Red Norvo

Photo of Red Norvo

Bandleader and xylophone player Red Norvo is widely considered one of the greatest jazz musicians of all time. He was also one of the very few who remained relevant through the many changes in jazz during the twentieth century, from two-beat to swing to bebop and beyond. Norvo always tried to stay modern, learning and shaping new styles into his own unique sound.

Early Band

Norvo began working professionally as a sideman in the 1920s, playing with a variety of outfits, including Paul Whiteman’s band in the early 1930s, where he met his wife, famed jazz singer Mildred Bailey. Norvo started recording with small swing groups of his own in 1934, and in the fall of 1936 he put together his first ten-piece orchestra. Norvo’s version of swing was different than that played by other bands. His music was gentler, softer, and lacked the blaring instruments that were often featured in orchestras of the time. While Norvo’s reserved swing style found favor with critics, ballroom operators kept complaining that the band didn’t play loud enough, and Norvo was forced to adapt his sound, causing the band to gradually lose its uniqueness. It soon became just another swing orchestra, though one with good talent and exceptional arrangements, the latter provided by Eddie Sauter.

Norvo’s band initially featured Nancy Flake as female vocalist, but Bailey soon took over.[1] Bailey, already a big star on her own, equaled her husband as a featured attraction, and the orchestra began to be billed as a “Mr. and Mrs. band.” Sauter was Bailey’s favorite arranger, and he wrote with her mind, which is reflected on the many Brunswick recordings that the orchestra made in its first two years. Male vocalist Terry Allen, also talented, joined in early 1938. The band featured a vocal group known as the Three Ickeys that same year.

The orchestra went through a rough period starting in late 1938. Norvo lost several key musicians due to an illness that swept through the band, and the group went into hiatus, with rumors that it had broken up. Those rumors were also fueled when Bailey left the band for health reasons, unable to continue with the grueling schedule of band life. Down Beat magazine printed a story from an insider who claimed that Norvo’s band had broken up because of Bailey. The singer was notoriously difficult to get along with at times, and the insider accused Norvo of letting her run off musicians instead of standing up to her. Norvo himself insisted that illness was the cause of the band’s haitus, and that it had not broken up. A lawsuit was brought against the publication, seeking $50,000 in damages.

Norvo reorganized in early 1939, and the band was back in action, touring and recording on Vocalion, though it was never the same again. Bailey recorded with the orchestra but was on her own again in February, with Allen becoming sole vocalist. After a tough summer, the band found itself in a bad situation financially, and Norvo put it on hold in August. Rumors again circulated that the band had broken up. Norvo quickly put them down, and the orchestra was back in action in September minus only Allen, who left to join Larry Clinton. Kathleen Lane took over as vocalist, leaving in November for Bob Crosby. That same month, the band took another hit when Norvo was forced to reorganize by the local musicians union in New York, who had him get rid of his out-of-town men in order to fulfill a contracted booking. The orchestra quickly fell apart after that.[2]

Later Bands and Combo Work

In early 1940, Norvo tried again, forming a new ten-piece band with Linda Keene as vocalist. The group received little publicity, but Norvo kept plugging along until January 1941, when he lost half his men to the draft and had to disband. He then put together a small mixed race combo to play at Cafe Society in New York while he worked to reorganize his band, which he finally did in early March, with Keene returning. She stay only briefly, leaving in April, and Norvo decided not to hire a new girl vocalist. The band folded at some point in May or thereafter, and Norvo worked with another small group before attempting to put together a new orchestra.

Announced in August, Norvo’s newest orchestra planned to featured Bailey once again as vocalist, though it was Keene who sang with the band at its debut in New Haven, Connecticut, in November. Keene appeared with the orchestra only for its first date however. Kay Allen replaced her. Musician and arranger Fran Snyder was male vocalist. The band, Norvo’s largest at fifteen men, received enthusiastic reviews and featured unusual instrumentation, such as oboe, flute, and English horn. Bailey recorded with the orchestra on Columbia in early 1942. By summer, though, Norvo had disbanded, unable to keep quality musicians due to the draft. He formed a septet but eventually gave that up as well for the same reason, and he went back to being just a sideman again, switching to the vibraharp and joining first Benny Goodman’s band, where he also played as part of Goodman’s small combo, and then Woody Herman, where he helped form Herman’s small group, the Woodchoppers.

