Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music
(b Kenneth Norville, 31 March 1908, Beardstown IL; d 6 April 1999, Santa Monica CA) Xylophone, vibraphone, bandleader. Norvo was not only first to make a jazz instrument of the xylophone, but also an unusually adventurous musician, one of those who realized that the 'swing band' was an ensemble for which good music could be written. He studied piano as a child; went to Chicago at 17 and soon led a marimba band; later had a solo vaudeville act including tap-dancing; led a band '29, became a staff musician at NBC with Victor Young, then Paul Whiteman, met Mildred Bailey: they were married and went to NYC with Whiteman. Two marimba solos recorded for Brunswick in 1929 were never issued; he recorded with a group from the Paul Whiteman band backing Bailey on her first recording of 'Rockin' Chair' '32.
Norvo recorded Bix Beiderbecke's 'In A Mist' and his own 'Dance Of The Octopus' in November '33, accompanied only by a trio of guitar, string bass and Benny Goodman on bass clarinet: he made the most moving of all recordings of Bix's bittersweet piece, but 'Octopus' is still astonishing today, one of the most advanced compositions of its time, its tonal ambiguity demanding that the listener pay attention. Dave Kapp at Brunswick Records tore up Norvo's contract when he heard it; it is said to be only thanks to the producer Morty Palitz that the recording wasn't destroyed, and to John Hammond that it was actually issued the following year; and Norvo allegedly destroyed a stack of compositions in despair or anger.
Norvo worked in Las Vegas in the 1960s; on TV with Frank Sinatra, Dinah Shore etc; played jazz festivals, Dick Gibson's Colorado Jazz Parties. Other albums: Time In His Hands '45 with Slam Stewart on Xanadu, Red Norvo On Dial '45 later on CDs from Spotlite UK/Stash USA (twelve historic takes on four tunes, a typically open-minded Norvo octet with Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Teddy Wilson and others), Music To Listen To Red Norvo By '57, sextet now on OJC; Just A Mood CD on Bluebird has '54-7 tracks with Farlow, Ben Webster, Jimmy Giuffre, others. Many albums in and out of print included The Forward Look '57 on Reference; Vibes à la Red, Second Time Around and In New York '77 with Scott Hamilton, all on Famous Door; with bassist Ross Tompkins (d 29 June 2006, St Augustine FL aged 68) on Concord '79, Just Friends '83 on Stash with guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli's trio. He suffered a stroke '88, putting an end to a brilliant career.