Norris Turney


  In Conversation with Michael Lukes


Norris Turney (Wilmington, Ohio, September 8th l92l - Kettering, Ohio. January l 7th 200l), who passed away due to complications of kidney disease, began his life in the area of Dayton. Ohio, from where he had moved from New York about a decade ago.


Norris was a master alto saxophonist and flautist. He was one of the few remaining musicians to play in Duke Ellington's Orchestra under the maestro's leadership. He was also the first and only one for whom Duke wrote flute parts.


In the late 30s and early 405 he played in Fate Marable's Riverboat Orchestra and several territory bands. Including the popular Jeter-Pillars Orchestra. In the mid l910s he was briefly with Tiny Bradshaw and Billy Eckstine. He then played lead alto with the bands of Frank Foster and Clark Terry. He played tenor with Erskine Hawkins and Machito. In I967 he toured with Ray Charles's band for a year.


He joined Duke Ellington's Orchestra as a two-week replacement for Johnny Hodges, who was ill, in I969, and stayed on for four years. He was winner of the flute division for Talent Deserving of Wider Recognition in the Downbeat Critics' Polls for the years I970 and l97l. His best known composition is Checkered Hat, dedicated to his mentor and friend Hodges.


On leaving Ellington. he spent ten years playing in show bands for the Broadway theatre, in Raisin, the Black edition of Guys and Dolls, Ain't Misbehavin' and

Sophisticated Ladies. In the '80s he became a member of the accomplished band assembled by David 'Panama' Francis under the name the Savoy Sultans. He played with George Wein's Newport All Stars for eight years and took part in three jazz at Lincoln Center recordings on the Columbia label between 1991 and I994, and was part of LC]O's charter touring in I992. He toured many times with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra under the leadership of Wynton Marsalis.


In I994 he was presented with the jazz Master Award from Arts Midwest. Big, Sweet n' Blue is the title of his highly acclaimed I995 Mapleshade (02632) release featuring Larry Willis. Walter Booker and Jimmy Cobb.

He is featured on Chicago pianist Jodie Christian's I996 CD Front Line (Delmark DE-490). Norris played jazz festivals the world over and in I997 toured northern Europe with Red Richards, Claude "Fiddler" Williams. Dave Green and Joe Ascione. Echo: of Spring (Sackvi|le SKCD2-2049) is a live recording of that tour.


The Ellington '97 Conference in England featured Norris with Ellington alumni Jimmy Woode. Kay Davis and Bill Berry. His last international tour was in l999, with Louie Bellson's band. Turney, who also played clarinet, was a wonderful ballad player and his liquid sound on alto saxophone amply demonstrated his love for the style of Hodges, although he had his own distinctive stylistic leanings.


Michael Lukes met up with Norris Turney, aged 79, on the 27th September 2000 at his home in Kettering. Ohio.


MICHAEL LUKES: What inspired you initially to play?


NORRIS TURNEY: When my brother, my sister and I were kids, every Saturday we would make paper horns, rolled up out of newspaper and we'd give a concert and just play. We didn't have any music or anything like that.

My brother was a drummer and my sister played piano and we'd give a concert every Saturday. That's how we started, just playing around like that. Eventually my sister started taking piano lessons and I always wanted to play saxophone for some reason. I don't know. I think it probably stemmed from the fact that every Saturday my aunt in Cincinnati would have a house-rent party and she always had a saxophone player, a piano player and a drummer. And I saw the saxophone player one Saturday. The saxophone to me was a surprise because when I was in junior high, I came home from school one day and the music teacher was at my house and he had an old C Melody saxophone my father had bought me in Cincinnati for twenty-five dollars. So that's how I started. I took lessons and I was in the junior band in about a month.


ML: Who was the initial influence on your playing?


NT: It was probably Johnny Hodges, and also Chu Berry. I used to listen to Fletcher Henderson's band from Chicago on the radio. I found an old tape yesterday of Fletcher Henderson's band. You ever hear that band? It swings! Dexter Gordon was in that band. Well, that was a hell of a band man.


ML: You play tenor as well, don't you?


NT: I play tenor. I don't have a tenor now. I sold my tenor and got an alto.


ML: What alto do you have?  


NT: A Selmer.


ML: Did you always want to be in Duke Ellington's band?


NT: Well, yeah, I wanted to but I didn't think I would ever make THAT!


ML: You were the first flute player in Duke Ellington's band?


