Norris Turney was born on September 8, 1921, in Wilmington, Ohio, just outside Dayton. Norris started studying piano at age 11. He soon switched to saxophone, took lessons for three years, and has been self-taught ever since. At Wilmington High he was the first black student to study music and play in the school band, winning several classical music competitions.

He picked up jazz from the radio, listening nightly to Count Basie, Earl Hines and other great bands. The alto players he admired most were Benny Carter, Willie Smith and Johnny Hodges, though he never imitated them. He learned his blues in church, attending his grandmother’s Baptist church in Cincinnati.

His first gigs were in Cincinnati, playing with local jazz and blues bands. Soon he was playing and recording with Billy Eckstine’s pioneering bebop band, side-by-side with giants like Fats Navarro, Gene Ammons and Art Blakey. By the fifties, he was in demand among big bands throughout the East: Catskill dance bands, Broadway pit bands, R&B bands, Ray Charles’ band, even Bull Moose Jackson’s band with John Coltrane.

Through the sixties, Norris was based in New York and doing well. Playing a jazz gig one night in 1969 at Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem, he got a call from Ellington to stand in for two weeks for the ailing Johnny Hodges. A month later he was called back and stayed for four years – and eight recordings – with the last memorable flowering of the Ellington Orchestra, the version that included Paul Gonsalves, Russell Procope, Harry Carney, Cootie Williams, etc.

And Norris left his mark on that historic band. The Duke liked Norris’ flute playing so much that he composed the Orchestra’s very first flute pieces around Norris’ artistry – and arranged other pieces around alto riffs by Norris that struck his fancy.

Norris continued to play jazz in and around Dayton with his small group, as well as to star with some of the most prestigious big bands in America: the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, the Newport All-Stars, the Smithsonian’s American Jazz Orchestra, the New York Jazz Repertory Orchestra, the Duke’s Men and the Ellington Orchestra.


Big Sweet N' Blue (#02632)