Norvo continued to play with small groups for the rest of his career, turning to bebop in the mid-1940s and working with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. In 1949, he formed a trio with guitarist Tal Farlow and bassist Charles Mingus that produced some of the most creative music of the early 1950s. The trio’s sound featured the same quiet tone as did Norvo’s first swing band.

After Bailey’s death in 1951, Norvo married Eve Rogers, sister of jazz musician Shorty Rogers. He performed up until the early 1990s, when a stroke finally ended his career. Red Norvo passed away in 1999 at the age of 91.


  1. Flake had previously sang with the house band at Frank Dailey’s famous Meadowbrook ballroom in Cedar Grove, New Jersey. ↩︎

  2. Muriel Lane was said to have sang with the band at some point between late 1937 and December 1940. The most likely time period would have been at the end of 1939, taking Kathleen Lane’s place. The two Lanes were not related. ↩︎

Vocalist Timeline

Nancy Flake
Mildred Bailey

Note: Dates may be approximate. Some vocalists may not be listed due to lack of information on their dates of employment.


  1. Simon, George T. The Big Bands. 4th ed. New York: Schirmer, 1981.
  2. “A Hang-Nail Sketch Of Red Norvo, His Woodpile And His Band.” Down Beat Aug. 1937: 13.
  3. “'Illness Split Ork', Says Norvo.” Down Beat Jan. 1939: 2.
  4. “The Reviewing Stand: Red Norvo.” Billboard 27 May 1939: 11.
  5. “My Band Is Still Intact, Says Norvo.” Down Beat Sep. 1939: 1.
  6. “Terry Allen Changes.” Down Beat Sep. 1939: 13.
  7. “Popular Orchestra Plays for Parish Reunion.” The Lowell Sun [Lowell, Massachusetts] 12 Oct. 1939: 8.
  8. “Screenings: 'Roaring Twenties' Same Old Stuff.” The Columbia Spectator [New York, New York] 17 Nov. 1939: 2.
  9. “Orchestra Notes.” Billboard 23 Dec. 1939: 10.
  10. Feather, Leonard. “Red Nichols Purges Band.” Down Beat 1 Jul. 1940: 2.
  11. Dexter, Dave Jr. “Living Like I Want To, Says Mildred Bailey.” Billboard 1 Aug. 1940: 8.
  12. “On the Stand: Red Norvo.” Billboard 28 Sep. 1940: 12.
  13. “Norvo On the Cover.” Down Beat 15 Oct. 1940: 4.
  14. “Equally Lovely.” Down Beat 15 Oct. 1940: 12.
  15. “Christmas Dance Heads Say Bids Are Almost Gone.” The Oberlin Review 10 Dec. 1940: 4.
  16. “Tony Pastor Gets New Girl Singer.” Down Beat 15 Feb. 1941: 3.
  17. “Mixed Red Norvo Band to Cafe Society.” Down Beat 15 Feb. 1941: 12.
  18. “Half of Norvo's Band Drafted; He Gives Up.” Down Beat 1 Mar. 1941: 1.
  19. “Norvo Reorganizes Again; Keene Back as Girl Singer.” Down Beat 15 Mar. 1941: 1.
  20. “Linda Keene Now With Nichols.” Down Beat 15 Apr. 1941: 21.
  21. Treat, Ray. “Red Norvo Ork Gets Week at Enna Jettick.” Down Beat 15 May 1941: 19.
  22. “Orchestra Notes.” Billboard 16 Aug. 1941: 10.
  23. “New Norvo Band Has Bailey Set for Vocals.” Down Beat 15 Oct. 1941: 5.
  24. “Saturday Dances in White Plains Flop.” Billboard 25 Oct. 1941: 11.
  25. “5 Saxes, Six Brass in New Norvo Combo.” Down Beat 1 Dec. 1941: 5.
  26. “Orchestra Notes.” Billboard 6 Dec. 1941: 12.
  27. “Norvo Set on Blue Gardens N.Y. Job.” Down Beat 15 Dec. 1941: 2.
  28. “Weird Is the Word For Newest Norvo Ork, His Largest.” Down Beat 1 Jan. 1942: 1.
  29. “Norvo Forms Septet Again.” Down Beat 1 Jul. 1942: 2.
  30. Fordham, John. “Red Norvo Obituary.” The Guardian [London, England] 7 Apr. 1999: