Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Red Norvo: The All-But-Forgotten Big Red One

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“Red Norvo, …, presents an especially acute challenge to jazz historians. His various musical associa­tions flew in the face of stylistic categories and conventions — perhaps ultimately to the detriment of his career. How else can we explain why this illustrious jazz veteran remained all but forgotten during the 1980s and 1990s, when other survivors of his generation were receiving honorary degrees and various accolades, and were vener­ated as important elder statesmen of jazz? Certainly one would struggle to find another jazz musician who had made his presence felt in so many different ways as Norvo….

Jazz  history books have poorly served this master of many idioms; their rigid categorizations seem incapable of dealing with his chameleon career. Yet Norvo's skillful ability to navigate across artificial stylistic and racial barriers merits both praise and emulation.”
- Ted Gioia, The History of Jazz [pp. 84-85]

Fortunately, on behalf of all of us, based at Fort Riley, KS, the First Infantry Division – aka “The Big Red One” is still in existence and the music of Red Norvo – whom we shall refer to as the “All But Forgotten” Master Mallets Man – continues to live on through compact disc and other digital reissues of his recorded legacy.

For the most part, however, Ted Gioia is correct is his assessment of Red Norvo’s undeserved obscurity in Jazz lore, especially considering his huge contributions to the genre as a musician, band leader and composer.

Thankfully, there are lots more details to be found about Red’s career in Richard Sudhalter’s Lost Chords: White Musicians and Their Contribution to Jazz, 1915-1945, pp. 653-705. Here are Mr. Sudhalter’s opening thoughts on Red.

“Otis Ferguson, whose commentaries on jazz and other lively arts for the mid-19305 New Republic can still surprise, wrote with particular insight about Red Norvo. ‘A special conception of music’ was Ferguson's verdict in a 1938 review. ‘Balance, restraint, clean ensembles and no tricks . . . And under a complete del­icacy of taste he had the urgent carrying beat without which music like this must be sick or pseudo.’1 [“Red and Mildred,” New Republic, August 17, 1938].

No tricks. How better to describe a musical orientation, an aesthetic, of such utter purity? Just how pure, in fact, becomes clear with the realization that Red Norvo's way of playing music on the xylophone (or, as later, the vibraharp) had no recognizable precedent—and, once formed, it never really changed. From 1933, when he made his first records, straight through to the 1980s, when physical infirmity finally put an end to his playing career, his basic concept re­mained firmly, radiantly, in place.

Fashions changed around him. Ways of dealing with harmony, melodic lines, laying down a beat, and, starting in the World War II years, even the inner aesthetic of music-making underwent startling transformations. But Norvo's mu­sical sensibility seemed equal to all of it, able to acknowledge and absorb every­thing without compromising itself.

‘All his music is its own signature’ was Ferguson's way of putting it—and that is a statement of incontrovertible fact. It also places Norvo in the small and ultra-select circle of jazz innovators, true originals.” [p. 653]

Through a recognition of his originality and genius, Red has also managed to find his way into Gunther Schuller’s definitive The Swing Era: The Development of Jazz, 1935-1945 [pp. 513-527]. Mr. Schuller begins his treatment of Red and his music with the following observations about Red’s significance to Jazz.

“One of the finest and most consistently creative musicians of the Swing Era – still quite active today incidentally – was Kenneth Norville, known to the music world as red Norvo. The fact that Norvo played the xylophone – in later years he played the vibraphone as well (or the vibraharp, as he preferred to call it) — in the early 1930s a highly unlikely candidate for a jazz instrument, makes his selection as a major soloist in this chapter all the more remarkable. But the fact is that Norvo accomplished for the xylophone what Coleman Hawkins achieved for the tenor saxophone: he took it from its vaudeville environment and single-handedly brought it into the world of jazz.

But Norvo was (is) more than merely a superior instrumentalist. In the thirties he was an influential force as an in­novative soloist and a creative orchestra leader, that is to say, one who saw the jazz orchestra as something more than a vehicle for him to front, as Armstrong and Hawkins, for example, saw bands. For Norvo, a jazz orchestra was a collec­tive instrument which through its style, arrangements, and compositions could make important contributions to the music. Norvo has been, through the years, an outstanding uncompromisingly creative improviser, and at times a startlingly gifted (though little appreciated) composer. 22”

[Footnote #22 reads: Norvo destroyed a whole series of early compositions, similar to his Dance of the Octopus (1933), because Jack Kapp, the head of Brunswick Records, in his great business wisdom, regarded such music as meaningless rubbish and tore up Norvo’s recording contract. Given the caliber of Dance of the Octopus, this senseless decision can only be regarded as one of the great tragedies of American music.]

George T. Simon in the 4th edition of The Big Bands begins his five-page treatment [pp. 386-390] of Red’s larger group with these words of praise:

“For real listening thrills, few bands could match the one that Red Norvo fronted during the fall of 1936. It was only a small band, ten musicians plus Red, and it wasn't a very famous one then. But the way it swung in its soft, subtle, magnificently musical way, insinuating rather than blasting itself into one's consciousness, gave me one of the most remarkable and satisfying listening experiences I have ever felt.

I use the word "felt," purposely, because this was a band with an under­lying sensuous as well as musical appeal. Unlike swing bands that overpowered its listeners, this one underplayed its music, injecting into its unique Eddie Sauter scores a tremendous but subdued excitement—the sort of excitement one experiences not during the culmination of something great but in antici­pation of something great. It would swing so subtly and so softly and so charmingly through chorus after chorus of exquisite solos and light, moving ensembles, always threatening to erupt while holding the listener mesmerized, until at long last, when he was about ready to scream "Let me up!" it would charge off into one of its exhilarating musical climaxes. There was never a band like it.”

Although it does not appear to have been reissued on compact disc, Richard Gehman, the fine writer whose work was often featured in Cosmopolitan Magazine, wrote this excellent overview of the first thirty years or so of Red’s career as the liner to the 1957 RCA Victor LP HI-FIve, The Red Norvo Quintet [LPM-1420].


It was the late James Agee, I believe, the poet and critic, who once declared in a review of Oklahoma! that it was not necessary for him to see the play because he knew in advance that it was terrible! This always seemed to me to be criticism of the highest sort, for the critic was not per­mitting himself to be influenced by any of the crass emotion that characterizes so much on-the-spot evaluation we get these days; and for that reason I am happy to report that I am now doing exactly the same. The Atlantic Ocean and the breadth of the United States lie between me and the music enclosed in this sleeve, but I do not have to hear it to know that it is superb, that it is characterized by a bounce at once merry and gutty, that it is backed by a rhythm section that swings as compellingly as the Page-Jones-Green trio did in the old Basic band, that the soloists burst exuberantly from the ensembles and that the back­ground figures are as interesting as the solos themselves. I know, in short, that this is jazz at its very best, for Red Norvo is perhaps the only jazz musician I know who never delivers anything but first-chair goods.

He has been doing it for a long, long time, too. He was born March 31, 1908, in Beardstown, Illinois, where show boats stopped and permitted him to scramble aboard and get his first taste of the music he later was to assist in developing into one of the few contributions this nation has made to world culture. His sister and two brothers, all older, had driven their parents crazy with noodling at­tempts at the mastery of various instruments, and when young Kenneth declared that he wanted a xylophone, his father shook his head. Red's name then was Kenneth Norville, by the way. He had a pony his brother Howard had given him, and he loved it. Unfortunately, the pony couldn't reproduce the sounds that were demanding ex­pression even then; he sold it and bought the xylophone and. to the astonishment of everyone in the family, rapidly became proficient. A girl in Beardstown had organized a small band that played church socials, school entertain­ments, and the like. She had a chance to go to Chicago to audition for an agent and asked Red to go along. His mother gave her permission and off they went. Red was around thirteen. He was utterly terrified and accordingly quite relieved when the man told the group to go back home and practice a little more.

Students of jazz—especially some new English friends of mine, who know every bloody fact about every Ace Brigode record ever made, including what hangers-on were in the studio at the time, how the weather was outside, and who fell down drunk — are going to deplore my next state­ment. I forget what happened to Red after that first Chi­cago trip. I believe he simply returned to Beardstown High and had every intention of going on to college. Then an agent who had heard him in Chicago wrote him, asking him to come up to go on a band he was organizing. It was called The Collegians. The boys wore blazers and, some­times, funny hats. They toured the Midwest, playing dances, fairs and other outdoor gigs, and then returned to Chicago, where they disbanded. The same agent then booked Red with Paul Ash, of Paul Ash and his Quality Serenaders fame. Ash could not pronounce "Norville," for some reason; he said "Norvo" so many times Red finally decided it was better to join it than enjoin the leader. He used the name later when he went out in vaudeville as a single. I wish I had seen him in those days: the stage xylophonist then wore a full blouse, dark trousers and a sash. Some of them affected Mexican mustaches, and they tap-danced in breaks. Occasionally American flags, Teddy bears, streamers and other impedimenta miraculously ap­peared from their instruments. Red went the route. He laughs and shudders when he recalls his act.

By then it was the summer of 1929, and Red's family wanted him to go to college. He had other plans. He played around Detroit until autumn, then went to join Ocky Wes-lin's band in Minneapolis. There Victor Young, who was working in radio in Chicago, heard him and hired him. Red was always rather vague. He took the job with Young despite the fact that he had almost simultaneously taken one with another band. The latter leader let him out, how­ever, and the Chicago period began.

There need be no mention here of what was romping in Chicago in the early Thirties. Condon was there; so were Mezzrow, Freeman. Tough, McKenzie, Sullivan and all the rest. Red never played much with those boys—a xylophone was too heavy to lug around to sessions — but he loved their music and was profoundly influenced by it, and they in turn respected his. Condon later declared that Red was the only man he ever heard who could make the xylophone sound civilized.

Then another influence entered his life: Mildred Bailey. Her soft, subtle voice and Red's delicate, rhythmic playing went together so well it was probably inevitable that they get married. Afterward they went to New York and joined Whiteman. Red lasted a little over a year. He felt buried in the band and decided that unemployment offered more emotional satisfaction. Mildred continued to work with Whiteman. and Red balled around New York with other transplanted Chicagoans. One summer he, Stew Pletcher, Neil Reid and a few other boys were booked into Bar Harbor, Maine, in a band ostensibly piloted by Rudy Vallee. They took along a portfolio of Fletcher Henderson arrangements which, on the first night, considerably di­minished the crowd. On the second night the manager informed them that he was short of cash and would be getting shorter if those Henderson arrangements kept up; the boys told him what he could do and went on blowing. Fortunately, a few of them could fish, which they did; Neil Reid could make pies, and there was an apple orchard nearby. They existed on flounder and apple pie for the remainder of the engagement and were finally sent fare to go home by Mildred.

Back in New York, Red organized a small band and played around 52nd Street. In 1936 he and Mildred formed the celebrated Mr. and Mrs. Swing combination, which in my own private view was the epitome of the style and attitude of the swing-band era that Goodman blew in. How they jumped, and what soloists they were! Even Condon, who ordinarily cannot stand any band made up of more than eight men, listened attentively.  There was Herbie Haymer on tenor, for example, and the wonderful Fletcher on trumpet (Fletcher once told Red he would never play with anyone else—and when that band broke up, he never did)   and Hank D'Amico on clarinet, and Red's gently phrased, softly pushing xylophone playing obbligatos be­hind Mildred's sweet voice. Some band. Some marriage, too, characterized by then by various scuffles and rows—to such a degree, in fact, that one day when Red was telling me of some of the battles he and Mildred had had, Lee Meyers leaned over and asked, "Who are you writing this for, Dick? Nat Fleischer?" They finally broke up but remained close, even after Red married Eve Rogers, Shorty's sister.

In 1943 Red switched to vibes. He was the first of the old Chicagoans, with the possible exception of Dave Tough, to recognize the importance of some things Dizzy, Bird and the rest of the boys from uptown were doing. He felt that vibes offered him a better chance to grow. He began to develop with Goodman and Herman, and finally went out on his own again, first with a small band and then with a trio. He and Eve moved to California and settled down to bring up kids and dappled dachshunds. Meanwhile he continued to work and study, and the results are notice­able in his music. In the summer of 1956 he decided the trio was no longer suitable for the expression of the ideas he had, and added a flute and, sometimes, a tenor saxo­phone. This band is composed of Bill Douglass, on drums; Bob Carter, bass;  Bob Drasnin, flute, clarinet and alto sax; Jimmy Wyble, guitar; and, of course, the Man him­self. It is substantially the same band that kept me going to The Castle, a Los Angeles restaurant, every night of a three-week visit I made to California last October. It is a wonderful band—wonderfully swingy, wonderfully subtle, wonderfully creative. I wish I could hear it right now, as I write this, and I envy every fortunate buyer of this album the privilege of hearing these numbers.”

A fitting conclusion to our brief visit with Red Norvo, one of the legendary figures in Jazz, can be found, perhaps, in these words from Richard Cook and Brian Morton’s The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 6th Ed.

“Though by no means a one-dimensional figure, Norvo held to a steady course from the early days of bebop to the beginnings of a swing revival in the 1950’s and 60’s. His technique is superb and prefigures much of Milt Jackson's best MJQ passage-work. The early trios are unquestionably the place to begin [Jimmy Raney [g] and Red Mitchell [b]; Tal Farlow [g] and Charles Mingus [b]], but there's plenty of good music later and newcomers shouldn't be prejudiced by the instrumentation. Norvo plays modern jazz of a high order.”

You can hear Red’s trio with guitarist Tal Farlow and bassist Charles Mingus performing Denzil Best’s bebop classic Move on the following video tribute.