Though Red Norvo was one of the most important figures in the development of jazz during the 1920s he is strangely enough one of the least celebrated. Norvo stayed on the cutting edge throughout his career. He helped establish the xylophone as a viable jazz instrument in the 1920s, wowed swing critics in the 1930s, embraced bop in the 1940s, and led an innovative trio in the 1950s. It wasn't that Norvo was actively seeking to be ahead of his time, it was more that his unique approach to music allowed him to blend in to almost style and era. Norvo didn't have to change his methods to stay contemporary, he was in a league all of his own.
Information on Norvo's early years is confusing.1 He learned piano at age eight and marimba at fourteen. In 1925 he moved to Chicago, where he formed an all-marimba band. This band may or may not have been called the Collegians. If not, he also formed a second group of that name. He later became a member of Paul Ash's orchestra before joining the vaudeville circuit, where he may have tap danced. He may also have played with Ben Bernie's band and briefly studied mining at the University of Missouri in the late 1920s.
Depending on the source it was either Ash or a vaudeville announcer who inadvertently changed Red's last name to Norvo. One story suggests that Ash mispronounced ''Norville'' during an interview with Variety, and another says the vaudevillian bumbled his name during a show. Either way, Variety ended up spelling it ''Norvo,'' and Red decided to adopt it after he was persuaded that it sounded better than his real name.
In the late 1920s Norvo joined Paul Whiteman, where he was often featured as a soloist. While with Whiteman he met singer Mildred Bailey, and the two were subsequently married.2 In 1933 Norvo recorded for the first time under his own name. The sessions were highly unusual and very creative, with Norvo playing marimba and Benny Goodman on bass clarinet, backed by guitar and bass. Not quite jazz but not classical, the recordings were nothing but adventurous. Especially noteworthy are Norvo's rendition of Bix Beiderbecke's ''In a Mist'' and his own "Dance of the Octopus."
Norvo soon became in demand as an accompanist, and in 1934 he left Whiteman, settling in New York, where he formed a sextet. In 1936 he decided to expand his outfit to ten pieces. Norvo's orchestra, with arrangements by Eddie Sauter, featured a soft, subdued swing rhythm that greatly impressed the critics. At every bend and turn the band threatened to explode but never did, resisting the urge to overplay and leaving the listener in constant anticipation. Gradually, though, economics forced them to play louder and adopt a more conventional style.
Norvo's band originally featured a singer named Nancy Flake, but Bailey soon took her place, with the couple billing themselves as ''Mr. and Mrs. Swing.'' Terry Allen also joined as male vocalist in 1938. The group proved quite popular, recording on the Brunswick label. Bailey's hot temper, though, often caused conflict within the band. In early 1939 it disbanded, officially due to widespread illness among the musicians, though it was rumored in the press that Bailey was the cause.
Norvo formed a new group soon after the band's demise. It broke up after only a few months due to financial difficulties. In 1940 he put together yet another short-lived band, and in late 1941 he made a fourth attempt at forming an orchestra. The new band featured arrangements by Johnny Thompson, with Linda Keene on vocals. It quickly fell victim to the American Federation of Musicians recording ban, and Norvo decided to give up on the band business, concentrating on small groups for the rest of his career.
Beginning in 1945 Norvo spent a year with Benny Goodman's sextet before joining Woody Herman's small group, the Woodchoppers. By that time Norvo had switched from the acoustic xylophone to its electric counterpart, the vibraphone. In 1945 he engineered the innovative ''Congo Blues'' recording session which brought together be-bop leaders Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie with top swing musicians.
In the late 1940s Norvo formed a trio with guitarist Tal Farlow and bassist Red Kelly. In 1950 Charles Mingus replaced Kelly. Completely without comparison to any of its contemporaries, the trio soon became the darling of the New York jazz scene, featuring highly creative and complicated arrangements presented in a light and sometimes whimsical manner. Norvo later formed a quintet. In the late 1950s he rejoined Goodman for a television special and subsequently toured Europe with the King of Swing. Norvo also attracted the attention of Frank Sinatra, who hired him as his accompanist at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas. Norvo traveled with the singer on his 1959 Australian tour.
In the 1960s Norvo suffered partial hearing loss due to both an infection and a gun discharging near his ear at a shooting range. Surgery was required, and he was forced to wear a hearing aid for the rest of his life. He eventually returned to Las Vegas and continued to perform and record until a stroke in the mid-1980s forced his retirement. Red Norvo passed away in 1999.
1No definitive biography has been written about the jazz great, and those that have been penned are long out of print. This compiled with the problem that every mini-biography, news article, and liner note I consulted presents conflicting information makes for a very difficult task.
2Sources vary widely on the exact dates of Norvo and Bailey's marriage. One says 1930 to 1942, another 1933 to 1938, while still another says 1933 to 1945. One even says they remained together until her death in 1951 -- a rather dubious and polygamous claim, as Norvo was already married to Eve Rogers by that time!