May 8, 2015

Marty Napoleon, 1921-2015

Pianist Marty Napoleon passed away on April 27 at the age of 93. He was born in Brooklyn, NY of Sicilian immigrants as Matthew Napoli, later legally changing his name. Marty came from a long line of musicians. His familial situation was atypical. In his case the scenario of the young musician who finds disfavor with his girlfriend’s father was reversed.
MR:    Can I assume that it was okay with your parents that you were going into this field?
MN:    As a matter of fact that’s funny you lead me into that. Because when I started going with my wife, I met my wife when we were both 18 years old. Obviously we were the same age just about. And we kept company for about two years. But after about a year, my father said to me, “you can’t keep company with that girl.” I said, “why not?” He says, “you’re planning on marrying her?” I said, “yeah.” He said, “well you can’t even think about that.” I said, “why?” He said, “she’s going to keep you away from studying the piano.” How would you like to have parents like that?
In today’s jazz world, the majority of musicians are well skilled in all facets of music, and are expected to be able to read the most complex arrangements. Such was not the case in Marty’s time, and he was well into a career as a pianist before he learned to interpret notes on a page. Marty landed a gig with Chico Marx of Marx Brothers fame, and literally learned to read on the job.
MN:    To get back to Chico, I couldn’t read. I hadn’t learned yet, because I was like scuffling. So when we got to Chico’s band and I was like playing these shows with comedians and dancers, I was lucky that we had an 18-piece orchestra. And fortunately I had what they called a piano/conductor part. And on the top, in red ink, was what the lead trumpet was playing, see? So now I would fake through the first show and from the second show on I would follow the red notes on the piano sheets see? And I would notice like whenever the band had an eighth rest and a dotted quarter, I know it always went [scats] and I said, hey that’s great, you know. By the time I left that band I was reading music.
MN:    The funny thing was, only about three years ago, my wife and I were sitting in the living room and I said, “well you know I scuffled during Chico’s band because I couldn’t read.” She said, “you didn’t know how to read when you were with Chico’s band?” She never even knew I couldn’t read.
Musicians of the 30s and 40s in particular seem to have played musical chairs throughout their careers. Marty played with a long list of well-known jazz artists, including Gene Krupa, Red Allen, Joe Venuti, Charlie Ventura and in bands with his uncle Phil and brother Teddy. Prominently listed among Marty’s credits are his multiple stints with the Louis Armstrong All-Stars. Marty was able to witness why Louis Armstrong had the nickname “Ambassador Satch” and how his God-like presence overseas did not always translate into the same respect at home:
MR:    Were there certain places that you’ve played that were particularly memorable overseas?
MN:    Mostly all the places because especially, like I say, I wrote everything down. So I remember every place. One of the most exhilarating experiences was when we got to Switzerland, the first time I played in Switzerland. The first time I went into Europe with Louis was in October of 1952. ’52 or ’53.
MR:    ’52 ’53 the first time around.
MN:    Yeah okay.
MR:    Sweden, Denmark, Finland.
