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Loren Schoenberg -- Writings

Red Norvo

Of all the great bands that flowered during the Swing Era, Red Norvo's was the only one which exclusively emphasized a policy of understatement, swing and highly refined counterpoint. These were elements long abundant in the mallet playing of the leader, and realized for the ensemble by the visionary arranger/composer Eddie Sauter. The roots of jazz counterpoint go back to jazz's beginning, when the interplay of one musical line against another had been at the music's core. New Orleans music required each player to master their specific instrument's ensemble function. How ironic, then, that it was the innovations of the supreme Crescent City master Louis Armstrong that liberated these instruments from these pre-defined roles. Pianist Earl Hines was one of the first jazz stylists with the conceptual and technical ability to synthesize the trumpeter's more complex formulations, and from Hines sprang his own legion of disciples. Among the most profound was the young Teddy Wilson, who worked around Chicago in the early '30s, traded ideas with the still-in-the-formative stage Art Tatum, and spent a brief period in the Armstrong band. Soon thereafter, Wilson was brought to New York by Benny Carter, and quickly became friends with the city's best musicians, including Norvo, who was free-lancing in the radio and recording studios at the time, and was married to singer Mildred Bailey, whose natural musicianship equaled her considerable girth. They lived in Forest Hills, and threw parties regularly. Norvo's musical inclinations were colored by the novelty items which defined mallet instruments to the public at large. He also leaned towards the whole-tone milieu of the impressionistic composers, both directly and via the already departed Bix Beiderbecke. Of course, Armstrong's shadow was inescapable no matter where one went, but it seems more than likely that it wasn't until Norvo heard some of it's more recent permutations in the hands of Teddy Wilson that it became an integral part of his own, multi-noted conception.

The two became great friends, and in 1934/35 Norvo featured Wilson on a series of classic recording sessions peopled by some of the best improvisers of the era, including Bunny Berigan and Chu Berry. It was also at one those Bailey/Norvo gatherings that Benny Goodman and Wilson hooked up for the first time, and led to the formation of the Goodman Trio. When Norvo decided to go out on his own as a bandleader in 1936, he made it a priority for his ensembles (at first seven pieces - they expanded gradually until they formed a chamber-sized big band) to reflect his truly refined tastes. Within a year, wife Bailey had come aboard, and they began to enjoy a modicum of success. In the wake of Goodman's popularity, the "swing" band was gradually becoming more and more brash, to which the quietly pulsating Norvo crew offered a rare and alluring alternative.

One of the band's major strengths was Bailey's plaintive singing. She had been the first female vocalist to be featured with a dance orchestra (she joined Paul Whiteman in 1929 - her brother Al was a member, along with Bing Crosby, of the band's vocal trio, the Rhythm Boys) Bailey was, along with Lee Wiley, and slightly later Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald, one of the most influential and distinctive stylists of her day. Bailey's early death at the age of 44 in 1951 has contributed to her undeserved obscurity in the ensuing years. She continued to use Eddie Sauter as an arranger even after her divorce from Norvo in the early '40s. Taking his cue from Bailey's subtleties, Sauter found just the right instrumental and harmonic combinations to set her delicate voice like the gem it was. In 1938, Bailey told George T. Simon, a definitive critic and good friend: "When I hear a new song, I immediately get definite ideas of how I want to sing it and how the entire arrangement should sound. And without fail, Eddie comes through with just the kind of arrangement I'd been dreaming of - only better!"

What Sauter wrought from Norvo's band came from the breaking up of traditional use of the band's sections in blocks. Initially profoundly inspired by Ellington, Sauter found his own voice by combining the horns at his disposal (at first just trumpet, clarinet and tenor sax - by the end three trumpets, two trombones and four saxes) in new and novel combinations whose only inspiration was a particular musical effect, as opposed to the conformity of the Fletcher Henderson-model that eventually became a musical albatross around the necks of the swing bands. Sauter was also a past master at modulations, both a necessity and a point of great relief when writing for vocalists. Gunther Schuller has written extensively about this in his "The Swing Era", and likens Sauter's talents (without hyperbole) to those of Richard Strauss! You can hear it here in a dozen places - try the lead-in to Mildred's vocal on "A Porter's Love Song" for starters.

Listen carefully to the opening title in this collection, "Remember". It contains all but one (a Bailey vocal) of the attributes that made the Norvo band the magical unit it was. To begin with, Sauter ever-so-slightly altered the melody, giving it a blues-like feeling absent from Irving Berlin's original. This is coupled with the "jug-toned" (as George T. Simon aptly called it) alto sax tone of lead man Frank Simeone. The dynamic level alone adds much in the way of drama and mood to the proceedings, as does the glimmer of dissonance in the saxes background to the trumpet bridge. As the arrangement unfolds, both Sauter and Norvo (in his brilliant solo) play off of what are at first trifling melodic/harmonic clashes until they blossom into a major piece of the musical argument at hand. There is also counterpoint galore. To many this term represents the imitative variety found in so much baroque music, but it is also to be found in the way that the low saxophones and lead trumpet veer off in opposite directions during the clarinet solo. As the arrangement begins to ebb, there is a haunting "riff" quality that brings the band full circle to the opening melodic paraphrase. Finally, and most importantly, all of this has occurred within the realm of the Norvo band's individuality - at no point could this have been any other band. And in the end, what more can any artistic enterprise accomplish than that? Let's take the title of the above song as a directive, and venerate this band for what it truly was, one of the high water marks of American music.