Storytelling Review: “Swingin’ with Duke Ellington” by Bobby Norfolk

Storyteller Bobby NorfolkA week ago Saturday night (4-26-08) I drove downtown for a special storytelling collaboration.  Bobby Norfolk told “Swingin’ with Duke Ellington,” accompanied by pianist Pete Ruthenburg.  The event was presented by Storytelling Arts of Indiana and the Indiana History Center.  Joyce Ellinger interpreted the piece in American Sign Language.

I had heard Norfolk tell children’s stories before at the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tennessee and at a public library here in Indiana.   I enjoyed his exuberant, highly physical telling style this time, too, as he told about jazz composer and director Duke Ellington’s life.

Norfolk wore a bright, royal blue blazer and buff trousers.  He had some papers on a podium, but he used a cordless microphone and danced all over the stage whenever Ruthenburg played examples of Ellington’s music on the piano, which was also on stage.

The Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. had commissioned this piece from Norfolk to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Duke Ellington’s birth in 1999.  He and Rutherford had performed it several other places, too, but Norfolk grounded it here and now on this particular night in Indianapolis in several ways.

When he introduced Pete Ruthenburg, for example, he mentioned that the pianist is originally from Evansville, Indiana.

Later, when he told about Ellington’s first gigs, he asked if we knew what “gig” meant, and were there any musicians in the house?  Only one person raised his hand.  “What instrument, sir?” Norfolk asked.

“Drums,” the audience member answered.

“Percussion!  We have a percussionist in the house!”  Later – twice, as a matter of fact – when a percussionist played a role in the story, Norfolk nodded in acknowledgment of “our” percussionist again, too.

The usual sound technician for the Indiana History Center was not there.  His substitute yakked away in the sound booth with the window open for a while, and someone forgot to close the doors to the Frank and Katrina Basile Theatre at first, so during the first part of the evening there were lots of aural distractions.  However, I was engaged by the interesting story and exciting piano music anyway.  I had heard of Duke Ellington, of course, but I knew nothing about his life.  I only recognized about half of the sample music pieces that Norfolk said he knew we knew.  This presentation made me want to learn, and listen to, more.

My favorite part of the evening was a long poem in which Rutherford played improvisationally while Norfolk invoked the jazz giants that came before Ellington.   He started with Ma Rainey and then named many, many others in rhymed, high-energy phrases.  Later, Norfolk told me that the piano accompaniment gives him permission to slow down a bit, to let listeners absorb and integrate the names of all these great musicians as he speaks them, without losing the energy of the piece overall.

The poem ends, “All praise to the creator of the jazz man.”    That phrase expressed perfectly what I was feeling.

Norfolk said that at the end of every performance, Duke Ellington would say, “We do love you madly.”  That is how Norfolk ended his storytelling this night, too.  We in the audience applauded madly.

Afterwards, there was a reception provided by the Indiana History Center.  I stood in line for cream cheese tort and crackers, and then waited until the crowd had died down around Norfolk and Rutherford.  When they told me that Ellen Munds, the director of Storytelling Arts of Indiana, was going to take them out for a meal, I asked if I could come along and ask them some questions about their work.  We and a few other people went to the quieter room of Moe & Johnny’s Restaurant in Broad Ripple.

I learned that Norfolk’s storytelling roots are in theatre.  He got his start in the St. Louis African-American Theatre, where he loved doing improv and farce.  Eventually he explored stand-up comedy. 

He read a book by Larry Wilde, Great Comedians Talk About Comedy, and learned some important things about timing.  “First, though,” Norfolk said, “the material has to be killer.”

He also worked as an interpreter for the National Parks for several years.  Gradually, he realized that his favorite part of the job was the storytelling part.  He looked for ways to earn his living as a storyteller.

He was the storyteller for a children’s television show called “‘Gator Tales” from 1988-1998.  It always opened with someone using an alligator puppet to interact with a child audience, followed by a character-building story created by Norfolk.  The show won numerous regional Emmy Awards.  The producers thought they had a hit because of the crocodile puppet, but it was really because of the storytelling.  After Norfolk left the show and they put more emphasis on the puppet, the show received no more Emmy nominations.

He also developed a broad repertoire of storytelling programs to offer to schools and libraries.  As a park ranger, he had automatically received health insurance and regular paychecks.  However, as a freelance storyteller, he found that he had lots of people asking him to tell stories for Black History Month, but what was he going to do for the other eleven months of the year?  His website – – now offers a wide variety of programs, workshops, and more, as well as video and audio samples of his work.

It is interesting that he got started doing adult theatre and then developed as a teller for children.  Now he has come full circle and is also doing adult comedy and satire as a storyteller on the college lecture circuit.

As we talked, I couldn’t help noticing that Norfolk’s telling style is much bigger than his one-on-one style.  In conversation, he is much calmer, more serious.    He still smiles a lot, but he seems much less interested in getting laughs.  He is a wonderful listener.

I think all of the best storytellers are.

Some of the other people with us commented on the amount of food he was eating.  Norfolk said that he eats one large meal a day, usually in the evening, and burns it all off on stage.

He also practices transcendental meditation to help him dial down his energy most of the time, and then cue it up for a performance.  He breathes, focuses, and uses creative visualization techniques.

Pianist Pete Rutherford does, too.  When he and Norfolk were developing the Ellington piece, the ragtime section was getting bogged down…until Pete set aside the sheet music and discovered that he could play the songs without it.  “Don’t think too much,” Rutherford said.  “If you do, you’ll think, ‘Uh-oh.  Here comes the hard part’ and that is when you’ll mess up.”

Rutherford plays at a church and with a couple of bands.  He is the father of 6-year-old twins.  He and Norfolk are both based in St. Louis now.

The conversation at the table turned to jazz and how hard it was, now, to find good places to listen to it live.

“Even a lot of places that call themselves jazz places don’t really offer it,” Rutherford said.  “They play pop or something.  There is nothing wrong with it, but it’s not jazz.”

Someone else said that they liked the Jazz Kitchen across the street because it was dedicated.

I said that I didn’t know much about jazz, but I thought the poem they had done tonight was jazz because it was all about listening to each other, and improvising based on what they heard.   Norfolk and Rutherford agreed.

Even though it was late and the two artists had to be up early in the morning to catch their flight back to St. Louis, Norfolk lingered over his cheesecake so that he, Rutherford, and I could talk without interruption after the others had left.  I really appreciated his generosity.  I look forward to hearing Norfolk tell again soon!

Norfolk has several folktale CDs and books published by August House Publishers.  He and his wife, Sherry, also have a book on using stories in character education, called The Moral of the Story (August House.)  This fall, Norfolk’s own chapter book will be published by August House.   It will be called The Traveling Storyteller: A Memoir – Some of My Funniest and Scariest Memories on the Road, volume one.

I am looking forward to reading it!

Hope Baugh –

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