MN:    Yeah the first place was Sweden, and we got into this town and the place was closed. There wasn’t a thing in town. I met a guy and he could speak English and he spoke to me, “you with Louis Armstrong?” I says, “hey where is everybody?” He says, “what do you mean?” “I don’t see anybody in the streets, nobody walking, the shops are closing.” He says, “Louis Armstrong’s here.” I said, “what do you mean?” He said, “they closed the whole town,” they were getting prepared to go see Louis at the concert. I swear to God, man. He said, “what do you mean, Louis Armstrong’s here.” I said oh, okay. So anyway it was Sweden, then we went to Denmark, then we were here and we traveled a lot, but it was so rough I’m telling you. Because we were doing not only like we’d play one country here today and then go to the next country, we would play two shows, one in the afternoon and one in the evening and sometimes a second one would even be in a different country.
MR:    Did you ever have any problems with the fact that it was an integrated band racially?
MN:    We were in Texas and we were playing in a place called the Seven something, and we had taken a break and I went outside to get some fresh air, it was very hot in the room even though it was air conditioning, you know it gets hot. So I went outside and while I was sitting like this getting some sun, it got dark and I opened my eyes and I saw about four big Texas guys with the big necks like this, and they said, “hey man.” I said, “yeah?” “How come you play with a nigger band?” I said, “what?” They said, “you heard me.” I said, “what the hell are you talking about, man?” I said, “you know who that is? That’s Louis Armstrong.” “So what?” I said, “what do you mean, so what? Didn’t you pay to come in to see him?” The guy says, “yeah.” I said, “how much did you pay?” I forget, ten dollars? I said, “I’m getting paid to work with him, you’re a bigger jerk than I am, aren’t you?” And just as I said that, Cozy [Cole] was coming out to call me or something, and he heard me say that. He says, “Marty, telephone.” So he came to grab me and he pulled me in. He says, “are you crazy?” I said, “what?” He says, “didn’t you see the size of those guys?” I said, “yeah but did you hear what they said, I mean, come on, Cozy.”
Like many musicians who made their living playing jazz-based music, Marty was mystified by the pop music of the 80s and 90s. The melodic elements and the rhythmic swing that he so loved was missing, and he never lost the belief that there was still a fan base out there, although it was more likely to be overseas.
MN:    I feel sad because you know how I know there’s a market for it? I went to Europe about five years in a row with Peanuts Hucko. We were doing a tribute to Louis Armstrong. We had Peanuts, Trummy Young, Billy Butterfield, Jack Lesberg and Gus Johnson. When I tell you we went to Portugal for one night, and we played opposite a kid who was a local hero, who had a hit record, he was about 23 years old, and he was fantastic. He had all kinds of amplifiers. Three guys they sounded like a whole orchestra. It was great. And he had a hit record and he was from that town, and they loved him. And we had to follow him. So now he breaks it up, I mean completely. Now to introduce us and we come out, and we get [sparse applause]. We started to play “Back Home Again Indiana,” well you never heard anything like that in your whole life. Clomping, Stamping, Cheering, Whistling, “hey you guys are great man.” They went crazy. We tore it up. We had to do four encores, they wouldn’t let us off the stage. I said man this is fantastic. These six old guys come on here and they say what’s going on. I was with the world’s greatest band too, the world’s greatest. Everybody in the band was great. People loved it. They were swinging. I mean when the band is swinging it gets to the people, I don’t care what you say.
Marty possessed excellent recall for details about his musical adventures, and we were fortunate to have captured a lengthy interview with him in New York City in 1999.

