An Early Innovator: Vibraphonist Red Norvo

Red Norvo was a favorite in Odessa and Midland from the mid 1970s through the early 80s.

Red-Norvo-from-Crues-1000pxThis portrait of Red Norvo was presented to Red at the Midland party. According to a story from Bobby Crues, Norvo’s significant other at the time did not like the painting, and so it ended up at the home of former Midland Jazz Classic President Crues.

One of the most engaging musicians to attend the West Texas Jazz Parties in both Midland and Odessa was the xylophonist and vibraphonist Red Norvo. It’s likely that most people attending parties in either Odessa or Midland had no idea who Red Norvo was when he first visited Odessa in 1975, despite the proof that Norvo had been a jazz star since the early 1930s. In the mid-30s he was also known by the moniker “Mr. Swing” as the instrumental portion of “Mr. and Mrs. Swing” with his first wife, the vocalist Mildred Bailey. They had a brief fling as the toast of New York, but Norvo would likely have made it with or without Bailey. He was famous as a xylophonist well before most people had heard of Lionel Hampton, making significant recordings beginning in 1933 and thoroughout 1936, well before Hampton got his due as a member of the Benny Goodman Quartet.

This program on the early music of Red Norvo aired recently on KXWT Odessa-Midland, West Texas Public Radio

Flip-RedNorvo-1981-crop1200According to records from the West Texas Jazz Society archives, Norvo was a mainstay of the Odessa Jazz Party from his first appearance in 1975 through 1983. He missed the 1979 party to play with Frank Sinatra, when Houston’s Harry Sheppard sat in on vibes at Red’s request. In 1982, Peter Appleyard returned to the party instead of Red, but Red played one more time in 1983. Red also played the Midland Jazz Classic numerous times.

1975-Cover-1000One of his better later recordings, “The Second Time Around”, was made after his first appearance at the 1975 Odessa Jazz Party. According to notes from the record:

“This album was the direct result of the Odessa Jazz Party in Texas in which vibraharpist Red Norvo participated, joined by saxophonist Kenny Davern, pianist Dave McKenna, bassist Milt Hinton and drummer Mousey Alexander. Spread over six days, the Odessa Jazz Party brings together twenty or so musicians to play in various contexts. Red brought down the house with assistance by Davern and McKenna, (and) realized he was tired of making solo records. So, Red invited his friends to the studio in New York in 1975 to record two sessions for this, his second “Famous Door” series album, and here we have evidence of the strongly swinging music heard by the guests at Odessa. Features four previously unissued alternate takes.”

Norvo-McKenna-Davern-1000pxNorvo was a brilliant musician and soloist, but he did suffer from some hearing loss late in his career that made his performances in Odessa and Midland even more memorable. According to long time attendee Dan Carpenter, Red Norvo was “deaf as a fence post” by his last appearances at the party, and the rhythm section would have to pay close attention to Red’s tempo in order to stay up with him. Despite having profound hearing loss by the time he played the party, Red Norvo was a favorite of crowds in the Permian Basin.

West Texas Jazz Party 51 – May 19-21, 2017