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Bio: Norrie Cox - Early Jazz Historian and Traditional Jazz Clarinettist

Norrie, a native of Brighton, England, emigrated in 1966 to join Cummins Engine Company in Columbus, Indiana, U.S.A. Although trained as a mechanical engineer he has had an ongoing love affair with New Orleans jazz music since first hearing a recording in 1948. His father was a semi-professional musician, a graduate of the famed Kneller Hall military School of music and Norrie's five siblings were all musically inclined as children. He says "I was the black sheep of the family as far as music was concerned" and that his interest in jazz was probably an unconscious rebellion against the legitimacy of the music all around him. It was not until he was drafted into the Royal Air Force at the age of 21 that he became interested in playing the clarinet. He was self taught until 1976 when he realized that he was not going to progress further without help and studied for five years with Dan Gilmore, clarinetist, of the Waukesha Symphony Orchestra.

Until the 1980's he saw himself as a jazz aficionada who also played clarinet but since giving up his full time job he has concentrated on his playing and is now active with several traditional jazz bands in the Milwaukee and Chicago area. He is one of the few players in the country who try to emulate the style of the early Black jazzmen and like them plays an Albert system clarinet. Although busy as a musician and a consulting engineer he has maintained his interest in the study of New Orleans jazz and continues to add to his collection of early jazz recordings. Since 1989 he has been active in teaching teenagers, as a volunteer with the Boy Scouts and the Milwaukee Boys and Girls club, how to play in the early jazz style. This group, the Crescent City Stompers have gone on to play in a variety of settings to enthusiastic audiences.

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Norrie was born in Worthing on the south coast of England. His father, who joined the army as a boy musician, was trained as a brass player at the prestigious Kneller Hall Military Music Academy and served as a mounted bandsman. On leaving the army to follow a musical career he ran head on into the 1930's depression and although not able to make it as a professional musician he maintained a busy part time activity upto his eightieth year. All of Norrie's five younger siblings developed an early interest in music but due to a combination of circumstances such as a rigid grammar school education and his growing up during the second world war while his father was away from home he showed no interest in music of any kind until 1948 when he heard a Humphrey Lyttelton recording. The impact of the music, that was so different to anything he had heard before, set him to finding out all he could about jazz and he soon discovered the music of the early jazz pioneers. Since that time he has actively collected and studied their music. He enjoys other forms of jazz as long as they are true to the jazz tradition but does not collect their recordings.

On leaving school Norrie became a Mechanical Engineering Apprentice and was granted deferment from military service until obtaining his degree. In 1952 he was drafted into the Royal Air Force as a Wireless Operator and after training found that he had a great deal of spare time. To combat the boredom he started "messing around" with a clarinet and on his release in 1954 started attending basement jam sessions with other hometown musicians who shared his love of New Orleans music. This was during the early days of the traditional jazz revival that climaxed, in England in the late 1950's, with jazz records appearing in the "Top Twenty." In 1958 he moved to Ashford, near London Airport, as a junior engineer and soon formed the San Jacinto Jazz Band which grew in popularity until 1960 when he had to choose between taking the band professional and his engineering career. By this time he was married with a young son and his day job won out. He continued to play on a reduced schedule until 1966 when he was recruited by Cummins Engine Company in Columbus, Indiana, sold up and with his family became part of Britain's "Brain Drain."

He maintained his interest in early and revivalist jazz and continued to play his clarinet but did no public performance. His engineering career blossomed and he moved to Muskegon, Michigan and then to Brookfield, Wisconsin where he worked first at Waukesha Engines and then at Harley Davidson where he was Chief Engineer of their Test Laboratories. All the time he knew that one day he would again get back to playing seriously and fate does indeed work in strange ways! In 1975, through his son's music teacher, he was introduced to the First Brigade Band, a Milwaukee organization committed to the preservation of music of the American Civil War by performing on period instruments and using original scores. He became an enthusiastic member, staying for six years, and playing alongside dedicated legitimately trained musicians made him realize just how limited was his own self taught technique. He studied for the next five years with Dan Gilmore of the Waukesha Symphony and in his own words "finally learned how to play." In 1981 he left Harley Davidson, formed his own automotive diesel repair business and went back to playing jazz.

Around 1970 he had become friends with Bob Rippey, a noted jazz enthusiast and promoter, who introduced him to the Riverboat Ramblers and the Chicago Footwarmers and in 1981 he joined the Ramblers and soon after became their band manager. In 1986 he sold his automotive business in order to concentrate on his jazz playing and now leads his own groups the New Orleans Stompers and the Norrie Cox Goodtime Jazz and is a regular performer with Roy Rubinstein's Chicago Hot Six. He supplements his income by working as a consulting engineer in the field of mechanical failure.

Norrie is one of the country's foremost advocates for the preservation of early New Orleans jazz music in live performance and is one of the few musicians who try to emulate the playing of the early jazz pioneers. Like them, he uses the now defunct Albert system clarinet and will often recreate the solos of his idols note for note and, while admitting that this is not in the tradition of spontaneous improvisation, feels that it is a legitimate way of keeping the music alive.

In 1988 Norrie became convinced that in order to preserve the early New Orleans jazz style in live performance it was necessary to get young people interested in playing it and after a year of false starts formed a Boy Scout Explorer Post with the playing of New Orleans jazz as it's focus. In 1999 he took the young band to New Orleans where they played at several locations around town and on Saturday evening played the first set in historic Preservation Hall where both the audience and the regular band gave them a whole hearted reception. The Post has been in continuous operation since September of 1989 with many youngsters leaving for college and at least two planning on becoming career musicians. His teaching style is unconventional in that he does not use written music and youngsters, who are not normally musicians when they join the post, first learn to play simple tunes by rote or by ear, are then introduced to harmonic theory and the traditional part played by their chosen instrument in a New Orleans ensemble, all the while being taught the correct way to play their instrument. He lost count of the number of persons who told him he would never get teenagers, especially those of African American heritage, interested in playing early jazz but his results certainly belie the outpourings of those nay sayers!


Quiet period for research, R.A.F., circa 1952

 


Royal Air Force Spasm Band, Summer 1953

England, 1956

First San Jacinto Jazz Band, early 1957

San Jacinto Jazz Band, 1958

New Teao Brass Band, June 1958

Danny Barker, mid 1980's

Jim Schaefer and "Wild" Bill Davison, mid 1980's

Bonaparte's Retreat, New Orleans, May 1988 with Sammy Rimington and Cliff Bastien

New Orleans Stompers first concert in 1989

Riverboat Rambler with Bob Schulz, Madison, WI 1993

The Crescent City Stompers at Preservation Hall, 1998

Norrie Cox, present day
Copyright ©2006
Mutt Productions
PO Box 383
Waunakee, WI 53597-0383
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