Walter Norris, 1931-2011

Pianist Walter Norris died this week at his home in Berlin. He was two months short of his 80th birthday. Because of his early recording with Ornette Coleman and later experimental work, he is often described as associated primarily with free jazz, but Norris’s stylistic range was virtually unlimited. He was born in Little Rock, Arkansas and first received substantial notice in the 1950s in Los Angeles when he recorded with Jack Sheldon and was the pianist on Coleman’s first album. After he moved to New York in 1960, Norris, guitarist Billy Bean and bassist Hal Gaylor formed a trio called The Trio. They made one highly regarded album. In the mid-‘70s he replaced Roland Hanna in the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra, recorded with baritone saxophonist Pepper Adams and later worked briefly with Charles Mingus. He moved to Germany in 1977. In the 1990s, he recorded a series of albums for Concord, from solo piano early in the Maybeck series to a quartet that included the adventurous tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson. This page shows several of Norris’s albums.

In a 1975 New Yorker profile of Norris, Whitney Balliet summed up aspects of the mastery that made the pianist an idol of aware listeners and musicians, even though he never received wide public notice.

His touch is even and light. He uses his considerable technique beautifully; his arpeggios, which whip and coil, have logic and continuity; his double-time dashes are parenthetical and light up what they interrupt; his long single note passages continually pause and breathe; no tempo rattles the clarity of his articulation, which has a private, singing quality.

Here is a track from Norris’s 1995 duo recording with bassist George Mraz.

A documentary film about Norris, directed by Chuck Dodson, is officially unreleased but being circulated by the director as a pre-release DVD without standard packaging.

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Comments

  1. says

    Walter Norris, a talent and one of the lucky ones, in that he got to play—yeah, Walter, & George, you, too, man—both of you cats. May you both have found what is that we all are looking for—shalom!

  2. Светлана says

    What a treat, this “Hues of Blues”!

    Listening to this piece again & again makes the dull technical translation I am busy with at the moment quite bearable. Thanks!

  3. says

    Doug, I spent over five years at the New York Playboy Club with Walter… first a quartet with Jerome Richardson and Bobby Donaldson, and then with Joe Farrell and Ray Mosca. We eventually became a trio, with drummers Ronnie Bedford and later Harold Jones. Walter was studying days at Manhattan School, and played so much that his right arm went into spasm. He had to forget about his school recital, and played the gig at night with mostly his left hand, until the right one healed up. We eventually lost that gig, and Walter moved to Europe, where he became an even better player… what a fine musician! It was a great happiness for me to play with him six nights a week for all those years.

  4. says

    Walter Norris was one of my absolute favorite pianists in jazz. He played several concerts in my home in the 1990s. We met in the 1980s when he and Red, my husband, played various venues in Europe. It was always interesting and engaging to talk to Walter about politics and philosophical subjects since we shared the experience of choosing to live abroad. He was a deep one with tremendous soul and phenomenal skill at the piano.

    • Doug Ramsey says

      The Red Mitchell website is worth a visit. Click on Diane’s name in the upper left corner of her comment.

  5. jordan leondopoulos says

    I am deeply saddened to learn of Mr. Norris’ death . As we all know prodigious talent has never been a commonplace in the history of human culture. But to discover the miracle of what happens when Walter Norris places his magical hands at a piano (which I, a life-long jazz afficianado first experienced relatively late in life), is to have experienced a musical expression of God’s grace that few musicians of the eminences in the already grand history of music have accomplished. Of course I’m fully aware that such abundant praise, especially in contemporary culture, may leave one vulnerable to the charge of hyperbole. In this case I would add such a charge to the many I’ve endured ’bout which I don’t give a whit. His absence,is of course, most keenly felt by his family and others who were his intimates (and familiar with his speaking voice, his laugh,the scent of his skin and the shape of his head).But, I think, all of us now live in a world made poorer by his departure but let’s remember Heaven, by dint of Walter’s breathtaking sense of harmony and time has become an even better place and its denizens have never smiled more often.

    With much affection,
    Jordan Leondopoulos,Ph.D.

    Professor of English and Film
    (and amateur Jazz Pianist)
    The City College of New York,CUNY