Beardstown’s gift to jazz
April 14, 1999
I must have learned from my musician father that the pioneering jazz player Red Norvo was from our home town of Beardstown, Illinois. (Red’s sister Portia was a good friend of Dad’s mother, you see.) I recognized the name because Norvo appeared occasionally on prime-time TV variety shows in the 1950s and ‘60s. He was an unlikely-looking jazz great—nature left him looking like an insurance agent—until he adopted a becoming Van Dyke beard later in life.
This piece also appeared in the January/February, 2020, issue of the Illinois State Historical Society’s Illinois Heritage magazine, from which it differs slightly but insignificantly.
Everybody's got to be from someplace, and Red Norvo was from Beardstown. One of the more fluent, and influential, jazz musicians of his generation—actually of two generations—the 91-year-old Norvo died on April 6, 1999, in Santa Monica, California.
As a boy he taught himself how to play piano and xylophone well enough that at 17 he was touring with a vaudeville show. After joining Paul Whiteman's Orchestra in 1932, he met singer Mildred Bailey, whom he later married and with whom he had a few modest pop hits. By 1935, he'd formed his own sextet that farmed the fertile ground of the New York City club scene. In 1943, Norvo switched from xylophone to vibraphone, the amplified version of that clattery toy In 1945, he joined Benny Goodman's big band and, a year later, played with Woody Herman's orchestra, and backed Billie Holiday. In the 1950s he devoted himself to combo work in clubs, with occasional rent-paying jaunts to Vegas, and continued to play until a stroke forced his retirement in the mid-1980s.
His was in most ways the hokiest kind of American success story. Boy grows up in the sticks, ventures to the big city, finds fame and fortune. As per the script, he reinvented himself along the way. He was born Kenneth Norville, and under that name was playing with the Paul Ash Orchestra when Ash mispronounced "Norville" to a reporter and the new name stuck.
Norvo belongs with the idiom's innovators rather than its imitators. I am indebted to the Times of London for this quote from critic and jazz encyclopedist Leonard Feather, who once described Norvo as "the man who in terms of seniority, wisdom, and ingenuity, has long been the Benjamin Franklin of his art." It was Norvo who introduced the mallet instruments to jazz. In those days a xylophone was as plausible an instrument in a jazz combo as a banjo in a symphony orchestra, but, as Robert H. Williams in the Washington Post noted, Norvo transformed the novelty xylophone into a sophisticated jazz instrument of grace and versatility. In 1945 Norvo cut a record that anticipated some of the innovations of the Modern Jazz Quarter of John Lewis and Milt Jackson in the 1950s.
Later, on the West Coast, Norvo devised a novel trio format without drums or piano. (Like Franklin, Norvo's ingenuity owed much to frugality; according to one account, the leader opted for the odd lineup because he couldn't afford to pay a rhythm section on the road.) Played by an ensemble of peers rather than the usual soloist backed up by his sidemen, the widely imitated result was dubbed "chamber jazz." The most notable of these ensembles featured guitarist Tal Farlow and the young Charles Mingus, who went on to become one of the significant bandleaders of the modern era. Norvo even divined the jazz singer in Frank Sinatra—some thing Sinatra never had the wit to do. In 1997 a live recording was released of a 1959 concert in Melbourne with Sinatra backed by a Norvo quintet; wrote one, "Norvo prompted some of the most relaxed and effervescent singing Sinatra ever put on record."
On the face of it, nothing in his background could have prepared Norvo for artists like Mingus. The Norvilles were not an artistic family. His father was a railroad dispatcher, and the boy had to teach himself how to play. Beardstown was empty of African Americans of any calling by policy. According to a common sociological slur, such small towns were marvelous incubators for the arts because they inspired their young people to achieve enough to get the hell out of them. New York City and Chicago owe their vibrancy in the arts to the fact that places like Beardstown have been sending their best and brightest kids there for a century.
Beardstown in the 1920s and '30s, however, was a surprisingly cosmopolitan place. Chicago and New York came to town via the radio, and every place else came via the 78 rpm record and the jukebox. And New Orleans came to town via the boats. Norvo first heard the xylophone in a pit orchestra, but his crucial exposure to jazz was courtesy of the dance bands that played on the riverboats that passed through Beardstown twice each summer. These luxuriously appointed excursion boats plied the river towns on the Mississippi and Illinois, offering dinner and dancing, and cargoes of live music from New Orleans. The roster of jazzmen on the boats "reads like a Who's Who of early jazz," according to one historian. The boats still visited Beardstown in the late 1930s, when my father was growing up in Beardstown. The most posh of the summer boats was the S.S. Capitol, whose resident band was the ten-piece orchestra of the accomplished New Orleans pianist Fats Pichons, who must as have been as exotic a presence in Beardstown of that day as a Balinese dancer or a socialist.
Illinois in general was a seedbed of jazz talent in those days. Some of the New Orleans musicians who'd moved upriver stayed there, settling in Chicago in the 1920s. Their presence inspired young Chicagoans, many from Austin High School on the West Side. The most acclaimed of the "Austin High gang" were trumpeter Jimmy McPartland, cornetist Bix Beiderbecke imitated by black players of the day, and a player whose improvisations were informed by Debussy's harmonic ideas), clarinetists Pee Wee Russell and Benny Goodman, tenor saxophonist Bud Freeman, drummer Gene Krupa, and guitarist Eddie Condon. Their rhythmically intense type of improvisation "hot jazz" in the argot of the day—became known as "Chicago style" jazz. In their bands soloists dominated rather than the Dixieland-style ensemble. They brought to the art harmonic inventiveness, and—in an era when most older jazz players still couldn't read music—technical ability.
There are authorities who deride Norvo’s status as a jazz musician. This is a judgment based not on his skills but his color. Norvo was white, and most scholars of color these days insist that the only good jazz musician is a black jazz musician. Indeed, they insist that no white person can play original jazz at all, because jazz is music invented by and for black people. This racially reductive view is insulting to white players, and ignorant to boot. The segregation of the recording industry and performances (white and black players did not perform together in public until the late 1930s) disguised the fact that in the clubs, hotels rooms, and rehearsal studios players of all colors mingled freely.
No question who the major creative forces were, but Benny Green's grudging assessment of 25 years ago remains accurate: The artistic traffic was mainly one way, from black to white, but "the white musician was occasionally something more than a plagiarist.” Gerald Early, director of African and Afro-American studies at Washington University in St. Louis, lists Norvo with Bix Beiderbecke, Goodman, Artie Shaw, Red Nichols, and Bud Freeman among the white musicians who "clearly are of considerable significance" in the history of this most American idiom.
Norvo was indifferent to, or perhaps superior to the factionalism—racial, stylistic, geographic—that even then split jazz into camps. In the 1940s bebop or bop, emerged as the closest thing yet to an indigenous black art music. Norvo, unlike Goodman and most swing players, was open to the new sounds coming out of New York. In 1953 the critic Whitney Balliett noted in The Atlantic Monthly that since the 1940s Norvo's style "has moved with the music by becoming increasingly supple and exciting in its use of more complicated harmonics and rhythms. He has played with consummate ease in the company of the greatest of the bop musicians," including Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. You say another case of cultural appropriation, I say another musician with open ears.
Norvo's playing is still worth listening to. Contemporary critics praise its wit and technical range, describing it variously as “swinging in the most transporting breeze" and "as benign and soothing to the ear as the sound of falling leaves." Happily, thanks to recordings, musicians don't really die, they just get reissued. The excellent Norvo/Farlow/Mingus sessions recorded for Savoy Records are available, for example, as is that 1959 concert with Sinatra in Melbourne, and the wryly titled Music To Listen To Red Norvo By. Get one and learn what a kid from Beardstown can do when he gets a chance. ●