo recorded Beiderbecke's classic “In a Mist" and “Dance of the Octopus." Norvo was joined on these recordings by bassist Artie Bernstein and clarinetist Benny Goodman, who played a bass clarinet on the record. Upon returning to town and hearing the starkly modern recordings, Kapp reportedly tore up Norvo’s recording contract on the spot.

In the mid 1930s, Norvo met and married vocalist Mildred Bailey. The couple were called the "Mr. and Mrs. of Swing." Norvo also recorded “I Surrender Dear" in September of 1934 with pianist Teddy Wilson, clarinetist Artie Shaw, and tenor saxophonist Charlie Barnet. In January of 1935, Norvo entered the studio again to record pianist Fats Waller’s “Honeysuckle Rose." Featured on this recording were drummer Gene Krupa and pianist Teddy Wilson. In the late 1930s, Norvo led his own orchestra and managed to keep the band together up until 1940. His wife Mildred joined the band on vocals and in 1938 the band added male vocalist Terry Allen.

With the emergence of bop in the early 1940s and the Second World War looming, many large bands were disbanded due to losing so many men to military service. Norvo’s group was no exception to this phenomenon. Hamstrung by financial woes and a Musicians' Union ban on recording, Norvo joined Benny Goodman’s group in 1944. It was during this time that Norvo switched over to the vibraphone for good.

In January of 1944, Norvo took part in a historic concert at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House. Dubbed the Esquire All-Stars, Norvo joined trumpeter Louis Armstrong, pianist Art Tatum, bassist Oscar Petitford, trombonist Jack Teagarden, and trumpeter Roy Eldridge performed such songs as George Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm."

On June 6th, 1945, Norvo managed to put together a band for a recording session that went down as one of the strongest transition records of the 1940s, combining both bebop's emerging stars with the established masters of swing. Featured on the “Congo Blues" session were saxophonist Charlie Parker, trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, pianist Teddy Wilson, bassist Slam Stewart, and drummer J.C. Heard. All musicians involved contributed wonderful solos and glimpses of genius over Norvo’s subtle but effective composition.

Norvo left Benny Goodman’s group to join Woody Herman’s First Herd band. He left Herman’s band in the late 1940s and moved back to Santa Monica, California where he and his wife had a home. He only stayed out west for a brief sabbatical after figuring out that there weren’t many steady places to work in California.

Norvo packed up and moved back to New York City to put a band together. Upon arriving back on the East Coast, Norvo formed a drumless and pianoless trio that first featured guitarist Tal Farlow and bassist Red Kelly. In 1950, Kelly was replaced by bassist Charles Mingus, who had been convinced by Norvo to quit his job at the United States Postal Service and join the trio. This trio entered the studio on May 3rd, 1950 in Los Angeles, California to record “Night and Day."

The trio released one more LP for the Savoy label then disbanded in 1951. In the late 1950s, Norvo toured with Benny Goodman for a brief period of time, then was hired to accompany singer Frank Sinatra. Norvo accompanied Sinatra at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas before joining him on an Australian tour. Some of these Australian concerts were issued by Blue Note in the late 1990s.

In the 1960s, Norvo spent most of his time in Nevada and California playing for tourists. He also suffered partial hearing loss as a result of a gun firing to close to his ears at a firing range. Norvo rejoined Benny Goodman and toured with the clarinetist off and on between 1968 and 1969.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Norvo toured frequently in the United States and Europe. He also played in Las Vegas for post of this time when he wasn’t on the road. He continued to maintain an active schedule until the mid 1980s when he suffered a stroke. The stroke forced him to take some time off and he never fully recovered given his age. Norvo died on April 6th, 1999 in Santa Monica, California.

Red Norvo's name rarely comes up as part of the Swing Era pantheon, or among the young beboppers whose talent he nurtured. Perhaps it is because he played such a crucial role in the transition from swing to bop that his story has rarely been told. On the other hand, Norvo was one of the few musicians to successfully make this transition himself, and his technique as a vibraphonist served him graciously until his death.

Select Discography

as Red Norvo

In A Mist (Brunswick, 1933)-single

I Surrender Dear (Brunswick, 1934)-single

Honeysuckle Rose (Hep, 1935)-single

Night and Day (Savoy, 1950)

Red Norvo with Strings (Fantasy, 1955)

Congo Blues (Savoy, 2007)-compilation album

Contributor: Jared Pauley