Red Norvo Biography

Kenneth Norville, 31 March 1908, Beardstown, Illinois, USA, d. 5 April 1999, Santa Monica, California, USA. After playing in a marimba band, Norvo was hired by Paul Whiteman in the late 20s. With this band he played xylophone and was called upon largely to deliver novelty effects. While with Whiteman he met and married one of the band’s singers, Mildred Bailey; in 1933 they went to New York and embarked upon a career that culminated with them being billed as ‘Mr and Mrs Swing’. During the 30s Norvo played and recorded with many leading jazz musicians of the day and remained in demand into the mid-40s, at which time he joined Benny Goodman and switched to vibraphone.

During the 40s Norvo worked with leading bop musicians such as Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, and in 1945 became a member of Woody Herman’s First Herd. In the early 50s he was resident in California (his marriage to Bailey had ended in 1945), working in a trio he formed with Tal Farlow and Charles Mingus. He continued to play throughout the 60s and on into the mid-70s, when he decided to retire. This decision proved to be only temporary and the 80s saw him engaged in a series of worldwide tours as a solo artist, performing with Benny Carter, and in a reunion with Farlow. A stroke in the early 90s, however, finally ended his career.

Norvo’s vibraphone style retained the sound and feel of his earlier xylophone work, a fact that ensured a rhythmic urgency to much of his playing and which might well have been the motive behind his long-standing preference for working in groups without a drummer. The assurance with which he incorporated bop phrasing into his work made him unusual among musicians of his generation and brought an added quality to his work that ensured that it was always interesting.


Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.


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