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Jazz Veteran Red Norvo Honored

May 05, 1987|LEONARD FEATHER

The Jazz Heritage Foundation numbers among its good works the introduction of jazz to youngsters in schools and the presentation of tributes to musicians who have paid exceptional dues.

Kenneth (Red) Norvo, in whose honor the foundation mounted a ceremony Sunday afternoon at At My Place in Santa Monica, has enjoyed a career without parallel in jazz history. As the first artist to show the possibilities of playing jazz on a mallet instrument (first the xylophone, later the vibraphone), he led a series of brilliant bands and combos over a six-decade career. (One of his first recorded solos was Bix Beiderbecke's "In a Mist," in 1933.)

Many of the old friends who gathered to salute him were aware of the troubles he has seen: the tragic loss of a son and his wife, Eve Rogers; the traumatic problems with his hearing in the late 1960s that almost put him out of action forever, and the ongoing struggle to recover from a stroke suffered last year that left him paralyzed on his left side.

But these obstacles were barely touched on by the speakers, who preferred to dwell on Norvo's accomplishments, and on the respect in which he is held by jazzmen of three generations.

LaRue Brown Watson, president of the foundation, said: "I have loved this man ever since we met. In 1954 he brought his band to play at my wedding to Clifford Brown."

Despite some absentees, there were many old friends on hand: the pianist Jimmy Rowles, the clarinetist Peanuts Hucko, the guitarist Jimmy Wyble, all of whom were Norvo colleagues; Terry Gibbs, the vibraphonist who became to the be-bop era what Norvo was to swing; Mavis Rivers, a longtime Norvo vocalist; Red's daughter, Portia Corlin, and her son, Kit.

Among those who had never met Norvo and expressed delight at finally meeting him was Milcho Leviev, everyone's favorite Bulgarian pianist, who provided some of the afternoon's best live music accompanying the saxophonist Thom Mason. (Watson announced that the foundation will sponsor a weeklong jazz camp under Mason's direction June 21 at Mira Costa College in Oceanside, to be attended by underprivileged children.)

Norvo, overwhelmed by the outpouring, confined himself to a few brief words.

"I was too busy crying to speak," he told The Times later. "I'm taking therapy every day, and playing with my right hand--in fact, I can do some scales and arpeggios I never did before. But the left hand is gradually coming back. I'm determined to play again."

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