From time to time, Sunday night listeners at The Press Room in Portsmouth are blessed by the presence of Ralph Norris, their patience rewarded as Ralph wends his way down from Freeport to play saxophone once more for this appreciative audience. Ralph is a wonderful player, lyrical, swinging, the whole history of modern jazz saxophone evidenced in his music. Hard to believe that what we’re witnessing is a man enjoying his avocation, but that is the case. Norris, in fact, earned his Bachelor’s Degree in the subject of Civil Engineering and earned his primary living in a private practice devoted to that specialty for 40-plus years. But indeed, and to the surprise of no-one, music is Ralph Norris’s first love and has been since childhood.
Ralph reports that, musically, he had the “usual beginnings,” namely with piano lessons. He did also have a few lessons on saxophone, but when his teacher discovered that Ralph had been practicing not with the proscribed exercise book but rather with Jimmy Lunceford records, his sax lessons soon came to an end. As a result, he was essentially self-taught on the instrument—that is, until he met a man who would become a lifelong friend, the great, late trombonist Don Doane, who mentored Ralph in both playing and arranging, over many years, mostly right on the bandstand.
During his high school days, Ralph led a band in 1950, and started up another one when he was in college. After a four-year hiatus from music while he served in the U.S. Navy, he took up playing with local bands in Portland in 1960 and, importantly, joined the big band of his friend Don Doane in late ’60s, at the same doing the usual “general business” of musicians—dances, shows, weddings, etc.—all while he pursued his budding career in civil engineering.
During the ’70s, he was a member of Don Doane’s jazz quintet and a regular participant in the jam sessions at South Portland’s Bridgeway jazz club. About this time, The Press Room opened in Portsmouth, establishing a Sunday night jazz policy, and Norris began making frequent appearances, performing with the host group of Tommy Gallant, piano; Jim Howe, bass; and Les Harris, Sr., drums.
Ralph speaks most fondly of the years he played with Doane and of the many great musician connections he made through that association: with Herb Pomeroy, Dick Johnson, Gray Sargent, Marshall Wood, Jerry Fuller, Dick Creedon, Ted Casher, Paul Broadnax, and the younger saxophonist whom he now considers his “hero,” Harry Allen, an international star.
About 15 years ago, Ralph linked up with a young, upcoming pianist named Tom Snow, no stranger himself, of course, to Seacoast jazz fans. The two continue to perform and record together, the latter most recently in August of 2015, when they produced a live recording of Duke Ellington’s music, which also included the bassist Marshall Wood.
Reflecting on his long, avocational musical career, Ralph philosophizes, “Having reached the octogenarian status, I have finally realized that so has our audience, at least for the style that I play. Now content to play 15 or 20 gigs a year, I try to constantly evaluate my playing so I will have the sense to pack it in before I slide too far down the slope, if you get my drift.
“Music has been a driving force in my life and thanks to a wonderful, understanding wife, two equally understanding business partners, and many very talented musicians, I have been able to enjoy the best of two worlds. I have often said, particularly to the students, that someday we’ll look back and realize that some of the most memorable moments of our lives occurred on a bandstand creating music with our friends. They are experiences that I shall never forget.”
And as we await patiently his next appearance on a bandstand near us, we fully expect to be sharing vicariously in one more of those memorable experiences.
Thank you, Ralph Norris.