The loudest voices often get the most attention, but sometimes it’s the quieter ones that are more interesting. The Swing Era was filled with exciting big bands that roared, shouted and pounded, but some of the most satisfying musical sounds of the day came from the delicate and restrained orchestra led by xylophonist Red Norvo.
This week on SDPB Radio’sBig Band Spotlight, we’re featuring the soft and subtle but still swinging Norvo Orchestra. It wasn’t a big commercial success, yet few groups could match its musical brilliance.
Although the Norvo band’s subdued approach was unusual in a musical world filled with brash brass and driving rhythms, what was even more peculiar was Norvo’s xylophone, one of the more unlikely jazz instruments.
Norvo’s first instrument was the piano, but at the age of 13 he heard a man playing the marimba in a theater pit band and was immediately transfixed by mallet instruments. He took a summer job until he earned enough money to buy a xylophone, which he quickly learned to play.
In the early 1920s the xylophone was a popular instrument in vaudeville shows and Norvo joined a mallet instrument octet touring the vaudeville circuit called “The Collegians.” But at the same time he was playing novelty music for vaudeville audiences, Norvo was drawn to the sounds of Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke, Earl Hines and other early jazz musicians. From vaudeville he moved to the popular orchestras of Victor Young, Ben Bernie and then Paul Whiteman, the most famous bandleader of the time, with whom he became a star soloist.
Norvo left Whiteman in 1933 and started making a handful of adventurous and daring records under his own name. Two years later he was leading a band in New York City at the Famous Door on 52ndStreet, a hotbed of jazz. Norvo told writer Richard Sudhalter many years later that he never wanted to be a bandleader, but came to realize that was the only way he’d get to play what he wanted to play and do things the way he wanted to do them.
Norvo’s band featured four horns, guitar and bass. Instead of jamming on tunes like other 52nd Street groups, it featured horns playing in soft, close harmony. Helping shape the band was Julliard-trained trumpeter and emerging arranger Eddie Sauter.
In late 1935 Norvo got an offer to play the summer season at one of New York’s big hotels, the Commodore. He expanded his band to a twelve-piece, but the soft and subtle approach remained. There was a good reason the Norvo orchestra’s music had to be subdued: the xylophone couldn’t be heard over shouting brass and pounding drums. The xylophone has wooden bars and when struck by a mallet, aren’t very loud and don’t sustain. But with arranger Eddie Sauter’s deft use of dynamics and space, Norvo’s xylophone was successfully integrated into a big band context.
All big bands had to have a “girl singer” and Norvo’s was Nancy Flake. But Norvo was married to one the great jazz and pop singers, Mildred Bailey. They met when they were both working in the Paul Whiteman Orchestra. Bailey had a small voice, but it was more strong than delicate, and she could swing. She recorded on the enlarged Norvo band’s first records and sang on the group’s radio broadcasts. Soon she was a member of the band and Nancy Flake was forgotten, except by band drummer Maurice Purtill who married her.
Although Bailey was the band’s star attraction, she was also, by most accounts, its undoing. She was a troubled woman who was unhappy and insecure about her weight and appearance. She could be warm, funny and affectionate, but she also had a sharp tongue and violent temper and could be very difficult to work with. One of Norvo’s saxophonists said she was a disrupting influence fomenting discord within the band. Big band historian George T. Simon, a Bailey fan, wrote that she “often asserted herself too emphatically, creating tensions that were anathema for a band that relied so much on a relaxed approach.” Simon observed that Bailey’s behavior brought Norvo down and stifled his sensitive, outgoing personality along with his and the band’s enthusiasm.
By the fall of 1938 the Norvo band wasn’t quite the same group as it had been. Most of the original musicians were gone and Simon complained in Metronome magazine that the band’s “soft, subtle, swing” had changed. “The soft has disappeared almost completely,” he wrote. “The subtle has been minimized. But the swing remains.” This more assertive style was at least partly the result of pressure from people in Norvo’s booking agency who wanted the band to sound more like Benny Goodman or Artie Shaw.
But at the end of the year, Norvo announced that he was breaking up the band, telling Down Beat magazine that some of his musicians had come down with colds and flus and he wanted to give them a rest. But on the same page, the magazine ran a letter from Norvo’s former band manager Irv Tonkin who blamed the breakup on Mildred Bailey. He described tension and barely suppressed anger among the band’s musicians over her constant interference in Norvo’s running of the band. “In my estimation,” he wrote, “she is one of the most unreasonable persons in the band business.”
A few months later Norvo reformed the band, although the only returning member was loyal bassist Pete Peterson who had been with Norvo since the Famous Door days. This edition of the Norvo orchestra lasted just a few months, but Norvo was back at it again in 1940 with a band playing the old Eddie Sauter arrangements, which gave hope to some fans that Norvo’s soft, subtle swing had returned. But this band wasn’t very successful either and the xylophonist was forced to scale back to a smaller group. But things still didn’t work out, so he disbanded once again and got some of his musicians jobs in a new group led by pianist Claude Thornhill. Like Norvo’s original band, the Thornhill orchestra’s approach was based on soft swing and subtle dynamics.
But then Norvo put together yet another band: this one a group featuring six brass and five reeds and a new book written by arranger Johnny Thompson. Again Norvo bucked the dominant riffing big band approach, this time with a band dominated by woodwinds. The saxophone players doubled on flutes, bass clarinets, English horns and oboes.
The band got some favorable notices, but by the summer of ’42 the military draft was taking so many musicians that Norvo was forced to scale back to an octet and was back at the Famous Door.
Meanwhile, Norvo’s marriage to Mildred Bailey deteriorated and even though they still worked together, they divorced in 1945. The former Mr. and Mrs. Swing remained friends and long after Bailey died in 1951, Norvo continued to defend her, telling writer Richard Sudhalter in 1988 that she wasn’t a disruptive force in the band. She was a perfectionist, he said, and any friction that arose was because she wanted things right.
Although Norvo’s days as a big band leader were over, his career in some ways was just beginning. He switched from xylophone to vibraphone and played in Woody Herman’s exciting First Herd and the Benny Goodman Sextet. In 1949 he formed a trio with guitarist Tal Farlow and bassist Charles Mingus that was one of the more remarkable and innovative small groups in jazz history.
Norvo continued to perform into the 1980s until a stroke ended his playing. He died in 1999 at the age of 90.
(Most of this information comes from Richard Sudhalter’s Lost Chords: White Musicians and Their Contributions to Jazz 1915-1945.)