NT: Yeah, he'd never used flute before. I think Jimmy Hamilton would play flute. but [Duke Ellington] wouldn't let him play it.


ML: So how did it come about?


NT: Well, you know, when I first joined the band, I was studying the flute and I practised every day, three or four hours a day and Duke heard me practising. So we were playing out here in Lima. Ohio and he called me into his dressing-room one night - we were getting ready to do a concert - and he said: “Norris, come into my dressing-room". He had this little piano in there that he carried around with him. So he started playing something, he just played some chords - like dum-da-da, dum-da-da, dum-da-da - it was in B flat, then he went up to bum-da-da, bum-da-da. It's in D flat, and I kept on playing. I just played behind him. That's when I first played Fife. Remember Fife? (he hums the tune). And that was the first thing he ever wrote for the flute. He called it Fife.


ML: Why did he call it Fife?


NT: I don't know. Who knows what Duke does?! Or did...


ML: And did he write specifically for you? Did he write tunes around your way of playing?


NT: Yeah. After I'd been in the band for a while. I started complaining. I told Mercer (Ellington). "Give me something to play, man! I don't just want to sit up there in the section all the time." So I guess Mercer told him...


ML: What was it like to have Duke Ellington writing for you in the band?


NT: Well, I was very pleased of course. He did it for everybody in the band. Anytime anybody had a solo in the band, it was written for them.


ML: Did he ever tell you how to play or anything like that?


NT: No, never.


ML: A lot of people have said that all the Ellingtonians sounded much better when they were with Ellington because he wrote specifically for them. Do you agree?


NT: Yeah. Well, he wrote for everybody in the band. When anybody had a solo. it was written for them, the solo part, he just wrote especially for each member of the band.


ML: So how is it that you joined Duke Ellington's band?


NT: l think that Stanley Dance probably got me into the band. I was playing at Minton's in New York with a small group and Mercer called in one night and asked if I could join the band. Johnny Hodges, then, was sick. He was gone away for two weeks. So first they asked me if I could come in for a couple of weeks  I wasn't really that excited.


ML: Why not?


NT: I don't know. It was all right, but I wasn't that excited. Johnny Hodges was taking two weeks off. I really wasn't excited.


ML: So when you joined, you were not going to join permanently?


NT: No, just for two weeks. Then I came back to New York. The band was playing some place. So Johnny [Hodges] walked up to the bandstand and said: 'What are

you doing here?". I said: ''I'm taking your place or what, man?!". So when I went out, Johnny [Hodges] came back. And so about a month later. the band was in Vegas and they had some kind of problem with the trombone player.

Anyway they called me back to Vegas - that's where I joined the band - and I played in the trombone section, reading trombone pans.


ML: Were you good friends with Johnny Hodges?


NT: Yeah. yeah, we became very good friends. As a matter of fact, about two days before Johnny passed away, we were getting drunk. So we were sitting there and Johnny looks at me and says: "You got a big head!” So I says, 'what you talking about, a big head? You might have a big head!” So the next day we were at the airport in Montreal, coming back to New York. It was so hot that day. So Johnny says we get a cab. So we got a cab. It was hot. He dropped me off first. And the next day his wife Cue calls and says, "Johnny just passed away'. I said. "Oh yeah!?". "He died at the dentists office". Anyway they had his funeral. Duke was there and he said. ''I don't know how to deal with these damn things". I took over his chair. One time when they had to decide on the program for a gig. Stanley Dance suggested that Duke put in Checkered Hat, because he had heard it. I wrote it for Johnny. About a week after he died. I did it in about a half hour. Johnny Hodges could never pat his foot in time. He'd keep doing this [pats out of time]. Never pat in time!


Ml: Had Duke heard your playing before you joined his band?


NT: I don't think so. Mercer might have heard about me because Stanley Dance knew. He knew l played.


Ml.: But you never had to do an audition or anything like that?


NT: No, no.


ML: Once you were in. you were in?


NT: Yeah. Well, the first gig I played with the band was the Sacred Concert. I'd never heard that music before. We had a rehearsal. So Cootie [Williams] was sitting right behind me and Cootie said. "Damn, that boy can read!”, so we went on from there.


ML: How well did you know Duke? Did you get to know him well?


NT: Yeah. I got to know him pretty well. Very well, as a matter of fact. One night we were in the elevator of the hotel. Duke and I, so I told him. I said, 'Duke, it's a pleasure playing in your band". He said "Don't say that". That's when I learned you don't compliment him. He doesn't like that. That's the last I ever complimented him. I learned little things about him along the way.


