By Steve Voce
This article first appeared in The Independent of London.
The xylophone is the most impersonal of all instruments. Its hushed tones allow little expression of emotion, and in the real world it belongs to the lowbrow world of conjurers and poodles that do tricks on their hind legs. Or it did, until Red Norvo came along and seized the instrument by whatever it is you seize xylophones by.
Most of his best recordings were under his own name, but he graced countless performances by Benny Goodman, Woody Herman, Billie Holiday, Teddy Wilson, Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. He gave Charlie Mingus his first job and by the sheer accomplishment of his playing Norvo struck fear into that aggressive man who otherwise feared no one "There are two kinds of xylophone players," said Eddie Condon. There is Red Norvo and there are all the rest."
How is it that the rest were damned to eternal obscurity while Red Norvo became one of the most respected jazz players in six decades of jazz? It is because, having achieved his virtuoso status on the instrument in the Thirties, Norvo refused to let his music stand still?
He began before swing, became famous with it and then went on to absorb and play the modern jazz of the Fifties and Sixties with an ease and imagination that has rightly marked him out as a giant of the music.
Watching him play sometimes took one's mind off the music, for his bodily and facial expressions were unique. He was already hunched from a lifetime of bending over his instrument, and would often bend double when carried away. He held his hammers, two in each hand, in the form of an X, manipulating them with his thumbs and the joints of his fingers. His face was sometimes in seraphic repose, but more often bore a look of great pain, both conditions being responses to the beauty of the music.
His flair for harmonies and instinct for the structure of the melodies that he played with such dexterity opened out the bones of the music and because he was in at the foundations, he was able to move with any of the changes that came as time went by.
His one-time bassist Red Mitchell said of him "With Red it's always the future department. He gets impatient when he hears anything done the same way as usual. He wants to figure out right away something new to do with it, something different to play."
Although he was a spontaneous improviser, Norvo was also a meticulous leader. His phenomenal trio of the Fifties would often rehearse a tune for two or three hours and, when he was called on to make an album with the group for Decca, the trio rehearsed for ten days.
In later life he was a model citizen, but the conduct of his life in earlier days often didn't accord with his meticulous attention to the music. He had been a heavy drinker, an enthusiastic pot smoker and occasionally would vanish in pursuit of these occupations for days on end.
On one occasion when his boss was showing a top executive from the West Coast around the NBC studios in Chicago where Norvo was employed, they came across Norvo sleeping under a piano. When his boss shook him, Norvo barely responded. "Not now, honey," he mumbled. "Got to get to rehearsal in the morning." Later in the day Norvo became available for employment elsewhere. By the late Fifties he had given up drinking and smoking forever.
He was born Kenneth Norville in Beardstown, Illinois and the first time he heard jazz was on the riverboats that came up to the town from St. Louis. One of the bands he heard included the cornettist Bix Beiderbecke. When he was eight his parents sent him to take piano lessons from the teacher who had taught his sister Portia. He took twelve lessons before the teacher realised that he couldn't read music.
I'd been taking the lessons home, and I'd say 'Portia, you play it for me,' and then she'd go over it once and I'd have it. When the teacher found out she flipped. She hit my hand right across the knuckles and that was enough for me. I never went back. Since then, everything I know I taught myself. I learned how to read and write music just doing it.
The blocks on the xylophone were arranged in the same order as the keys on the piano. When he was 14 Norvo learned to play the marimba, a deeper but similarly insipid relative of the xylophone. He sold his pony to buy his first xylophone and while he was still at school his formidable memory for music allowed him to play almost anything on the instrument after he'd heard it just once.
A booking agent who heard him play got him a job touring with a marimba band and he soon became the featured soloist. The band broke up in Chicago and Norvo was given a job in vaudeville by Paul Ash, leader of the orchestra at the Oriental Theatre. Norvo played there for a lady who appeared as Jerry and Her Baby Grands. On stage were four pianos on stands and Norvo, in sequins, and his xylophone on an even higher platform in the centre of the stage. On one occasion, as the curtain went up, Norvo was aghast to see his vibraphone, which had become entangled with it, ascending towards the roof of the theatre.
Ash could never remember the name Norville, introducing Red to audiences as Norvick or Norwath. One night he stumbled onto Norvo and Red began using it as his name.
