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Red Norvo
 Red Norvo
Age 91
April 6, 1999
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OBITUARY 
        
       
NY TIMES 
    
    Red 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 on 
          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 jazz 
          worlds.  

          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 
          statement.  

          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 
          sophisticated.  

          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 
          Sinatra's music.  

          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.) He 
          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 
          harmonies.  

          The band, regarded as one of the finest small groups in jazz history, 
          recorded for two years; later trios included the guitarist Jimmy Raney and 
          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.  

 

 
                  Jazz Track 
                  Vibraphone Giant Red Norvo Dies  
                  by Drew Wheeler  

                  Red Norvo, the vibraphonist whose skill and 
                  musical adaptability put him in the company of 
                  such diverse leaders as Paul Whiteman, Benny 
                  Goodman, Frank Sinatra and Charles Mingus, died 
                  April 6 in Santa Monica, California. He was 91.  

                  Norvo is credited as the first musician to prove the 
                  xylophone a viable instrument in the context of 
                  jazz, although he played it only in the earlier part 
                  of his six-decade career. He was married for a  
                  time to singer Mildred Bailey, and the musical 
                  couple was given the title of Mr. And Mrs. Swing.  
  

                  He was also a musician with an unusually 
                  versatile approach that worked well with both  
                  the swing orchestras of the 1930s and more 
                  harmonically-complex "chamber jazz" ensembles 
                  of the 1950s. Norvo continued to perform into the 
                  1990s, when a stroke left him incapacitated.  

                  "He was a nice man," said pianist Dick Hyman of 
                  Norvo's passing. "He was a friend and I was really 
                  very sorry to hear the news."  

                  Of Norvo's style, Hyman took note of "His ease, his 
                  lightness. His almost casual manner of playing, it 
                  worked so well with counterpoint. Occasionally, he 
                  liked to have other instruments playing 
                  simultaneously with him on different melodies." 
                  Hyman played in Norvo's band around 1950, and 
                  also joined him in the 1980s, backing Goodman for 
                  his last concert appearance.  

                  Red Norvo was born Kenneth Norville in 
                  Beardstown, Illinois, where he taught himself piano 
                  at age eight, and marimba at 14. (He later 
                  abandoned it for the xylophone.) At 17, Norvo left 
                  high school for Chicago, where he was the leader of 
                  a seven-piece marimba band called, ironically, The 
                  Collegians. After that group's breakup, he joined 
                  the Paul Ash Orchestra. Ash once mispronounced 
                  Norville as Norvo to a reporter, and Norvo's manager 
                  persuaded the musician that the new pronunciation 
                  sounded better. After touring with Ash, Norvo left 
                  the band to perform as a tap-dancer on the 
                  vaudeville circuit.  

                  In the 1930s, Norvo was playing vibraphone on a 
                  series of Chicago radio dates with the Paul 
                  Whiteman Orchestra, where he was a bandmate of 
                  Benny Goodman. Also during his Whiteman stint, 
                  Norvo met vocalist Mildred Bailey, whom he 
                  subsequently married. In 1934, Norvo and Bailey 
                  were on tour with Whiteman in New York, where 
                  they decided to settle. Norvo then led an octet at 
                  the famed Hickory House on 52nd St. In 1936, he 
                  expanded the group to twelve pieces with Bailey on 
                  vocals. At the time, he recorded prolifically with 
                  such swing greats as Artie Shaw, Gene Krupa, 
                  Charlie Barnet, Teddy Wilson, Bunny Berigan, Chu 
                  Berry and others.  

                  Until the mid-'40s, he continued to lead various 
                  bands, including one 1943 unit that featured Shorty 
                  Rogers, Eddie Bert and Ralph Burns. That same 
                  year he switched permanently from xylophone to 
                  the vibraphone. From the mid to late '40s, Norvo 
                  won awards for his instrument from Esquire and 
                  Metronome magazines. He also organized a 
                  session for Comet Records that memorably 
                  brought together such swing and bebop stars as 
                  Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Teddy Wilson, 
                  Slam Stewart, Specs Powell and J.C. Heard.  

