Composed by Irving Berlin; arranged by Eddie Sauter.
Recorded by Red Norvo and His Orchestra for Brunswick on March 22, 1937 in Chicago.
Kenneth “Red” Norvo, xylophone, directing: Bill Hyland, Stew Pletcher, Eddie Sauter, trumpets; Al Mastren, trombone; Frank Simeone and Hank D’Amico, alto saxophones; Charlie Lamphere and Herbie Haymer, tenor saxophones; Joe Liss, piano; Dave Barbour, guitar; Pete Peterson, bass; Maurice Purtill, drums. Solos by: Stew Pletcher, trumpet; Red Norvo, xylophone; Herbie Haymer, tenor saxophone; Hank D’Amico, clarinet.
The story: Joseph Kenneth Norville (1908-1999), known professionally as Red Norvo, was one of jazz‘s early vibraphonists. He helped establish the xylophone, marimba, and vibraphone as jazz instruments. Beyond that, he was always a forward-thinking musician, who enjoyed expanding the frontiers of jazz, often to the dismay of audiences whose musical tastes were less adventuresome than his. Norvo’s various bands in the 1930s and early 1940s were uniformly excellent musically, but generally unsuccessful commercially. He temporarily gave up bandleading and secured a high-profile position as a featured musician with Benny Goodman in 1945, and then with Woody Herman in 1946. These gave him substantial name recognition among a large audience, and enabled him to lead various musically and commercially successful groups from the late 1940s into the 1980s. (Norvo is pictured above left in 1937.)
Norvo’s career started in vaudeville in the Midwest (he was born and raised in Illinois) in the mid-1920s. After achieving substantial success in vaudeville in the late 1920s (he often made up to $650.00 a week), he began to feel confined by the routines of vaudeville, and sought other employment. He soon (in 1930) found it in Chicago working on NBC radio with conductor/composer Victor Young. He also worked with bandleader Ben Bernie at this time. It was while he was playing with Bernie at the College Inn of Hotel Sherman in Chicago that Paul Whiteman heard him. This led to Whiteman providing various new opportunities for Norvo in radio in Chicago. It was on a radio show in Chicago that Norvo met the singer Mildred Bailey, who was already employed by Whiteman. They were married in May of 1931. By the time Whiteman left Chicago in late 1931, Norvo was also a member of his orchestra. Red continued to employ his vaudeville shtick while with Whiteman, to the great amusement of audiences.
By 1932, Whiteman was ensconced in Manhattan’s Biltmore Hotel for a lengthy engagement. But due to New York Local 802 musicians’ union rules, Norvo could not perform with Whitemen because he had not satisfied six-months the residency requirement. He was forced to play “casual” dates for that period, many of which were not very satisfying musically. But this situation pushed Norvo to work with a very wide variety of New York musicians, including Benny Goodman, Bunny Berigan, Charlie Barnet and Joe Venuti among many others. His remarkable jazz ability on his mallet instruments (primarily the wooden keyed xylophone), and his overall excellent musicianship caught their attention immediately. (Above right: L-R: Mildred Bailey, Red Norvo, Sally and Joe Venuti – 1932.)
While all this was going on in Red’s work life, Mildred was doing very well as a featured singer on composer Willard Robeson’s CBS radio show, and also appearing at theaters in and around New York. Soon, they bought a home in the Forest Hills section of Queens, where many parties were held. The cream of New York’s radio and recording musicians were frequent guests at the Norvo-Bailey manse, often for dinner, as Mildred loved to cook (and eat). As the Great Depression deepened for most Americans during the early 1930s, the good times were rolling for Mildred Bailey and Red Norvo. (Above left: The Norvo-Bailey house at 67-46 108th St. in Forest Hills/Queens. This house was razed in 1950. The Grover Cleveland Apartments now stand on this site.)
At the nadir of the Great Depression, when the market for records was at an all-time low, Norvo managed to wangle an opportunity to make a couple of recordings for Brunswick/ARC (later absorbed by Columbia) on April 8, 1933. The result of this session were two unusual sides, “Knockin’ on Wood,” and “Hole in the Wall.” These recordings, both of which seem to have been carefully worked out beforehand, show that Norvo was a master of the xylophone.As a preeminent mallet instrument player, Norvo was in the position that unless he led his own groups, he found it more and more difficult to play the kind of music that interested him (jazz), and be able to work regularly. Fortunately for him, there was a movement in the mid-1930s in the dance band market that allowed bands to present some jazz some of the time. At first, Norvo worked with a band that he led whenever he could get gigs, playing xylophone. In that same band, Charlie Barnet would play tenor saxophone in the section. If Barnet got the gig, he would lead the same band and Norvo would play piano, an instrument on which he was a competent professional. Jobs were few. Norvo temporarily withdrew from being the leader, even part-time, of a big band, and picked up whatever studio work he could, including some ad hoc record dates with top-notch musicians. (Above right: Red Norvo and his xylophone – 1934.)
