It is not possible to overstate Red Norvo’s impact on music. Yet, it is quite likely that you have never heard of this giant among jazz artists.
Norvo was born Joseph Kenneth Norville in Beardstown on March 31, 1908, into a home that was filled with music. His father, Joseph, was an accomplished pianist who worked as a dispatcher for the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad. His mother, Estelle, played the trumpet. At the age of 6, young Kenneth (thanks to his mother’s preference, the lad went by his middle name) began piano lessons.
However, these lessons were cut short when the piano teacher discovered Kenneth was memorizing his lessons by listening to his brother Howard play rather than reading the music in front of him. That ended his music study for the moment.
His interest in music was rekindled when the family took day excursions on Illinois River boats. It was during those trips that Kenneth heard such jazz greats as Louis Armstrong and Bix Beiderbecke.
The lad’s turning point came in 1922 when the Illinois River flooded much of Beardstown. Norvo’s recollection of that time was recorded by author Richard Grudens in his 1999 book “Jukebox Saturday Night.” He quoted Norvo as follows: “One year, a flood levee broke in town and flooded our house. We went to Rolla, Missouri for a while. I liked listening to a marimba player in a pit band in the theater in that town. He let me try the thing out. I did pretty good. I liked playing it. When I got back to Beardstown, it bugged me and I thought about playing (the marimba). So my father let me work on a railroad gang that summer and sell my pony so I could buy an instrument.”
Norvo quickly taught himself to play his new three-octave xylophone. A 1925 Beardstown High School graduate, Norvo’s family decided he should attend the University of Illinois that fall. For experience, his mother urged him to work the Chautauqua circuit that summer for experience. Norvo went to Chicago where he formed a marimba trio. According to most sources, this group was called the Collegians. They toured, traveling as far as the Pacific Northwest. The university was not in his future.
How did he acquire the name “Red Norvo?” One explanation is orchestra leader Paul Ash consistently mispronounced his name as “Norvo.” A variation blames it on an unnamed emcee who couldn’t remember his name, instead calling him “Norvo.” In any event, Variety, the bible of the entertainment world, began referring to him as “Norvo.” The name stuck.
As for “Red,” sources attribute the name to Norvo’s red hair and ruddy complexion.
By the end of the 1920s, Norvo had established himself as a polished and popular musician on the vaudeville circuit. It was at this time that conductor Victor Young needed a xylophonist for his Chicago-based NBC Radio program. Norvo was the obvious choice. This proved to be the opportunity that would eventually propel Norvo to jazz immortality.
Next: Norvo’s career blossoms.