Walter Norris (1931–2011)
Walter Norris created an amalgamation of jazz improvisation with classical music in a style that no other pianist has duplicated. His varied career included eight years as a pianist, musical director, and entertainment manager for New York’s Playboy Club. In addition, he authored noted books on the piano.
Walter Norris was born on December 27, 1931, in Little Rock (Pulaski County). His father, Lucian Norris, was an accountant for the Federal Reserve Bank. Walter Norris began studying classical piano at the age of five, was playing “boogie woogie” by eight, and was playing in local bands by twelve. After graduation from Central High School, he began playing with Mose Allison on a southern tour. From 1950 to 1952, he served in the U.S. Air Force. He played the El Morocco in Las Vegas, Nevada, in 1953 and 1954 and then moved to Los Angeles, California, to play the Haig and Tiffany clubs for two years with such famous jazz musicians as Frank Rosolino, Stan Getz, and Dexter Gordon. He later toured with Nat King Cole.
In 1963, he was hired as house pianist, musical director, and entertainment manager of New York City’s Playboy Club. During the day, he studied as a piano-major and conductor at the Manhattan School of Music. He then toured with the Thad Jones and Mel Lewis Band, playing in Europe, Japan, and the United States. He joined with Red Mitchell to play a Scandinavian tour and then worked with Charles Mingus’s quintet in New York. He moved to Berlin, Germany, where he became a professor of piano improvisation at Hochschule der Kunste (1984–1994), during which time he recorded five CDs for the Concord Jazz label and gave seminars and concerts in Europe, South America, and the United States, including one given at the University of Arkansas (UA) in Fayetteville (Washington County).
In 1995, Norris was inducted into the Arkansas Jazz Hall of Fame and was also named a Steinway Artist. In 2003, he was inducted into the Arkansas Entertainers Hall of Fame. Norris was acknowledged by many jazz critics as one of the world’s greatest jazz pianists.
Norris married three times and had two daughters from his first marriage. He resided in Berlin, Germany, until his death on October 29, 2011.
For additional information:
Kernfield, Barry. The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz. New York: Grove’s Dictionaries, 2002.
Walter Norris. http://www.walter-norris.de/ (accessed August 3, 2023).
Arkansas Entertainers Hall of Fame
My beautiful mother, Ede Stewart, sang at the NYC Playboy Club in 1966/1967. I’M sure that’s where she and Walter met, ’cause many years later he came to our house in Bogota, New Jersey, around 1972/1973. Mom and Walter also shared their individual memories of having lived in Germany years before they first met at the Playboy Club.
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