Red Norvo

The jazz world may have written off this mallet instrument pioneer, but his musical legacy speaks for itself.


The jazz world should be embarrassed. When a legendary musician
passes away, the tributes and praise of glowing obituaries usually
soften the blow. But with Red Norvo, who left us just one week
after celebrating his 91st birthday, this posthumous chatter rings
more than a little hollow.

It’s not Red’s fault. Few did more for jazz than mallet instrument
pioneer Red Norvo. Yet one would never guess the scope of his
achievements from reading jazz writers or listening to jazz radio
stations. Long before he died, the jazz world wrote off Mr. Norvo.
Now for a few days, it will pay tribute to someone it spent decades

Only a few early pioneers of jazz remained with us in the 1990s. But
Mr. Norvo was the one everybody forgot. I was always delighted to see
the others receive honorary degrees at Harvard, tribute concerts at
Lincoln Center, awards or grants, or have their names emblazoned in
sidewalk stars. But in the back of my mind, I wondered, “Why not

And why not? One struggles to find a reason for this particular
“Red” scare. Perhaps Norvo’s efforts were diffused over too much
ground, from traditional to modern, hot to cool, making it difficult
for the jazz world to fit him into a neat and memorable pigeonhole.
Or perhaps Mr. Norvo’s curse was his devotion to the unwieldy mallet
instruments — the xylophone, the marimba, the vibraphone — which have
always been at the periphery, never the center, of jazz styles and
revolutions. One hopes that the fact that Mr. Norvo was white did not
play a factor in this neglect. (Yet one suspects that cultural
institutions seeking to honor early pioneers of jazz rarely think to
put red-haired caucasians at the top of their list.) Probably all of
these contributed, in varying degrees, to Mr. Norvo’s low profile during the
last three decades of his life. No matter what stereotypical image
of a jazz musician you had stored in your head, Red Norvo was likely
to violate one or more of its parameters.

But who did more than Mr. Norvo to define the popular and jazz musical
styles of our century? One could hold a jazz trivia contest, covering all styles and eras,
and every answer would be “Red Norvo.”

Let’s try it. Here is the quiz:

1) This legendary player and his wife were known as Mr. & Mrs. Swing.
Their hits from the pre-war years included “Rockin’ Chair,” “Please
Be Kind,” “Says My Heart” and “Have You Forgotten So Soon?” Who
was he?

2) Name the jazz musician who enjoyed a 20-year association with
Frank Sinatra, appeared with the Rat Pack in the movie “Ocean’s
Eleven” and backed up the Chairman of the Board on his legendary 1959
Australian tour that resulted in a live recording that many devotees
believe to be the best neglected classic in Sinatra’s oeuvre?

3) Almost at the start of the bebop era, this bandleader recorded
several sides in June 1945 with Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker,
which introduced many to the exciting new modern style that was soon
to transform the jazz world. Who was he?

4) Can you identify this founding father of jazz, who played with
the Paul Whiteman Orchestra in the 1920s? He heard, and was
influenced by, Bix Beiderbecke, and one of his early recordings
features an exceptional version of Beiderbecke’s impressionistic
composition “In a Mist.”

5) A Pioneer of West Coast jazz, this player formed a memorable Los
Angeles trio with Charles Mingus and Tal Farlow at the start of the
1950s, which ranks among the best jazz combos of the decade. Can you
name this important bandleader?

6) No one did more than this figure to establish mallet instruments
as legitimate jazz voices. His early work featured the xylophone and
marimba, while after 1942 he concentrated on the vibraharp. Who was

7) A close associate with the early Chicago jazz players, he
performed with Eddie Condon,
Gene Krupa, Wingy Manone, Bud Freeman and others. The finicky Condon
praised him as the best on his instrument. What was his name?

8) A major figure from the big band era, he played in Woody Herman’s
First Herd and was an important sideman with Benny Goodman. Who was

9) Virtually all of the notable female singers of the era performed
or recorded with him, from the great (Billie Holiday) to the merely
famous (Dinah Shore). In fact, his wife, Mildred Bailey, was recently
featured on a U.S. postage stamp series devoted to great singers. What
was his name?

10) With his sextet, octet and big band he created a style of
chamber jazz that still impresses listeners over a half century later with
its memorable recordings, such as “Dance of the Octopus” and his
performances featuring the arrangements of Eddie Sauter. Name this
major bandleader.

The answer to all of the above questions is the same: Red Norvo. It
is hard to believe that one man could have done so much, been so many
places, left so many important legacies. Yet Mr. Norvo somehow crammed
several careers into just one.

But no biography tells his life story. No movie is in the works.
Mr. Norvo’s recordings are either unavailable or found on obscure labels
from remote places. One can safely predict that the jazz magazines
will run short tributes next month, and then file them away.

But, Red, don’t feel bad about these half-hearted eulogies. In the
jazz world, only one type of testimonial really matters. The
recordings tell no lies, and yours stand up with the best of them.
In the vinyl grooves — or, as we say today, in the digital data hidden
on the polycarbonate disks — your legacy will go round and round

Ted Gioia new book, "The Jazz Standards: A Guide to the Repertoire," will be published by Oxford University Press in July

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