Al Norris

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Mail a letter in New York City in the '50s and it may have been touched by the same fingers that throttled the chords to "Sweet Sue" and other classic jazz themes from the Jimmie Lunceford band. Guitarist…
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Mail a letter in New York City in the '50s and it may have been touched by the same fingers that throttled the chords to "Sweet Sue" and other classic jazz themes from the Jimmie Lunceford band. Guitarist Al Norris, whose professional music career began in the late '20s, had put all the excitement of swinging music behind him by the '50s and was working for a Big Apple post office, not bandleader. Norris started out on violin at the age of 14 and picked up banjo along with an interest in jazz almost within the year. The former instrument was eventually vanquished in its early role as a timekeeper in jazz bands, and Norris became one of many instrumentalists who switched to guitar and a softer, sometimes even feathery, style of rhythm accompaniment.

Norris grew up in Buffalo, where he worked in a variety of local bands between 1927 and 1932. This is how Lunceford heard him, ever the talent scout, and the contact resulted in employment for pretty much the entire life of that band, give or take a few years spent assisting the political goals of Uncle Sam. It also resulted in a pile of recordings that is certainly respectable, although not capable of dwarfing the parcel backlog come Christmas time at the post office. When Norris does appear on recordings by other artists besides Lunceford, it is often in the context of a retrospective devoted to any of the other jazz instrumentalists who learned their trade in the Lunceford band. Norris started out playing banjo in the band in 1932, but two years later had switched to guitar with occasional features on violin. Following Lunceford's death in 1947, Norris worked in a group co-led by Ed Wilcox and Joe Thomas. When the guitarist decided to retire in the early '50s he was playing in a band fronted solely by Wilcox.