Marty Napoleon: Covering all 88 Keys
Post-WWII New York City was a vibrant and musically creative club environment and pianist Marty Napoleon was a significant part of that scene and continues, through what is now a 60+-year career in the music business, to add more than a dash of pizzazz to any musical endeavor with which he is associated. His impressive resume includes stints with saxophonist Charlie Ventura, drummer Gene Krupa and the Louis Armstrong All-Stars.
photo by Geri Reichgut
It is not surprising that Napoleon became an integral part of these working and touring bands, as he is one in a series of musically notable Napoleons. Older brother Teddy was the pianist with Gene Krupa's orchestra for 14 years and uncle Phil founded the Original Memphis Five, using his classically-trained trumpet to reshape the NYC jazz landscape of the '20s into a serious musical milieu. Marty reflects on his uncle Phil. "He was a well-rounded, classically-trained musician who played lead trumpet for the Lucky Strike Hit Parade for 10 years. He was fantastic. When I was 15 years old my father bought a trumpet from my uncle Phil and I was going to start taking lessons but during my physical my father told the doctor that I was going to start playing trumpet and the doctor said he wouldn't suggest that because of a heart murmur."
That decision led to the piano and Napoleon soon led his own trio until receiving a call to join Charlie Ventura's Big Four. Napoleon vividly remembers his being asked to join with Ventura: "I got a phone call from [bassist] Chubby Jackson who says to me, 'I am in a hotel room in NYC with Charlie Ventura and [drummer] Buddy Rich and we were discussing who we were going to get on piano and the three of us decided you are the guy.' I almost fell off my chair. I quit my own trio right away... When I was with the Big Four I was also the vocalist with the band and Charlie played alto, tenor, baritone and bass sax. When I did a ballad and he backed me up on the bass sax it used to literally lift me right up off my seat. He was one of the best soloists I ever heard."
Musically advanced, the group recorded four sides for Mercury in 1951. During a rehearsal, Gene Krupa walked in and, as Napoleon remembers, Rich used the opportunity to show off. "When Gene walked in Buddy went into a thing and it was like, oh my God what is going on. So when we finished we went over to Gene and he says, 'Man, I heard it but I don't believe it.' The group had a large club following but as Marty remembers, Rich's legendary personality issues led to the group's dissolution. "It was so bad that we were on the bandstand once and he and Charlie were going at each other. Charlie got so mad that he just threw his saxophone on the stand and walked off the stage. So Buddy says 'okay, let's play...'and Buddy played so loud that Chubby and I just made believe we were playing."
In 1950, Napoleon played with his famous uncle in a reformed incarnation of the Original Memphis Five, receiving an advanced degree in Dixieland. Sometimes things happen for a reason and the younger Napoleon was soon to embark on his most well known 'gig,' pianist for the legendary Louis Armstrong All-Stars. Napoleon remembers, "Everyone says that I replaced Earl Hines in Armstrong's band but that is not the case. Joe Sullivan actually did but, sorry to say, he had a drinking problem and one night he actually fell off the piano. So Louis is like 'hey man we can't have this' and that is when they called me. I got a call from Joe Glaser who says to me, 'Did you work with Phil Napoleon and play Dixieland? Do you want to play with Louis Armstrong?' And I say, 'No.' He says, 'Did you hear what I said?' But I went to his office and talked to him and Red Norvo was sitting in the outer office...anyway, I joined and quit the band three times because I missed my wife and kids. One time I quit and they got Joe Bushkin to replace me; the next day I get a call from Glaser who says he doesn't think Joey is going to work out...every time they raised the ante and I went back."
The Armstrong All-Stars were certainly welcomed all over the world but Napoleon remembers the Scandinavian tours as particularly exciting. "The first day we went there we got off the plane and there are thousands of people on the tarmac... We get to the hotel and this is my first time in Europe with the band and we are riding in open cars and reporters and photographers are taking our picture. And I go into the town and everything is closed and the place is dead and I say to a local, 'Is it like this here all the time?...'and he says, 'No, but Louis Armstrong is in town.' And I think to myself if this is what it is like to be a star; I don't want it because there is no privacy. I was just used to being a pianist." Marty Napoleon certainly is a pianist and at the age of 88, he has all the keys covered.