Vibraphonist and xylophonist Red Norvo, born as Joseph Kenneth Norville in Beardstown, Illinois, had a long career in which his instrumental style evolved from early vaudeville playing to the swing music of the 1930s big bands, and finally into a fleet, subtle modern jazz style of small group playing.
He began, self-taught, on marimba and xylophone, led his own bands from the end of the 1920s and began to work in radio and theatre. In 1931 he joined Paul Whiteman’s popular orchestra and began occasionally to play the then newly invented vibraphone. At that time the instrument’s damper pedal had not been invented and its ringing tones did not suit quick, intricate melodic lines, which Norvo favoured throughout his career and for which his earlier instruments were well suited.
He worked with Charlie Barnet’s orchestra in the 1930s, with bands of his own, and with Benny Goodman’s groups in 1944–5, at which time he switched permanently to vibraphone. Thereafter, he successfully incorporated the innovations of bebop in his style and led a very successful vibes-guitar-bass trio from 1946 to 1956 which became a model for intimate chamber-jazz groups.
Subsequently, Norvo led and recorded with a range of groups and toured widely. In the 1980s he performed often in Europe, but a stroke forced him to give up playing in 1986.
Biography by Roger Cotterrell.
In 1968 in the first of Les Tomkins’ interviews with Red Norvo, the vibraphonist talked about moving with the times without deliberately aiming to, and about the fact that recording engineers never knew how to record his vibes-guitar-bass trio effectively.
|Interview date||1st January 1968|
|Interview source||Jazz Professional|
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I moved to California from New York about 20 years ago and, raising a family and all that sort of thing, I just worked out in those gambling places, like Las Vegas and Lake Tahoe. And you can spend a whole lifetime working there, and not leave them.
About two years ago I decided to leave Vegas. I’d been there a year and a half. I had, like, the house band. A great band—Bill Harris, Sam Most; a lot of fine men. It was such a good band that we just enjoyed playing. We worked the Sands, which is a nice place to work. They never bothered you let you play what you wanted to. But the hours started to get to me a little bit. At my age, going to bed at eight o’clock in the morning for a period of time doesn’t necessarily get to you, but it gets monotonous.
It’s not really a strain, because you can gear your life to it.
I’m 60 years old now, but I believe I’ve moved with the times, somehow. Actually, I’ve never been aware of this; it seems like people who listen are much more aware of it than I am. I’ve never started out to say: “Well, this is what’s happening and I want to be a part of it.” I think that with different groups, if you let the music go the way it should go, it’ll be different. You just play what you have to.
I know the trio was a challenge—just to try and make it sound like something with three men—no rhythm and no piano.
We had our problems, and we never did make any records the trio was capable of. Mainly because most of the recording men didn’t know what it was supposed to sound like. If they didn’t have piano and drums, they couldn’t get a balance; if one of us played soft behind, they’d turn us up. They didn’t ever leave us alone.
So as a result, a lot of times we’d make a record, I’d hear the test and we’d go crazy, because it sounded like I was playing an anvil.
The best ones we made were in Milwaukee, one time when we were on a trip from the Coast to New York to play in the Embers. They wanted another album fast, because the first ones had sold so well. After we got the set–up, I told the man: “Leave everything the way it is.
Don’t touch it.” He said: “That’s fine with me: I’ve only been doing this six weeks; so I don’t know what to do, anyway.” So it turned out much better than usual.
Actually, I grew up listening to music, I suppose.
My hometown, Beardstown, Illinois, is above St. Louis, on the river. The big things in those early years were excursion boats, which had bands on them. In other words, as a kid I heard Frankie Trumbauer (with whom I later roomed) with Whiteman’s band. And Bix Beiderbecke; a lot of jazz bands. They played for dancing on these boats.
Records were just starting to come into vogue at this period. But I was never really interested in music until, I think, about 13 or 14. I went down to see my brothers, who were in college in Missouri, and there was a fellow playing a marimba. It just fascinated me; I used to go to the picture show every night, sit right near him and watch him. Just something about it caught .my imagination. So I went home, sold the pony I had, worked all summer and got enough money to buy a xylophone.