March 29, 2015

So You Want to be a "Piano Man"?

Billy Joel’s “Piano Man” is an iconic sing-along and is frequently requested at the exact kind of gig it describes. While there is considerably less drama on an average piano gig, Mr. Joel’s song does describe the challenges of this work.
The best pianist in the area occasionally calls me to sub for him at his steady piano engagement. It’s one of the better gigs in town, a long-established restaurant with a nice atmosphere, friendly staff, no gear required, and decent compensation. I have been doing work like this for many years and have learned that the qualifications have little to do with piano technique in the normal sense of the phrase. The more piano you play will be in inverse proportion to your success. The function of the music is to add to the ambience of the evening for the patrons and make them stay a bit longer, have an extra drink, and leave feeling their money was well spent.
Earlier in the week someone asked me how many songs I normally play during a piano gig so I decided to keep track last night. After every two or three songs I wrote down the names, and was surprised when I counted them this morning. Between 6 and 10 p.m. I played 79 songs, almost twice what I would have guessed. My breaks on this gig are fairly short; in total I probably played 3-1/2 hours worth of piano. You can do the math. Some of the songs were medleys, but I don’t feel that they were short versions. If you could see the set-up in this particular restaurant, you would notice that there’s no space for music to be placed in front of you. The lid on the piano is closed and there is no room for a music stand. This requires that the pianist has an extensive memorized repertoire; a list of the songs you actually know is a great help. My first song of the evening, at 6 p.m., was a lovely ballad from the 1940s, “These Foolish Things” and my last song, at 10 p.m. was Elvis’ “I Can’t Help Falling in Love With You.” The selections covered tunes from eight decades.
What guides the choices? I draw an analogy to a Pandora station selection called “Dinner Party Radio.” The songs it yields fall under a category I describe as: “no one dislikes these songs.” You may not love all of them, but how can you dislike “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay,” “Fly Me to the Moon,” or “My Girl.” My song choices are guided partly by this principle, with a caveat that I’m trying to play a wide variety of styles. Amongst last night’s selections: “On the Street Where You Live” and “Edelweiss” from Broadway; “My Way,” the required Sinatra; Bach’s “Minuet in G” for my token classical number; a few Beatles tunes; and “Fire and Rain.” Who doesn’t like James Taylor? And with this blog in mind, I included “Piano Man,” challenging myself by doing it in D flat.
It was a slow night for audience interaction. No happy birthdays to play and only two requests. “It Had to be You” was an easy one, but I was almost stumped by a patron’s request for the theme song from the Freddy Martin Orchestra. Freddy Martin! He led a sweet swing band and I had this vague recollection that his theme song was an adaptation of a classical number. When I asked the requester to hum a few bars (which rarely works) I followed with, “wasn’t it a classical number?”  And he goes, “Yes! A Tchaikovsky piano concerto.” That did it for me — enough to remember the first four bars and fake the rest. He seemed happy and exclaimed, “yes, that’s it!”
On occasion when I solicit requests from a table, a person will say, “well what if you could make a request, what would you like to hear? Play that.” And indeed I did last night, choosing a song I recently learned, “Hymn to Freedom” by Oscar Peterson — a Gospel-inflected number that is soulful but restrained enough to fit the setting.
I know for a fact that a significant number of substitute pianists have been hired and not called back for this gig. They may not know the reason, but I do. People like to sing along with songs in their head, especially the ones they love. If you’re playing a song that they love, and you disguise it in a style that demonstrates your own technique instead of celebrating the song, people will not respond, your tip jar will reflect it, and your phone will ring less.
If you’re playing on a piano that doesn’t have much to give, don’t make the mistake of trying to get out of it more than it has. Look around the room. Are people leaning close to each other because they can’t hear over your piano playing? Figure out what is required on the date and subdue your ego accordingly. You can take pride in demonstrating the considerable skill necessary to fulfill the requirements for the gig. It’s not that hard. Just memorize every song ever written in every style imaginable, and be able to fake the ones you forgot to learn. But don’t take my gig.
You might also enjoy The Tip Jar, another entry of mine concerning the logistics of playing a solo piano gig.

