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Red Norvo: 1908-1999
Red Norvo
Vibraphone, xylophone, marimba, bandleader

Born: March 31, 1908 in Beardstown, Illinois
Died: April 6, 1999 in Santa Monica, California

Vibes Master

Copyright © 1999 

The Scotsman, 1999

Norvo, Red The vibraphone was not considered to be a serious part of the jazz armoury until Lionel Hampton and Red Norvo transformed its standing as a solo voice in the course of the swing era.

Norvo, who died quietly in a nursing home, was born Kenneth Norville, and acquired his nickname from his hair, a legacy of a Scottish ancestry. He taught himself how to play piano and xylophone as a youngster, and began to work professionally in his late teens, initially on another percussion instrument from the same family, the marimba.

He worked in vaudeville for a time in the late-20s with an all-marimba band (he also played xylophone and tap-danced), and acquired his professional surname when a reviewer from Variety misheard his name and reported it as Norvo. The newly-christened Norvo decided any publicity was priceless, and opted for a name change.

Even at this stage, however, his musicality on the xylophone was attracting the attention of jazz and dance band leaders. He moved to New York to take up a job with the NBC Orchestra in 1929, and met and married singer Mildred Bailey while working alongside the Paul Whiteman Orchestra the following year. He led his own bands throughout the Thirties, and made his recording debut in 1933, including a remarkable version of Bix Beiderbecke's impressionistic classic "In a Mist" and his own serpentine "Dance of the Octopus" (Norvo played marimba, with Benny Goodman on bass clarinet on these sides).

He led a group with Artie Shaw and Charlie Barnet as sidemen in 1934, and formed another the following year, with Bailey as the featured singer (they were inevitably dubbed "Mr and Mrs Swing"), and arrangements by the innovative Eddie Sauter. They achieved a series of hit records in the late-30s, including their versions of "Rockin' Chair" and "Please Be Kind", among others.

Despite those successes, the lighter sound of the xylophone did not capture the dancing public's imagination in the same way as the more forceful bands of the era. In 1943, he switched his attentions to the vibraphone (or vibraharp, the usage he preferred), a development of the acoustic xylophone which used aluminium keys and a set of electric fan-driven resonating tubes to create a richer vibrato and more sustained sound. It would be his principal instrument for the rest of his career.

He joined the Benny Goodman Sextet in 1945, and a year later moved on to Woody Herman's First Herd. Norvo was a regular in the clubs of New York's "Swing Street", 52nd Street, and had acquired a reputation in jazz circles as a musician who favoured refinement and imagination, who liked to play quietly -- often with no piano or drums -- and to experiment with daring harmonic ideas and fearsomely fast tempos.

Unlike most of his peers in the swing era, he was open to the new developments emerging in bebop in the mid-40s, and recorded with Charlie Parker at the beginning of the saxophonist's career, and with Dizzy Gillespie. Their advanced harmonic ideas remained a significant part of his arsenal, although they were employed in a context which was almost an exact opposite of the frenetic bebop style.

His marriage to Bailey eventually broke up, although they remained friends until the singer's death in 1951, and he relocated to California with his second wife, Eve Rogers, the sister of trumpeter Shorty Rogers. The financial exigencies of the post-war years, and the scarcity of musicians of the right calibre, led him to form a trio with guitarist Tal Farlow and bassist Red Kelly, a format which proved tailor-made for his fleet but subtle musical approach.

Bassist Charles Mingus replaced Kelly in 1950, in what seems to have been an unusually harmonious relationship, given Mingus's legendary tempestuousness, although it ended sourly when Norvo reluctantly agreed to replace the bassist with a white bass player for a television appearance in New York, and the racially-slighted Mingus departed the band in 1952.

The group's so-called "chamber jazz" had the lightness of touch and ebullient swing so characteristic of Norvo's work, but with a richly complex weave of harmony and shifting tempos and a kinetic motion which tested the virtuosity and imagination of the players to the full. Later versions of the trio included another great bop guitarist, Jimmy Raney, and bassist Red Mitchell.

Norvo was a great accompanist of singers, and had worked with Billie Holiday in the 40s as well as Mildred Bailey. He had also approached Frank Sinatra about joining his band in 1939, but the singer had already contracted with Harry James. They renewed their relationship in the 50s, however, and the vibraphonist worked with Sinatra on tour and on television for two decades from 1957 onward. Norvo brought out the jazz singer in Sinatra better than almost anyone, a fact substantiated by the belated release in 1997 of live concert tapes from Australia in 1959, featuring Sinatra and a quintet led by the vibraphonist.

Norvo's career was threatened for a time in the 60s when he suffered partial hearing loss, brought on in the first instance by an infection, and worsened when a gun was discharged next to his ear at a shooting range. The combined effects of corrective surgery and the use of a hearing aid allowed him regain some hearing. He continued to record and tour regularly (including occasional reunions with Tal Farlow) until a stroke forced him into retirement by the early-90s.

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