Red Norvo

Red Norvo (1908-1999) was the first and only major jazz xylophonist, switching to vibes in 1943. He was a flexible soloist, able to fit comfortably into any style from classic jazz and swing to bop and cool jazz.

Norvo had a lengthy and productive career. He began on marimba when he was 14, switching to xylophone when he worked in vaudeville where he was also a tap dancer. He joined Paul Whiteman’s orchestra in the early 1930s, meeting and marrying Mildred Bailey. After leaving Whiteman, Norvo began recording as a leader in 1933 in settings ranging from chamber jazz to all-star swing dates. From 1936 to 1944 he led a big band that featured his wife’s singing; the pair were often known as “Mr. and Mrs. Swing.” After the orchestra broke up, Norvo worked with the Benny Goodman Sextet and Woody Herman’s First Herd, keeping his music open to the influence of bebop. He even used Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie on one of his record dates.

In 1949, Norvo formed a unique trio with guitarist Tal Farlow and bassist Charles Mingus, one that played fast but light, just like Norvo preferred. By the time the vibraphonist recorded the music on The Red Norvo Trios for Fantasy, his trio featured guitarist Jimmy Raney and bassist Red Mitchell, but its style was unchanged; Farlow has a reunion with his boss on four numbers included on this CD reissue. Additional music from Norvo’s second trio in 1954 is on With Jimmy Raney and Red Mitchell.

Music to Listen to Red Norvo By, recorded by Norvo for Contemporary (1957), finds the vibraphonist leading a sextet through clarinetist Bill Smith’s 20-minute four-movement “Divertimento” and five shorter pieces.

Although inactive for part of the 1960s, Red Norvo stayed busy as one of jazz’s major vibraphonists until a stroke knocked him out of action in the mid-1980s.