Sure I taught myself. I never had a lesson in my life—until about ten years ago when I started studying composition with Dr. Wesley La Violette out in California. When I first played theatres, I used to study harmony out of books. I learned how to play piano in this way.
The only place that I could play xylophone was in a vaudeville act, which I did. I always wanted to play with a band, whenever I could get with one, but it didn’t seem to work out. Then, because I used to sing and dance and play, I got to direct a band at some of the ballrooms. I was like a desk conductor. And that got me a little closer to some of the dance music.
Only a few guys, like Victor Young, were encouraging—a few that would hear me play. I used to play a lot of four–hammer solos in those days. Ben Bernie used to take me along when he’d play. I had a marimba and I’d just do “In A Mist”, “Prelude In C Sharp Minor”, “Gollywog’s Cakewalk”. All these kind of piano pieces, I’d play ‘em on marimba; it was quite a novelty for him.
Finally Whiteman heard me and put me in NBC in Chicago. David Rose and I were in that band together.
This was the first time that I could really play jazz with a band. I worked all day, on the radio shows. When Whiteman left Chicago and went to New York, he had me join the band and took me with him. So that’s how I got to New York.
There were some very good players in the band.
Some of the backgrounds that were written for Mildred (Bailey) by William Grant Still (who is a classical composer now) were very dissonant and involved. Beautiful backgrounds. Harmonically, they were very advanced.
It was an education for me, being with such excellent musicians. I think styles were a vogue, rather than what a man was capable of doing. In other words, although Bix Beiderbecke was a great enough musician to play just about anything, it was the style to play very, very melodically. Big, strong melodic lines. Jazz goes through these phases, that’s all. And maybe it’s because the musicians like it. Because I remember Bix was the first guy I heard that played all modern piano solos, like Ravel’s things, a classical piano.
I played piano sometimes. Charlie Barnet and I had a band for a while where, if he got the gig, I played piano.
If I got the gig, he sat down and played tenor, and we got Bill Miller to play piano. Bill was with me for a long while, before he ever went with Sinatra.
The first jazz group I ever had was six pieces—Dave Barbour on guitar, Pete Peterson on bass, three horns and myself. There was tenor, trombone and trumpet—Herbie Haymer, Stu Fletcher and Don McCook.
We had no drums or piano—and it used to swing. It really swung. It was one of the starting groups on 52nd Street, when the whole area was opening up. We were at the Famous Door which was one of the first spots on the Street. Teddy Wilson used to play in between and Bunny Berigan would be there once in a while with the opposite band.
Our band was revolutionary at that time, by reason of the fact that most six–piece bands were of a Dixieland nature. Louis Prima, for instance, was around town with a band that played strictly in the traditional New Orleans style. But we were what I’d call a riff band, playing written and head parts. A little more subtle, and a much wider scope, harmonically. That was a good band.
During the war it got so that you couldn’t travel.
Goodman and Teddy Wilson had busted up their bands to lose men to the Service. After standing up strap–hanging all the way from Boston to New York, when I went to find some new sidemen, I thought: “Oh, my, this is not worth it—I’ll just stop.” So then Benny formed the quintet to go into a show in New York, Seven Lively Arts, with Bea Lillie, Bert Lahr and Markova. I stayed with Benny a couple of years while the war was on.
A few years before that I’d had a band with Shorty Rogers, Eddie Bert and Specs Powell. They were starting to get out of the Army. I had discovered a trumpet player by the name of Conrad Gozzo who was getting out, too, and I got him set with Woody’s new band.
I had another band that was going to play for the Ferry ‘Command. Ralph Burns, Flip Phillips and a bunch of us made some V–discs; we were due to come to England and do shows, sponsored by Coca–Cola. But somehow the USO thought we were getting too much money by comparison to what they were going to pay. We got paid for six months, and didn’t do any work at all.
In other words, when I went with Woody it was like old home week, with Flip, Ralph, Shorty and all the guys.
That First Herd was an exciting band. There was great pride in the band: I don’t think I ever heard it play bad.
I have to say the same thing about the Goodman Sextet. A tremendous organisation, with Slam Stewart, Teddy, Morey Feld and Benny. I enjoyed that every night.
Emotionally, it was just immense, the way that thing could start to play, I guess maybe because none of us gave excuses for ourselves. We came to work, we came to play.
