Joseph Kenneth Norville, aka Red Norvo, was born March 31, 1908 in Beardstown, Illinois. Young Kenneth had piano instruction in childhood, but his deep interest in music lay dormant until he chanced to hear a marimba player, Wentworth Woodworth. Woodworth, who belonged to the same college fraternity as one of Kenneth’s brothers, allowed him to practice daily on a xylophone he also owned.
Kenneth labored on a railroad gang to save up money to buy his own instrument, a three-octave Deagan xylophone. He quickly developed an extensive repertoire. He entertained at high school functions, and spent a summer on the Chautauqua circuit with a xylo-marimba quartet called The Collegians. After touring in Vaudeville with the group, he began working as a solo act around Chicago. Bandleader/showman Paul Ash hired him as part of a revue at the Oriental Theater, but could never remember his last name. One time it came out “Norvo” which Variety picked up. Kenneth Norville was “Red Norvo” from then on.
Norvo was the first player to treat the xylophone as a serious jazz instrument. He created an arrangement of Bix Beiderbecke’s “In a Mist,” and played it with due sensitivity. When Paul Whiteman heard him play it, he got Norvo a job with NBC in Chicago. Red also began composing both jazz and concert pieces for his instrument, including the remarkable “Dance of the Octopus.”
By the early 1930s Red had met and married Mildred Bailey, with whom he often appeared and recorded: they became known as “Mr. and Mrs. Swing.” As a bandleader, he and arranger Eddie Sauter created a sound characterized by George T. Simon as “a tremendous but subdued excitement,” a subtle yet compelling swing. He and Sauter voiced arrangements exquisitely, with attention to the individual strengths of each musician.
After the Big Band Era, Norvo had switched to the vibraphone and worked with smaller groups, finding musical simplicity and perfection in a trio featuring guitarist Tal Farlow and bassist Charles Mingus. As a musician, he was equally at home playing with New Orleanians like Edmond Hall as with beboppers Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. Though later beset by deafness and personal tragedy, he continued to perform through the mid-1980s. Red Norvo died, at age 91, on April 6, 1999. —Andy Senior
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