In the fall of 1935, Norvo formed a sextet to play an engagement at a small club on Manhattan’s west 52nd Street, the Famous Door. (1) The instrumentation of the group, to accommodate the leader’s dynamically weak xylophone, was trumpet (often muted), played by Stew Pletcher, clarinetist Don McCook, tenor saxophonist Herbie Haymer, guitar and bass. The music they played, of necessity, was not loud so that Norvo’s xylophone could be heard. Rather than just jamming, Norvo worked with 21 year-old Eddie Sauter, a trumpeter and fledgling arranger he had met in the Barnet/Norvo big band, to create arrangements for the group. Red had rather harmonically advanced ideas for the arrangements he wanted to use with this group, which were a direct result of his ongoing harmonic explorations on his xylophone. Sauter was a remarkably apt pupil when it came to learning the art of arranging music for groups of various size. The large role Red Norvo had in mentoring Eddie Sauter as an arranger have not been commented on extensively in jazz literature. (Arranger Eddie Sauter is pictured above left in the early 1950s.)Norvo’s Famous Door engagement was successful.
That led to an opportunity to make some more records, this time for Decca. These recordings, made in early 1936, provide a glimpse of what Norvo was doing musically then with what was billed as his “Swing Sextette,” even though eight musicians were present. The first Decca session, on January 6, 1936, included two Sauter arrangements, “Gramercy Square,” and “Decca Stomp.” These are the earliest Sauter arrangements recorded by Red Norvo. The former is an example of mid-1930s dance music dressed-up in harmonically interesting attire, and the latter suggests what was soon to come in the stylized arrangements done by Charlie Shavers for the John Kirby Sextet.
Below: Red Norvo and His Orchestra at the Commodore Hotel in Manhattan – June-August 1936. L-R: Joe Liss, possibly Dave Barbour, Maurice Purtill, Pete Peterson, Norvo; back row: Stew Pletcher, Bill Hyland, Eddie Sauter, Leo Moran; front row: Don “Slats” Long, Frank Simeone, Herbie Haymer.
Circumstances gradually nudged Norvo in the direction of adding more instruments to his band. In order to give Hotel Commodore in Manhattan what it wanted for a lengthy engagement in the summer of 1936, Red enlarged his ensemble to three trumpets, one trombone, four saxophones and a full four-piece rhythm section. In addition, Mildred Bailey was featured as the band’s singer. This band began recording for ARC/Brunswick on August 26, 1936. Although the Norvo/Bailey band was marginally successful in the commercial sense and more successful musically from mid-1936 until the fall of 1938, when Mildred’s temperamental behavior essentially caused the band to break up, it never achieved a solid financial base. Still, Norvo tried again with a number of big bands until he finally gave up trying to achieve commercial success using that instrumental format in the early 1940s.
The music: “Irving Berlin wrote the lovely song ‘Remember’ in 1925.” (It was first recorded by Isham Jones and His Orchestra, and then by Jean Goldkette and His Orchestra. It was a favorite of dancers because of its slow, romantic tempo and bittersweet lyric.) “This performance captures the Norvo band’s best features: beautiful arranging, flawless execution, imaginative improvisation. This is soft, silvery swing. The reeds gently nudge their way into tempo, alternately stating and paraphrasing Berlin’s melody. Sauter’s writing for the four saxophones is on a plane with Fletcher Henderson’s or Benny Carter’s. They phrase as one, producing a sound that is rich and full but light and luminous.”
“Trumpeter Stew Pletcher (pictured in 1936 at left) begins a dark, almost somber open-horn solo at mid-chorus that develops logically and beautifully. It ends on a surprising but fascinating flatted ninth that brings in the full band for the remainder of the first chorus and a key-changing interlude. Norvo enters (playing xylophone, which Norvo pronounced zill-ophone), for one of his most heartfelt-sounding solos on record. It starts with two relatively sturdy bars and then seems to hang in the air like mist. From time to time he twists phrases in delightful and unexpected ways around the beat, sometimes double-timing, reverts to romantic rapture, then returns wholeheartedly to the tempo being maintained by the rhythm section. A quick, soft sigh from the ensemble changes the key for a short, poignant solo by tenor saxophonist Herbie Haymer. Then the band billows over Haymer (with clarinetist Hank D’Amico soaring over the ensemble), …as the piece ends with a finely scored break for reeds and brass.” (2)
The recordings presented with this post were digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.
(1) For more information about the Famous Door, check out this post:https://bunnyberiganmrtrumpet.com/2017/07/18/swing-street/
(2) Much of the information in this post, and the lengthy quote above come from the Giants of Jazz – Red Norvo LP record set and booklet. It was published by Time-Life in 1980. The booklet biography of Red Norvo and notes on the music were written by Don DeMicheal.
Now, for the sake of comparison (and in beautiful hi-fi sound), here is a recording of Eddie Sauter’s arrangement on “Remember” made thirty-three years and two days after the classic recording of it by Red Norvo.
Composed by Irving Berlin; arranged by Eddie Sauter; transcribed by Sammy Nestico.
Recorded by Billy May and the Swing Era Orchestra for Capitol on March 24, 1970 in Hollywood.
Billy May, directing: John Audino, first trumpet; Pete Candoli, Uan Rasey, trumpets; Lew McCreary, trombone; Wilbur Schwartz, first alto saxophone; Abe Most, alto saxophone and clarinet; Justin Gordon and Plas Johnson, tenor saxophones; Ray Sherman, piano; Jack Marshall, guitar; Rolly Bundock, bass, Nick Fatool, drums. Solos: Shorty Sherock, trumpet; Frank Flynn, xylophone; Justin Gordon, tenor saxophone; Abe Most, clarinet.