Norvo, 91, Effervescent Jazzman, Dies
By PETER WATROUS
Red Norvo, one of jazz's early vibraphonists and a gifted band
leader whose groups greatly influenced American music and backed
singers like Mildred Bailey, Billie Holiday and Frank Sinatra, died
Tuesday at a convalescent home in Santa Monica, Calif. He was 91.
Norvo helped introduce the xylophone and later the vibraphone as
legitimate jazz instruments. But playing an unusual instrument was not
what earned him, early in his career, spots in some of jazz's most
important orchestras, including the groups of Paul Whiteman, Benny
Goodman, Charlie Barnet and Woody Herman. Norvo was a genuine
improviser, effervescent, intelligent and searching, and even his early
solos reflect a literate sensibility, embracing both the classical and
A typical Norvo solo dives and turns, nudging the harmony with
astringent dissonances. He had a way of keeping his lines happy; they
bounce with a firm sense of swing. But underneath was an element of
darkness, an exploratory urge that led his improvisations into corners
where most improvisers would not venture. On "Blues à la Red," from
1944, Norvo's solo uses odd figures and a streamlined swing that mix
perfectly: riffs and lines and melodies all combining for a powerful
Norvo, who was born Kenneth Norville in Beardstown, Ill., sold his pet
pony to help pay for his first instrument, a marimba. He started his career
in Chicago with a band called the Collegians in 1925. In the late 1920's
he joined an all-marimba band, playing the vaudeville circuit. (He also
tap-danced and played xylophone.)
He changed his name after a vaudeville announcer pronounced it
incorrectly, and it appeared that way in Variety. "It stuck," he told an
interviewer, "so I kept it."
When he graduated to the Whiteman orchestra, he met Bailey, a singer in
the band, whom he married in 1930; they were nicknamed " and Mrs.
Swing" and remained together for 12 years. They were still friends when
Bailey died in 1951.
The couple formed their own band in 1936, using the innovative arranger
Eddie Sauter to write much of their material. They had several hits,
including "Rockin' Chair," "Please Be Kind" and "Says My Heart," and
their work was well respected by musicians, who found the arrangements
But Norvo was not simply producing pop music with his wife. He was
one of the earliest musicians to take refuge in the jazz clubs that once
lined West 52d Street in Manhattan, and he worked there at the Famous
Door with a group that had neither a drummer nor a piano. The group
and the music it played helped set Norvo's reputation as a leader with
experimental ideas, a jazz musician who like to play quietly. The music
quickly came to be called chamber jazz.
In 1933, the year he first recorded under his own name, he produced
some of the most unusual recorded jazz of the time, including Bix
Beiderbecke's "In a Mist" and his own "Dance of the Octopus," using a
group that included Benny Goodman on bass clarinet and himself on
marimba, accompanied by guitar and bass. And he was cultivating his
own bands, with a fine ear for talent. In 1934 he led a group with Artie
Shaw and Charlie Barnet as sidemen, and recorded with Chu Berry,
Teddy Wilson, Bunny Berigan and Gene Krupa.
Norvo offered a singing spot to Frank Sinatra in 1939, but he turned
them down as he had just signed a contract with Harry James. Sinatra
and Norvo remained friends, however, and the Norvo band influenced
In 1944 Norvo joined Benny Goodman's sextet, and a year later played
with the First Herd of Woody Herman, an orchestra that was proud of its
harmonic innovations. It was in the middle 1940's that Norvo moved
from the xylophone, an acoustic instrument, to the vibraphone, an
electrified version. At that point he undertook an innovative recording
project, merging some of the best of the swing-era improvisers with the
leaders of the be-bop movement, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie.
The session, recorded for Comet records, included Norvo, Gillespie on
trumpet, Charlie Parker and Flip Phillips on saxophones, Teddy Wilson
on piano, Slam Stewart on bass and Specs Powell and J. C. Heard on
drums. They recorded "Hallelujah," "Get Happy," "Slam Slam Blues" and
"Congo Blues," and the result was some of the most highly regarded
music of the era.
Two years later, having moved to California from New York with his
second wife, Eve Rogers, Norvo decided to form a small group.
(It was hard for him to find good musicians in California at that time.)
brought together Tal Farlow on guitar and Red Kelly on bass. The
bassist Charles Mingus, who had worked with Norvo when his group
backed Billie Holiday, replaced Kelly in 1950, and the three produced
extremely light but swinging and complicated music that was almost
shocking in its virtuosity, full of rapid tempo changes and sophisticated
The band, regarded as one of the finest small groups in jazz history,
recorded for two years; later trios included the guitarist Jimmy Raney
the bassist Red Mitchell.
Norvo kept busy even during jazz's slack periods. He worked with
Goodman in 1959 and 1961, and recorded regularly in the late 1950's,
for Contemporary, Victory and Fantasy Records. And in 1957 he
resumed his relationship with Sinatra, who would come to Norvo's
shows at the Desert Inn in Palm Springs, Calif.
A year later Sinatra hired Norvo for the Sands in Las Vegas. It was there
that Sinatra came up with the idea of touring with Norvo, which they did
in 1959. The association lasted nearly 20 years. Sinatra liked to have
Norvo and his band at the Sands, so that he could perform with a jazz
group whenever he wanted. Norvo often toured under the auspices of
the jazz entrepreneur George Wein as well.
In the 1960's Norvo suffered partial hearing loss after an infection and
compounded the problem at a shooting range when a gun discharged
next to his ear. Surgery and a hearing aid helped him regain some
hearing. Then in the 1970's, after his wife and one of their two sons died
within a short time, he stopped playing for two years.
He is survived by a daughter, Portia Corlin of Santa Monica; a son,
Mark, and one grandchild.
He began to work again at a club in Las Vegas and for the rest of his
career kept recording and touring regularly. A stroke in the mid-1980's,
forced him into retirement, but even in his last years his performances
were often marvels of intelligent swinging.