Bigger than the Great Norvo ... and All of Us

After having consulted Whitney Balliet's American Musicians: 56 Portraits in Jazz for a recent post, I didn't return the volume to its home in the bookshelf but instead kept it handy beside the computer. I was thumbing through the silver-covered paperback this evening. The title of the chapter on vibraharpist/xylophonist Red Norvo once again caught my eye – "The Music Is More Important." I've read this book many times, but, hey, you can't retain everything; I decided to peruse these few pages. Frequently Balliet's chapter titles in this book are taken from a statement made by the subject; such, as I imagined it would be, was the case here:

Red Norvo in the Balliet book:

The main thing is that jazz should be fun. After all, the music is more important than any of us musicians. I'm beginning to think it's not that way anymore, which is too bad. We've come into an age of geniuses, of big musicians swaggering down the sidewalk, and nobody has any fun anymore. I've never done anything musically unless I liked to do it. [...]

I strongly agree – the music is more important. Serving the music – the gerund, in this instance, having two intended meanings – is what matters most: Playing in service to the songs and offering these songs to an audience; therein lies the fun and the reward. While I can think of many instances in which a musician has taken mediocre (or worse) material and fashioned it into something beautiful, I regard this not as proof that the music is secondary to the performer thereof but, rather, as an act of selflessness on the instrumentalist's part. He/she looks at what is at hand and tries to find in it something of merit to emphasize; he/she promotes compositional substance over self. Bunny Berigan – still, sixty-six years after his death, an instantly recognizable, widely-admired virtuoso trumpeter – was a master at finding and exposing the one felicitous melodic twist in an otherwise humdrum piece. Playing music, as far as I'm concerned, is about songs and chords and melodies and lyrics; it's not about image and personal stature. I love Red's phrase, "... big musicians swaggering down the sidewalk." I believe that those who swagger, literally or, as in interviews, figuratively, are big only in self-conception. Red Norvo was a giant of his instruments – first the xylophone and then the vibraharp – but his facility and imagination were to him, clearly, not the end but the means. The music was more important. It remains so, I think.