When the job ended Norvo went out as a single, wearing a sash, tight black satin trousers and a full-sleeved blouse. He closed his act with a version of "Poet and Peasant" and also displayed new talents as a tap dancer. He worked at a radio station in Minneapolis for a year and then decided to move to Chicago where he was hired to play in Victor Young's radio orchestra. He became involved with the Chicago jazz musicians, including Eddie Condon, Benny Goodman, Gene Krupa, Wingy Manone and Bud Freeman.
"We had nothing to eat but music, gin and ozone sandwiches," Condon recalled. The locals were suspicious of Norvo's instrument until they heard him play jazz on it. His playing was inspired by that of the young black pianist Teddy Wilson. But, as was to be the case throughout his career, Norvo rarely took part in informal jazz sessions since his instrument was difficult to carry about and took so long to set up.
We played and imbibed, played and imbibed. I was earning $350 a week and was broke for six days of it.
Norvo's health collapsed as a result of the drinking. Whilst he was in hospital the liquor wholesaler Florence Nettleton, a dignified lady who used to make deliveries in a Rolls Royce, brought him three cases of whiskey as a get-well present.
When he recovered he made the biggest move of his career. Paul Whiteman worked at the NBC studios in Chicago and he asked Norvo to play in a series of shows he was putting together with his pianist Ferde Grofé. Here Norvo met and in 1933 married Whiteman's vocalist Mildred Bailey, a very large lady with a light, sweet voice who was one of the best jazz singers of the Thirties.
The two became known as "Mr and Mrs Swing" and made a series of hit records together but soon fell out. When she threw an expensive new hat of his on the fire he took her mink stole and put it into the same fire. She responded by burning his overcoat. It got worse.
They were divorced in 1943, although Mildred Bailey continued afterwards to work with Norvo. Norvo worked with his octet at the Hickory House on New York's 52nd Street and made a remarkable series of chamber jazz records with a piano-less sextet that he formed during the middle Thirties. Some of them had Benny Goodman playing bass clarinet. Norvo formed his own larger group in 1936, using deft orchestrations by Eddie Sauter that enabled the xylophone to be heard through the big band setting.
In 1942 he finally switched to the vibraharp, insisting on using the name given by its inventors to what is more usually known as the vibraphone. The xylophone consists of a set of wooden blocks placed over pipes of different sizes. The sound of a block being struck resounds within the pipe. The vibraphone uses metal bars instead of blocks and has an electrically impelled vibrato-producing mechanism.
The vibes seem to blend better and they're easier to play because the sustaining notes are produced at the touch of a foot pedal, whereas on the xylophone they had to be produced entirely by wrist action.
The last of Norvo's big bands broke up in 1944 when he decided to join Benny Goodman's Sextet, with which he continued to make potent recordings during the following years. In 1945 Norvo had a record date of his own and invited the then firebrand Bebop musicians Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie to join him. He blended easily into their new styles and his future in modern jazz was confirmed when he joined the trail-blazing Woody Herman First Herd in 1946. But it was the dynamics of the Herman music rather than its idiom that got to Norvo. "I felt drowned out," he said.
He settled in California in 1947 with his second wife Eve, who was the sister of trumpeter Shorty Rogers, Norvo played mainly with trios on the West Coast. In 1948 he recorded with the ill-fated bop clarinettist Stan Hasselblad and then in 1950 put together his famous trio with guitarist Tal Farlow and bassist Charlie Mingus. Jimmy Raney and Red Mitchell later replaced Farlow and Mingus. Norvo set the pace for the fast interplay and almost telepathic playing and the group made some deeply satisfying albums between 1950 and 1955.
There were many reunions with Goodman in the ensuing years, including a European tour in 1959. He also toured and appeared on television with Frank Sinatra. But in 1961 he had a major ear operation and was left deaf. His career took on a lower profile as a result. It is incredible that his persistence allowed him to overcome his almost total deafness and he toured Europe again in 1968 and, with George Wein's All Stars, in 1969. He continued to record and tour and during the Eighties made several more visits to Europe.
What remained of his ability to hear diminished and a serious stroke finally ended his career. His wife Eve died in 1992.
Red Norvo was one of the most consistently inventive jazz musicians of his time. The multitude of his records will absorb enthusiasts and students of music for many years to come.
Kenneth Norville (Red Norvo), xylophonist, vibraharpist and bandleader, born Beardstown, Illinois, March 31, 1908, died in Santa Monica, California, April 6, 1999. Survived by one daughter and one grandson.
Copyright ©2003. All rights reserved.