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.