ML: How did he keep the band together? How is it that he kept musicians like Harry Carney in the band for so long?


NT: Well, you know, he had some of the finest musicians in the world. The band became like his instrument. And everybody had a different sound, that's why they sounded like that.


ML: But how did he keep them in the band?


NT: Don't ask me! Because they all loved it evidently. Speaking of Harry Carney - he could drink! I mean DRINK! He fell off the stand one night, up in Montreal. I didn't know he drank, but every morning. Harry Carney would call me up and ask me if I'd had my breakfast yet. Had I had a drink yet? He was drinking already.


ML: So did you get to know the other people in the band pretty well?


NT: Yeh. I knew everybody. Paul Gonsalves, he was my drinking buddy.


ML: Willie Smith played very briefly in Ellington's band, didn't he?


NT: Yeah, briefly. They didn't like Willie Smith though.


MI: Who didn't like him?


NT: Everybody In the band.


ML: Was he not popular?


NT: Well he was a great alto player, but they didn't like him.


ML: Were you good friends with Harold Ashby?


NT: Yeah.


ML: How is it that you left Duke EIlington's band?


NT: A lot of people ask me; I never tell. We were playing In Miami and I played Fife on the first show. So [Duke] called Fife again on the second show, so I got pissed off. So that night at that time I didn't know Duke was as sick as he was. He had cancer. I didn't know that. Otherwise I probably wouldn't have left. Anyway, that night I decided to go on the airplane, paid my rent at the hotel and went back to New York. Anyway, a new show was getting ready to go into the theatre in New York. I'd never played a show before. A friend of mine who played alto knew the conductor. I'd just bought a new car. The show was over in Philly. So we got the car and drove down to Philly and found the conductor and asked if we could join the band. We talked. We had to see a certain guy in New York who was in charge of hiring the band. So we both heard from him and we got in the show-band. That was the bat gig I ever had - money-wise. It was on Broadway for two years. I played three Broadway shows. That's the best gig you can get In New York City, getting in a show band. That's good money,


ML: Was it good money with Duke? I understand that some players were not on a regular salary.


NT: Some of us were. I was. Johnny Hodges was on a regular salary. Cootie was. I think. But the money was never big. It was prestige.


ML: So when you left the band, you didn't tell Duke you were leaving?


NT: No, he didn't know. He found out afterwards. In the meantime Harold (Gezil) Minerve was there. He took over the chair. While I was there. it was Harry Carney, Russell Procope. me, Harold Ashby, Paul Gonsalves.

That's it. I didn't realise how fantastic it was until after I left. I play some of those records now - they sound pretty good. Everybody in the band, they all loved to play his music.


ML: So that was one reason everybody stayed, because the music was so good?


NT: Yeah, that's right. It was the number one band in the world. Paul Gonsalves and I were talking the night before I left and Paul was talking about how great the band was and he said to me. "You belong here".


ML: Did Duke Ellington ever say anything like that?


NT: No! I never heard Duke say anything about anybody. He talked about the band. If it was an important gig, he said, "This is an important gig. Now, I mean don't mess” up!" Sometimes the band would sound great and sometimes it sounded like shit! I remember one time we played this gig down in England on the beach. We'd been riding all day on the bus coming out from London. We'd been riding this bus all day, man. Nobody'd had anything to drink. So we got down and the band to me sounded greater than it had ever sounded since I'd been there. It really came down.


ML: But other times it didn't sound so great?


NT: It sounded good all the time, but on this particular night it really sounded good. They had their off days and hard days.


ML: You re-joined the orchestra when Mercer was leading '


NT: Yeah, we played Atlantic City. I re-joined and we played another Broadway hit with a small band – seven pieces. That was my favourite.


MI: What made you decide to join the Ellington band again?


NT: Well. Mercer gave me a lot of money. He gave me an apartment in Atlantic City. As a matter of fact he didn't know I was going to leave. Anyway, life goes on.


MI: More recently, you played with Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Centre Jazz Orchestra.


NT: Yeah, that was all right. I did that for a while. I've heard a lot of my playing [on recordings] since I've been on dialysis. I've listened to a lot of stuff that I made and, you know, I wouldn't play like that now. I don't know what I would change, but I'd go at it from a different standpoint.


Ml: Will you be able to start playing again soon?


NT: I hope so.


ML: Are you still playing in your mind?


NT: Yeah, oh yeah! I practice in my mind. I do that a lot.