March 11, 2015

Lew Soloff, 1944-2015

On the heels of the death of Clark Terry, we now mourn the passing of another trumpet legend. Lew Soloff passed away on Sunday, March 8, at the too early age of 71. I was enrolled in the music program at SUNY Fredonia in the late 1960s, and Blood Sweat & Tears LPs were constantly on our turntables. For us it was a musical triumph to have trumpets, saxophones and trombones share equal space with electric guitars. Lew Soloff was responsible for the virtuosic solos that helped BS&T score number one hits.
Lew was a jazz man at heart, and while he enjoyed the notoriety of playing in a band that celebrated rock, his tenure with BS&T was a small part of his career. He was a member of an elite group of instrumentalists who could excel in any musical situation. Although his resume included playing behind Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, Sting, and Billy Joel, his driving passion was to improvise. One of his proudest accomplishments was his recordings with the Manhattan Jazz Quintet, which he co-founded.
Frank Foster
Unsolicited praise is the best kind, and in 1998 Frank Foster addressed the subject of race and jazz and when he wanted to cite a white musician at the top of his game, he spoke about Lew.
FF:    Are you familiar with Lew Soloff? Lew Soloff can play anything, can play jazz, can play lead trumpet, he can play in a section, you know, he can just do anything that’s necessary for a jazz trumpeter to do. Big band, small group, whatever.
Lew described the difference between being very good at what you do, and exceptional.
LS:    It takes a lot to concentrate and to be a master, a real master, or to try to be a master of one thing. It’s basically a different thing of being a working trumpet player, which means hello, sure, sub over here tonight, yeah? Wedding tomorrow night? Sure. Okay, a block party? Fine. A jingle here, you know, a recording date. There’s one thing to being a working trumpet player, and it’s great and it feels really good to be called for that kind of work. But it’s another thing to be a working musical personality, where people hire you because of the way you play, not because of the way you play the trumpet, but because of the way you play. Because of the way you can play a song. Because they like your style. The first person who made me aware of it very clearly was Warren Vaché actually, who I’m a great admirer of. And I was telling him — this was years ago and I was doing a lot of studio work — and I said, “gee I really want to get better at playing jazz” and this and that. “Well, look,” he says, “it’s kind of hard to do when you play the way everybody else wants you to all the time.” Gil Evans of course would state it as it’s basically hard to be creative when you have to be professional.
Having music as your main source of income is a dicey affair. Frank Foster described it as “freelance starving.” Nonetheless, my classmates and I aspired to it, and Lew Soloff was one of the best examples of where we wanted to be. He spoke eloquently about the passion and the strong sense of direction that aspiring musicians had to have:
MR:    Have any words of advice for young trumpet players or musicians trying to break into the business these days?
LS:    Yeah. I do. First of all you have to decide what you want to do, whether you want to be an instrumentalist, a trumpet player per se, or whether or not you have a love of jazz to the point where you want to be a stylist. You have to decide what you want to do. If you want to be an in-demand cat, and I include women in that, to play any kind of job for anybody, the key is versatility and very fast sight reading ability. There are people that learn to read lines ahead of where they’re playing. Very few people have this ability but some people do, culminating in maybe a whole page ahead, almost like photographing the page with your mind. But most people that can do that learn it when they were very small. But it’s a good thing to learn to read, if possible, a bar or two ahead, or even more if possible, then where you’re playing. It’s a skill that’s hard to develop, I don’t have it, I read maybe a couple of beats ahead of where I’m playing. But if you can do that, if you can become a superb sight reader, if you want to become a horn for hire or a musician for hire, that’s one of the prime things you need to do. And there’s another kind of musician who could be a for-hire musician as a sideman, and I think this combines with being a stylist, where you may not have to read as well but you still have to be a good reader if you’re going to play in somebody else’s band. Because somebody else wants to do new material, and if the whole band can learn the material in two hours and you need to spend four days learning it because you can’t read, if there’s another person plays as well as you they’re going to get the job. On the other hand if you’re such a super excellent player that somebody wants your feeling on it, you’ll get the job even if you’re a slow reader. But that’s rare. It exists, but rare. And then, if you’re hooked on music and you want to really express yourself playing your music you should start getting bands together, ensembles together, whatever it is you like to play and you should start assuming the role of leadership at a young age and learn how to play your own music, in your own group, and how to get a whole concept of what you like. Develop your whole concept of what you like and go for it. Don’t have any doubts about it. And the final piece of advice is that it’s a very competitive field, everybody would like to have a good time rather than go to work and do a job they don’t like from nine to five. So if you love it enough and you really want to do it, work really, really hard at it. And if you don’t have the ability to work hard at it, it’s going to be a very dangerous field for you to make a living. There’s no guarantee of making a good living anyway in it, because it fluctuates. But, in other words, the passion has to overcome all the possible problems. It’s very possible to make a great living at it also. But the passion has to overcome all these problems. It has to become more important than a comfortable (meaning rich) lifestyle. It has to be more important to you than that, and then you might get the rich lifestyle from it.
MR:    That’s great advice.
LS:     Otherwise don’t go into it.
For two additional Jazz Backstory blog entries that featured Lew with Blood, Sweat & Tears, you might enjoy Spinning Notes from 6/19/14, and Inside the Studios Part IV from 9/1/14.