Farewell concert, then school
Billy Norris moves on to music school in Manhattan, but not before a performance.
By JON WILSON
Published July 5, 2006
ST. PETERSBURG - Billy Norris, 18, made a mark in his eight-year journalism career.
Familiar to St. Petersburg Times readers as a film critic, Norris started as a member of the newspaper's X-Team, a group of youngsters who write about topics of interest to youth.
He was 10 years old and a fifth-grader at Ridgecrest Elementary. X-Team organizers chose 12 children for the program; 100 had applied.
"From the start, he was a kid who you knew you could always count on. He seemed to have a knack for talking to people and getting the stories done," said Gretchen Letterman, his first editor.
Several hundred movie reviews later, Norris is getting on with life.
After graduating as Seminole High School salutatorian this spring, Norris is bound Aug. 16 for the Manhattan School of Music in New York City.
Friday night , the Tampa Bay Jazz Association is host to a farewell concert in his honor. Show time is 8:30 p.m. at the Palladium. The band is ABCD, in which Norris plays bass, sometimes guitar.
"When we found out he was going to go to the Manhattan School of Music, we thought, you know, it would be kind of nice to do a little concert with him," said the association's Bette Gregg.
Norris, she said, got to choose the band.
Wait a minute. Journalist bound for music school? Playing his own farewell jazz concert? Who knew?
Certainly not his editors, at least at first.
"The thing about Billy that's surprising is, here's a kid you think is a journalist. He loves film. But what sneaks up on you is his love for music and jazz," said Sherry Robinson, another Times editor who worked with Norris.
"It's kind of a neat part of his reviews about epic films. He will also comment on the score because the music means so much to him," she said.
Norris said he started playing an electric guitar at age 9. By then, he also had earned a karate black belt - but that's another story. At 11, he was fingering an electric bass; by 12, an upright.
On the side, he once pitched a baseball on a Seminole Youth Athletic Association team.
"A mediocre pitcher," Norris said. Strong arm, but not so accurate, he said.
He decided his strength lay in music and at some point, he knew he wanted to make it his life.
"It was just something that felt like it should happen," Norris said. "It wasn't something I thought about long and hard."
His first bass teacher was Mark Neuenschwander, a University of South Florida jazz studies adjunct professor who Norris says "really straightened me out." Neuenschwander lived just two minutes from Norris' Seminole home.
The instruction polished Norris' technique. He already had a passion for jazz and blues. As he did in journalism, he turned the music into a youthful career. It has taken him far.
He has led his own band, a blues-jazz-fusion-funk group called the Billy Norris Project.
In 2005, he was chosen as one of 29 high school musicians to play with the Gibson/Baldwin Grammy Jazz Ensembles. More than 400 applied.
Norris' three-piece combo appeared on Late Show With David Letterman before heading to Los Angeles and the Grammy events.
It was actually his second Letterman show. In 2002, Norris traded repartee with the late-night legend about life as a teen movie critic.
This year, he enjoyed a repeat appearance with the Grammy ensembles.
He has played gigs with trombone great Buster Cooper, performed with Seminole High School's jazz band and wind ensemble and was named to the Florida Music Educators Association All State Jazz Band.
He plays drums in a contemporary worship group at Anona United Methodist Church.
ABCD, named for the inititals of its members' first names, is special.
Andrew Carroll, the piano player, is an 18-year-old from Syracuse, N.Y. Corey Fonville is a 15-year-old drum prodigy from Virginia Beach, Va. Norris met them before the 2005 Grammy awards.
"We had that musical connection from the start," Norris said.
Dave Palma, 19, is a saxophone player in the University of Miami's jazz program. He joined the group after playing in the Grammy big band.
Carroll, Fonville and Palma are flying in this week before Friday's concert. They will be rehearsing at Norris' house.
Norris promises an energetic show of about 2½ hours.
"The chemistry that's there is just awesome," he said of the group.
Norris will have a few more Tampa Bay area gigs before leaving for his new campus in Morningside Heights, upper Manhattan. He might not give up journalism entirely, but he wants music to be his first world.
After college he is hoping to tour and get into studio music.
"I have this Utopian vision of being able to support myself without a day job," he said.
IF YOU GO:
WHAT: Moving on to Manhattan, featuring ABCD, sponsored by the Al Downing Tampa Bay Jazz Association.
WHEN: Friday, 8:30 p.m.
WHERE: Palladium Theater, 253 Fifth Ave. N, St. Petersburg
HOW MUCH: $15 adults, $10 students
FOR INFORMATION: (727) 822-3590