Saturday, April 30, 2005

"Balance, Restraint...and No Tricks"

Which might serve as a slogan for this blog.

We know here from long experience (and deep reflection) that what seem to be idle phrases dropped in passing often hold the key to an alternate universe.

Thus with this, from Richard M. Sudhalter's otherwise reality-grounded notes to Red Norvo Featuring Mildred Bailey (part of CBS/Sony's Best of the Big Bands series):

"Born Kenneth Norville, in Beardstown, Illinois, March 8, 1931 (emphasis added), he'd come up through vaudeville, gone into radio, and in 1931 joined Paul Whiteman's Orchestra. There he'd met, and fallen for, singer Mildred Bailey. They'd been married that May, with saxophonist Frankie Trumbauer as best man."

He wouldn't have needed to be a prodigy on xylophone to make an immediate hit in vaudeville -- to paraphrase Samuel Johnson, it would have been sufficient cause for wonderment that he could have played the instrument at all. His move to radio may have been a career misstep, even though vaudeville was dying -- as the novelty of a new-born infant playing the xylophone, however marvelously, would have been lost in a medium based solely on sound. Any effort by radio announcers to play on his extreme youth for laughs and/or gasps of disbelief would have been treated by even the most naive listeners as transparently fictitious. Hence his quick move to the Whiteman organization.

His marriage to Bailey is something of a historical mystery. He would have been two months old when wed, and he was probably advanced in other areas apart from music, given his quick and canny career choices at an age with most children are suckling and soiling themselves, to the exclusion of most other interests. One cannot imagine Norvo proposing, even if he had had a sufficient command of language at this age. Bailey, one suspects, pressured him into it, because of a private agenda: she was already a two-time loser maritally, and may have thought that, by catching him at an early stage of emotional development, she could mold him into a good husband. By most accounts, she succeeded in that, though there was a tragic side to her decision. We must also conclude that marital statutes were highly lax in whatever state the wedding took place. Surely, sexual conventions were then far different from what we are led to expect from standard histories.

Listening to the tracks gathered on CD here, while always fascinating, proves in light of Norvo's birthdate to be a downright bizarre experience. True, they were recorded between 1936 and 1939, when he would have been out of nappies and well into the stage of playing with fire trucks, but this renders his xylophone solos no less brilliant -- most children this age can barely make it through the four-handed version of "Heart and Soul," with audience reactions that are, at best, polite.

The fact of Norvo's relative youth sheds revelatory light on Bailey's psychological difficulties at the time, due to, as Sudhalter deftly (if ever-so-tactfully) puts it, "the fact that for medical reasons she couldn't have the child she so desperately wanted." Medical reasons, indeed. We do not know when Norvo would have been physically mature enough to father a child, but we can surmise that Bailey's keen disappointment was to say the least premature when he was only six or seven. One can only speculate that Bailey undertook the marriage with excessive optimism, or unrealistic impatience.

But, as Sudhalter cannily comments on these sides, "Whatever the circumstances of their making" -- pretty weird, if you ask me -- "they are their own vindication, quite above reproach." So let's set aside the temptations of judgmentalism, and just enjoy the music. (I'll have to dig up some of those baby tracks with Whiteman now.)