Woody’s band was just that way, too. Some of those road trips were pretty rough. It was amazing how a band of that calibre could be dead tired, maybe no sleep, and still thrill six or eight thousand people. There was the greatest respect for one another. That kind of emotional playing is very catching, same as unemotional playing can be very, very depressing.
He featured the small group, the Woodchoppers, in certain spots; we used to fake some things. When he decided to make an album with it, I had to take care of it.
About three or four months before, he’d told me that Columbia wanted the album, when we were on the Coast.
But we were so busy, we didn’t get to it. Then, in New York he said: “In ten days we gotta make it.” So I had a week. That was fast, but we got through it: “Igor”, “Lost Weekend” and those things. A couple of ‘em—” Steps” was one—were out of the band Shorty and I had with Eddie and Specs. That was the first writing Shorty ever did.
Those breakneck tempos didn’t bother me. I’ve never had any physical problems as far as the instrument’s concerned. I can lay off six months. I did this year. I had an ear operation, and I didn’t play one note from March until July l4th, when I went to a Festival in Denver. I’ve had no mental blocks: I’ve never had to warm up, or anything like that. Not playing for six months would bother a lot of guys. They lay off a couple of weeks and they go crazy.
The reason I’ve tended to concentrate more on vibes was that, with the Goodman small group, we started to play parts. Vibes provided a better blend with Benny’s clarinet, Teddy’s piano and myself. Xylophone and marimba are strictly solo instruments. For small–group work of that style vibes are probably better, I think.
After leaving Woody’s band I came back to New York. But, I don’t know, New York was kind of a drag to me; there were too many jazz geniuses on the Street that hated the world and didn’t have any fun out of playing, We’d just done about eight months out on the Coast. And Mildred and I had had a home out there years before. So I just picked up and moved out to California.
We got back to New York the day before Christmas; I left some time in January. I went out really to kinda look around; then I brought my second wife out. We’ve lived in the same house in Santa Monica ever since.
Having moved to California I had a sextet to work in New York. ,It played awful good; I had Mundell Lowe, Tony Scott, Dick Hyman. But looking over the situation in California, I realised that there were very few places that you could really work steady.
A friend of mine, Adrian Rollini, had worked with a trio. I used to sit and talk with Adrian once in a while. He said: “You going to move back to New York?” I said: “No, I’m going back. I think I’ll get a trio.” So I told Joe Glaser about it. Joe says: “You’re crazy”.
I said: “Let me try.” He said: “All right. Well, I’ll tell you what—I’ll book you down Philadelphia.” I took Mundell and the bass player down. It was horrible. But in the meantime, while in New York, I went to the Little Club. Sitting there, I heard a guitar player play 16 bars of a tune with a very Society–type piano player—and wow! Finally I found out who it was; it was a friend of Mundell’s. named Tal Farlow.
He was willing to join me. I’d heard a bass player, Red Mitchell, at a little smoke–filled place in Jersey one night. I was impressed with him, because I figured with a trio, after working a few weeks in Philadelphia, it needed certain requirements. Without the drums or piano, you’d have to get particular type of guys to make it work. Guys that could hear the right sort of things. Any false notes would be apparent. Where there were certain chords, the bass would have to be able to hit the right note in those situations.
Anyway, I thought: “That’s the guy.” I found out he was living in New York, at the Radio City Music Hall Hotel. I called on the phone, and I said “Red?” He said: “Yeah.” We started talking, ending up with me hiring him. I arranged to meet him in a couple of days, to drive out to the Coast. I’d already booked three months in Hawaii to break it in.
So I met him, he gets in the car, and this guy conks out—goes to sleep. We’re taking the turnpike out beyond Chicago; this is 13 or 14 hundred miles, about a 20–hour trip. Every time I’d stop and get out to eat, I’d leave him there asleep and go in, start to eat. Pretty soon he’d run in, sit down beside me and start eating. He’d say: “If you get tired and want me to drive, let me know.” I’d say: “I’m not tired’ and get back. Then he’d go to sleep again. This went on for about a thousand miles.
The following morning we stopped for breakfast, and I was getting a little beat.