                  In 1945 he joined Benny Goodman's orchestra, with 
                  which he remained until the next year, when he 
                  joined Woody Herman's first Herd. By 1947, Norvo 
                  had divorced Bailey and moved to Caifornia with 
                  second wife Eve Rogers, Shorty Rogers's sister. 
                  (Norvo still recorded with Bailey on occasion, and 
                  the two remained friendly until her death in 1951.) 
                  In California, Norvo began to work with a younger 
                  generation of jazz musicians, such as Hyman and 
                  Mundell Lowe. He formed a notable 1950 trio with 
                  bop-oriented leaders Charles Mingus and Tal 
                  Farlow, who were later replaced by Red Mitchell 
                  and Jimmy Raney. Regarding Norvo's ability to 
                  glide from swing to bop to cool, Hyman remarked, 
                  "I'm not sure that he needed to change his playing 
                  very much. I think that he just continued his own 
                  sort of playing and it fit in, in a number of different 
                  eras."  

                  In 1958, Norvo rejoined Goodman for the NBC 
                  television show "Swing Into Spring," and the next 
                  year toured Europe with his quintet comprising half 
                  of Goodman's ten-piece combo. The same year, 
                  Norvo's quintet backed Sinatra in Las Vegas, and 
                  then went on tour with the singer. Their concerts in 
                  Australia had been bootlegged by fans for decades, 
                  and in 1997, were released officially by Blue Note 
                  as Frank Sinatra With The Red Norvo 
                  Quintet--Live In Australia 1959.  

                  Norvo recorded dozens of albums RCA, Savoy, 
                  Decca, Prestige, Columbia, EmArcy and Liberty 
                  Records. Among his last albums were Red And 
                  Ross for Concord Jazz in 1979 and Just Friends 
                  for Stash in 1983. His career included supporting 
                  gigs with such artists as Billie Holiday, Art Pepper, 
                  Benny Carter, Joe Morello and Jack Montrose.  

                  Norvo, whose wife and son died in the 1970s, is 
                  survived by a son, Mark, a daughter, Portia Corlin 
                  and a grandson, Aaron Corlin. No funeral 
                  arrangements have yet been announced. 

 
 
 
       
 

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BIOGRAPHY
 
 
Born Beardstown, Illinois, March 31, 1908. Xylophonist and vibraphonist.

Red Norvo was an unusual star during the swing era, playing jazz xylophone. After he switched to vibes in 1943 Norvo had a quieter yet no less fluent style than Lionel Hampton. Although no match for Hamp popularity-wise, Norvo and his wife, singer Mildred Bailey, did become known as Mr. and Mrs. Swing.

 Red Norvo has had a long and interesting career. He started on marimba when he was 14 and soon switched to xylophone. Active in vaudeville in the late '20s as a tap dancer, Norvo joined Paul Whiteman's Orchestra in the early '30s (meeting and marrying Mildred Bailey). He recorded some extraordinary sides in the early-to-mid-'30s that showed off his virtuosity and imagination; two numbers (the atmospheric "Dance of the Octopus" and "In a Mist") had Benny Goodman playing bass clarinet! Norvo led his own bands during 1936-44 which, with its Eddie Sauter arrangements (particularly in the early days), had a unique ensemble sound that made it possible for one to hear the leader's xylophone. In 1944 Norvo (who by then had switched permanently to vibes) broke up his band and joined Benny Goodman's Sextet. Through recordings and appearances, he showed that his style was quite adaptable and open to bop. Norvo welcomed Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie to a 1945 record date, was part of Woody Herman's riotous first Herd in 1946 and recorded with
 Stan Hasselgard in 1948. At the beginning of the 1950s Norvo put together an unusual trio with
 guitarist Tal Farlow (later Jimmy Raney) and bassist Charles Mingus (later Red Mitchell). The light yet often speedy unisons and telepathic interplay by the musicians was quite memorable. Norvo led larger groups later in the decade, had reunions with Benny Goodman and made many fine recordings. The 1960s found Red Norvo adopting a lower profile after he had a serious ear operation in 1961. He worked with the Newport All-Stars later in the decade and from the mid-'70s to the mid-'80s was once again quite active, making several excellent recordings. However his hearing eventually worsened and a serious stroke put Red Norvo out of action altogether after 55 years of music. He died on April 6, 1999 at the age of 91. -- Scott Yanow, All-Music Guide

 
 
  
 
 

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