Red Norvo (born Kenneth Norville, March 31, 1908 â€“ April 6, 1999) was one of jazz’s early vibraphonists, known as “Mr. Swing”. He helped establish the xylophone, marimba, and vibraphone as jazz instruments. His recordings included “Dance of the Octopus”, “Bughouse”, “Knockin’ on Wood”, “Congo Blues”, and “Hole in the Wall”. Red Norvo was born in Beardstown, Illinois. His career began in Chicago with a band called “The Collegians” in 1925. He played with many other bands, including an all-marimba band on the vaudeville circuit, and the bands of Paul Whiteman, Benny Goodman, Charlie Barnet, and Woody Herman. He recorded with Mildred Bailey (his wife), Billie Holiday, Dinah Shore and Frank Sinatra. Norvo and his wife were known as “Mr. and Mrs. Swing.” He appeared as himself in the film Screaming Mimi (1958) and in Ocean’s 11, accompanying Dean Martin while he sang “Ain’t That a Kick in the Head?”. In 1933 he recorded two sessions for Brunswick under his own name. The first, “Knockin’ on Wood” and “Hole in the Wall”, pleased Brunswick’s recording director Jack Kapp, and Norvo was booked for another session. This time, Kapp was out of town and Norvo went ahead and recorded two early pieces of chamber jazz: “In a Mist” by Bix Beiderbecke’s and Norvo’s own “Dance of the Octopus”. He played marimba instead of xylophone in the second session, accompanied by Benny Goodman in a rare performance at bass clarinet, Dick McDonough on guitar, and Artie Bernstein on double bass. Kapp was outraged when he heard the recordings and tore up Norvo’s contract. Nevertheless, this modern record remained in print through the 1930s. Norvo recorded eight modern swing sides for Columbia in 1934â€“1935, and fifteen sides for Decca and their short-lived Champion label series in 1936. Starting in 1936 through 1942, Norvo formed a swing orchestra and recorded for ARC, first on their Brunswick label, then Vocalion and Columbia after CBS bought ARC. The recordings featured arrangements by Eddie Sauter, often with Mildred Bailey as vocalist. In 1938, Red Norvo and His Orchestra reached number one with their recordings of “Please Be Kind”, which was number one for two weeks, and “Says My Heart”, with lead vocals by Bailey, which was number one for four weeks on the pop charts, reaching number one during the week of June 18, 1938. In June 1945, while a member of the Benny Goodman Sextet, he recorded a session for Comet Records that employed members of Goodman’s group, Charlie Parker, and Dizzy Gillespie. About the session Norvo said, “Bird and Diz were dirty words for musicians of my generation. But jazz had always gone through changes and in 1945 we were in the middle of another one. Bird and Diz were saying new things in an exciting way. I had a free hand, so I gambled”. In 1949, while trying to find work near home on the West Coast and running into difficulties with large groups, Norvo formed a trio with the novel combination of vibes, guitar, and bass. When the original guitarist and bassist quit (Mundell Lowe and Red Kelly), he brought in two previously little-known players. Tal Farlow became one of the most important of the postwar generation of guitarists, in part because the demands of the trio led him to explore changes in tempo and harmony. Farlow left the group in 1953 and guitarist Jimmy Raney took his place. Charles Mingus’s prominence as a bass player increased through this group, though its repertoire did not reflect the career he would develop as a composer. Mingus left in 1951 and Red Mitchell replaced him. The Norvo, Farlow, and Mingus trio recorded two albums for Savoy Records. In 1959, Norvo’s group played concerts in Australia with Frank Sinatra; Blue Note Records released these recordings in 1997. Norvo and his group also made several appearances on The Dinah Shore Chevy Show in the late 1950s and early ’60s. Norvo recorded and toured throughout his career until a stroke in the mid-1980s forced him into retirement (although he developed hearing problems long before his stroke). He died at a convalescent home in Santa Monica, California at the age of 91.
photo: from booklet Vibes a la Red
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