I’d been driving about 18 hours. So I said: “Hey, Mitchell—you wanna drive? Go ahead, drive.” He said: “Mitchell? My name’s Kelly.” It was Red Kelly. I guess he’s still with Harry James’ band; he’s been with a lot of good bands including Woody. He’s a good, big–band bass player. Two Reds, both bass players, rooming together, but I got the wrong Red! When the trio came back from Hawaii, I remembered a bass player who had subbed for me un in San Francisco when I was working a tour with Billie Holiday.
I tried to find him. and couldn’t locate him. Eventually I found him. He was carrying mail in Los Angeles. So that’s how Mingus joined me—after I convinced him to give up the mail route. That was really when it started to go.
I have great affection for Charles Mingus. Of course, I haven’t known him in the last few years. I think the last time I saw him was when I came over here with Goodman—that must be six or seven years ago. I know he was working in New York, in a club, and I came in for two days; so I went down to say “Hello” to him.
Our association was nice. With a trio, it becomes a very friendly and warm organisation, especially when you’re together for three–and–a–half years or so.
Tal’s probably one of the biggest talents I think I’ve ever known. He’s multiple–talented; not only music, but in a lot of different directions. Electronically, Tal could be really something. Playing–wise, he’s got great ears; his balance musically is tremendous. And besides that, he’s one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met in my life. Even if we hadn’t been associated together as musicians, I’d honour him as a friend. He’s a real kind, honest, thoughtful, humble man.
I didn’t have a particular conception about the trio’s music. I never do. Any group has to gain its own character from the people that are in it, I believe. Of course, they say it was way ahead of its time. Probably it was, in a lot of ways, because people weren’t ready for it. We used to do a lot of things harmonically and get away with it because it was soft. It wasn’t shocking people; whereas if we’d done it with brass and saxes, it would have been pretty hard to take. It’d be all right, but I don’t know whether it’d be in good taste or not. We never recorded a lot of those things because in those days you still had the problem of trying to sell it. They wanted to make it a great big commercial success, and the three of us didn’t care whether it was or not. Everybody remembers the group as one of the greatest things they’d ever heard, and yet I go and hear the records now, at somebody’s house or something, and I can look at it impersonally. What I hear falls far, far short of my memory of it. And I think both Min-gus and Tal felt the same way. We were never satisfied with what that group really got down on record.
But I’ve always found in developing any group, you can’t force anything. That’s what has stunted music today: everybody’s trying to conform to a pattern. They’re either being spectacular for spectacular’s sake, or they’re not letting the natural development go the way it should.
Because I think in this way: if you have five guys here, five guys here and five guys here, and you let each of these develop and judge the way it’s going by the perception of what each guy can do best, it should have three different faces.
They’ve got to be. Unless I am going to be the writer, and make all three conform to me. If I do that, then you’re not really hearing a band; you’re hearing an arranger’s idea of what it should be. Jazz is a combination of things: taste, judgement, working together and whatever happens as a result.
I changed the group when I got to Vegas. First time I worked Vegas, I decided I’d never work it again, because it was just bad musically. They paid us a lot of money, but I was very unhappy; I tried to get out. Then I went up for the opening of a hotel, the Tropicana. The director, Marty Proser—he used to own a club in New York—called me and he said: “Red, I’d like for you to open a lounge.” I said: “I don’t want no part of Vegas.” He said: “Look—I want it soft; nobody’s gonna say anything. You play whatever you want to. I’ve got a young guy coming out with a trio from New York; he’s very quiet, too. You’ll play opposite him.” Finally I said: “Okay, I’ll try it for a month. If I don’t like it after that, then I’ll run.” He says: “Fine.” So I went out and tried it, and I stayed for six months. And the guy opposite me turned out to be Peter Nero. He was known as Bernie Nero then.
Then, the following year, I’d just finished doing a picture with Sinatra, Kings Go Forth , for which I wrote a piece and arranged it for Pete Candoli to do a trumpet feature in a night–club scene. After the picture, Frank called me: “What’s your plans for Vegas this year? I’m opening back in the Sands, and I’d sure like you in the lounge.” I said: “Well, I really don’t want to go back in, because just for three pieces it’s too hard.” He said: “What’s your idea?” I said: “Well, Frank, I’d like a horn, maybe doubling flute, and drums. Then we’d be perfect.” He says: “You got it.” That was the February; we stayed until Labour Day.
So then I used to go in every year when Sinatra played there.
No, that wasn’t me on “Songs For Young Lovers”.
That was Frank Flynn, a good friend of mine on the Coast. He plays like me. Everybody thinks it’s me, but it isn’t. The funny thing is, when Sinatra recorded that I was in Europe, and he wanted to fly me all the way back for that date. He kept calling me from Hollywood. I was somewhere in Germany, and it was twelve hours’ difference in time. When I spoke to him, I said: “Get Frank Flynn.” I was on some later albums, like “Swing Easy.” I haven’t worked with singers lately, but I used to.
Billie Holiday, I enjoyed working with her; she’d never come to the Coast, so I’d go up there and get a band for her. I did a lot of TV shows with Joe Williams. And, of course, Frank’s a gas to work with.
About the only one recently has been this girl, Mavis Rivers. She’s from New Zealand—an awfully good singer. Four or five years ago, she was up at Lake Tahoe, and we started to do dates together. She’s easy to work with, because she knows.
Studio calls? I get ‘em, but I don’t take ‘em. That’s frustrating. I hate to stand there all day, play eight bars and go home. I don’t even play timpani any more.
I played the bongos for a year up in Vegas; I play timbales, too. I’ve got a set of drums, and I just like to play timbales; I’ve got a little different idea on ‘em. Everybody liked the bongos and wanted me to keep going; I just started again about a month ago, but I don’t think I’ve got any chops left; I’m just kinda getting my fingers toughened up a little bit. I did it years ago, just to learn Latin rhythms and things, because it’s interesting. Same as I learned to play rock’n’roll drums, just for kicks, so I’d know. Not that I’m ever going to use it, but at least I know a good one when I hear one. And it’s fun to do.
On vibes, in the last ten or fifteen years there’s been a lot of good players coming along. There’s some good ones on the Coast. I think probably Gary’s the foremost right now. Tjader’s good. Only thing is, there’s been a scene where everybody’s been playing like Milt Jackson, which is discouraging. That’s horrible. You feel sorry for ‘em, because they don’t ever develop.
Now, I can tell when Tjader or Milt or Bunker are playing. There’s a lot that play in that same bag, but the minute I hear ‘em I can tell whether it’s Milt or not, because I’ve heard Milt enough to know.
I’m ambidextrous. I can do things with both hands; so it doesn’t make much difference. Mine are more even, and I’m a little more conscious of this. Now, I know Gary’s left–handed. I didn’t know for sure until the other night, but I used to say: “I bet he’s left–handed.” I went back there, and he was eating left–handed. It was just the way he played; I can’t tell you what it is. I just knew.
Gary’s four–mallet technique is very good. Of course, the trio was all four mallets. And in 1932 I made “In A Mist” and “Dance Of The Octopus” on marimba with the four hammers. A lot of vibes players don’t know enough harmonically to play that way. Or they don’t have the facility. I think Gary’s got a background, and he stays right with ‘em.
Nowadays I stay on the Coast mostly. Last year I worked the Rainbow Room in New York. I just did four weeks with Peanuts Hucko at his club in Denver. He has Morey Feld. It’s a good group. A very successful operation he has there. He wants me to move to Denver. It’s kinda nice, but I like to shoot and fish and things, so I’ll probably go up for a while. But I always go to Palm Springs, usually in January, February and March.
Economically, what gets it in the States—you get in a place like Vegas, and you go back and forth for a period of four or five years. Everything’s happy, you’re musically satisfied, you like the town. There’s no place like Vegas; it jumps 24 hours a day. Probably now there’s more jazz in and out of that town than any place in the United States. They say it’s a show town, and yet you can walk in the lounge and hear Sarah Vaughan here, Duke Ellington over here. And there’s some great rock’n’roll groups. Something’s jumping all the time. The food is great; they have wonderful restaurants. So it can hook you.
Jazz has been very kind to me. Actually—I say this humbly—maybe much more than I deserve, in relation to the time I’ve put in on it. I’ve never done anything I didn’t want to do; it’s just been fun all the way. Maybe that’s the reason it is fun. And I still enjoy playing.
Copyright © 1968, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.