In 1964, vibraphonist Red Norvo, who had performed with Paul Whiteman in the 1930s and modernist Charles Mingus in the 1950s, was in Chicago enjoying one of his favorite hobbies - firing a weapon on a range.
A person next to him said something and Norvo removed his mufflers to listen. At that moment someone nearby fired several rounds from a .44 magnum revolver. The injury to Norvo's ear almost destroyed his hearing and nearly wrecked his career.
Norvo was 55 at the time of the accident. Though he was past the peak of his career, he was recognized as an innovator on his instrument. he had worked with many jazz notables, including Mildred Bailey (his first wife), Woody Herman, Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw.
He also fronted a recording group in the 1930s that made sone of the finest chamber jazz discs of the day. In recent years, however, his recording activity has been sparse.
"I went back to Las Vegas (his home at the time) and my ears rang for months," he says. "I didn't think I'd ever play again. My pitch was out. I couldn't hear any highs. Then the ringing gradually went away."
But that wasn't the end. For the next two years, he noticed other problems, such as temporary hearing loss.
Then his left ear collapsed, and he had more problems with his right ear. This was a cruel experience for a man who had introduced the xylophone to jazz and who had performed with a light delicate tone almost effortlessly.
He had two operations to rebuild his left ear and now must wear a hearing aid in his right ear.
Despite the trauma caused by his hearing problems, Norvo, who'll be 70 on March 31, moves about benignly. His hair, once flaming red, is now muted with gray. His Van Dyke beard and deep blue eyes give him the look of an aging Norseman (his ancestry actually is Scottish.)
"A musician I knew sold hearing aids, and I bought one from him," Norvo recalls. "But everthing sounded like rock 'n' roll. I had to get another."
"I have trouble hearing when instruments are too far away," he explains. "That's why I can't work with large groups."
He confines his performing activity to trios and quartets - tight-knit groups. Norvo also says high-pitched instruments like flutes bother him. High notes on these instruments disturb his pitch and harmonic sense.
He must even be careful about what hearing aid he wears.
The firing range experience hasn't frightened him away from his love of guns.
"I enjoy shooting," he says with a warm glint. "I like to hunt - especially dove and quail. I hunt in Arizona, in California. And I like to fish."
The other night at Blues Alley he offered several ringing solos on tunes like "Here's That Rainy Day" and "Everything Happens to Me." He obviously enjoys performing, too.
While other vibists almost constantly look down at their instruments, Norvo thrusts out his chest and looks calmly at his audience. He smiles frequently and his touch is so delicate that he barely seems to strike the mallets against the keyboard.
Norvo currently is touring the East Coast for four months - through May - as a single performer with pickup groups. Most of the time he stays busy in California (home is Santa Monica) visiting friends and his three grown children. His second wife, Eve, die five years ago.
The vibist likes to talk about a trio he led in the 1950s that included bassist Mingus.
"I needed a bass player real bad," remembers Norvo. "Somebody said, 'Why don't you use thay guy named Mingus you had in San Francisco." I agreed. But I couldn't find the guy."
"But Norvo didn't give up seacrching. Running out of sources, he asked (clarinetist) Buddy Collette if he knew Mingus.
"Buddy told me Mingus was delivering mail in Watts," says Norvo. "I went and got him. He was scared. Took him about a month to get his chops (his technical skills) back. But it was a wonderful three years working with that trio.
"There was a time later when Mingus introduced me to (Rahsann) Roland Kirk as the guy who took him out of Watts."