Allegro Interviews Marty Napoleon

Volume CII, No. 12December, 2002

Leo Ball

World-renowned pianist Marty Napoleon has a contagious disease. It’s called “the joy of playing music.” If you’ve ever witnessed one of his performances, you’ll see a man bouncing up and down on his piano bench, smiling and laughing. Before you know it, you’re sharing his joy.

Marty’s parents were both guitarists; on top of this, his dad played banjo and his mom sang. From oldest to youngest, his siblings were all musical. Oldest brother Ted became a fine pianist; next in line, Andy, a professional drummer; sister Margie, a singer; then Marty; and finally sister Josephine, another fine vocalist. Marty’s first memories are of the family sitting around the living room as their dad played and they sang. Marty instinctively picked a harmony line, not understanding the difficulty of this. This ability signaled to his dad that yet another Napoleon in the tribe had natural ability.

One night, age seventeen, he dreamed of a series of chord changes, and, next morning, made his way to the piano in the living room and spent the entire day trying to replicate the sounds of his dreams. He succeeded around suppertime and this turned out to be his epiphany.

Over the years his dad, whose actual profession was sign painting, did many jobs painting logos on moving company trucks. Whenever one of the trucks would roll in with an abandoned piano, he’d offer the paint job for free if they would give it to him. As a result, there were three pianos in the house, and one in the garage.

Marty was always woodshedding day and night, playing strictly by ear, and he learned a sizable repertoire of standard tunes of the day. He formed a quartet consisting of brother Andy on drums, cousin Andy on saxophone, and friend Frank Marcy on guitar. Marty said their first job paid five dollars, a dollar and a quarter apiece.

Around this time, Marty got a call from an up-and-coming tenor player in the area who called himself Tiny Davis. Tiny had a gig in the Catskills for the summer that paid five dollars a week and room and board, which Marty was thrilled to accept. Part of the job consisted of playing shows, and Marty was able to fake his way through until Tiny told him the next act was going to be an opera singer. Marty’s anxiety got the best of him – he actually became too physically ill to play the show, and the opera singer had to perform without a pianist. Tiny’s real name was Dave Pell, who later was to become a famous West Coast jazz player and studio musician.

After the summer gig was over, Marty had more time to hang out with his family. Once, he was with his sister Margie and her friend Mary, looking at photographs. Not realizing it was a fateful day, Marty asked Mary, “Who’s that girl in the background – she’s gorgeous!” Shortly after, Marty came face to face with Marie, nicknamed Bebe, who was “the most beautiful girl I’d ever seen in my life.” They were both eighteen, and it was love at first sight. Now they’ve been married 61 years and have two grown children. Bebe’s quite fragile now, suffering with Parkinson’s, but she is still “sweetheart” and “darling” to Marty, and he helps her around gently and carefully.

A short while after Marty met Bebe, drummer Shelly Manne called and asked Marty if he’d care to join the Bob Astor organization, a semi-name band of the day. Marty accepted with some trepidation, because he still couldn’t read music. It was the first time he’d worked a big band with charts, and the way he handled it was by letting the band start, then, using his great ears, join in, usually playing all the right chords. After a few times down, he’d know the arrangement and play it down perfectly, as though he were reading the parts. He kept them all fooled, but his next job finally caught up with him.

Marty joined the Chico Marx orchestra without realizing they were touring theatres playing for acts. On about the second week out, Chico told the band that the next day they’d be playing for harmonica player Larry Adler, and part of his library contained Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, piano solo and all. To quote Marty, “I spent an awful lot of time with that band in the bathroom,” but he’d had his moment of truth. He asked one of his friends in the band to help him learn to read, and slowly but surely began a period of study that eventually took him to the professional level he’d always hoped to achieve.

Marty’s working bio reads like a who’s who of all the famous post-World War II musical celebrities, including Joe Venuti, Charlie Barnett, Gene Krupa and Benny Goodman. The list goes on and on, but the most famous leader that he worked for on and off during the 50’s and 60’s was Louis Armstrong.

In 1950 Marty joined his uncle, trumpeter Phil Napoleon, in the Memphis Five, and learned the Dixieland repertoire. The following year he became part of the Big Four, fronted by Charlie Ventura, which included Chubby Jackson on bass and Buddy Rich on drums. Marty was doing a lot of singing as well as playing, and he became the main attention-getter at the group’s stomping ground, a club that became the place to be for all of Chicago’s music followers as well as visiting celebrities. Marty’s popularity was too much for Buddy Rich’s ego to swallow, and Rich proceeded to undermine the group, especially when Marty was singing, until the tension became unbearable and they were forced to disband.

Almost immediately, the phone rang, and this time it was Joe Glaser, Louis Armstrong’s manager, asking Marty if he could play Dixieland. Marty mentally thanked Uncle Phil, and although tired of the road, was offered a deal he couldn’t refuse.

Being on tour with Armstrong was a mixed bag. Everything was absolutely first class, including being able to bring Bebe and the kids along whenever possible. The problem was that Louis had no say as to who the musicians were going to be, as they were all hired by Glaser, who had no real knowledge of who could play and who couldn’t. As a result, some of the groups were horrendous. On one occasion, Glaser sent in a drummer who would take the four-bar breaks at the end of certain tunes completely out of time, but Louis would always come in right on the nose. Marty marveled at this, until one night Peanuts Hucko explained to Marty that Louis had the incredible ability to shut everything out, and just play for himself.

When you’re on the road with a small group, they become more your family than your own family, and everyone’s idiosyncrasies are always on display. Barney Bigard was kind enough to take Marty aside and give him some advice that stood him in good stead. It seems that one of Louis’s traits was extreme stubbornness. Barney had actually seen Louis come to blows with someone who refused to accept one of his pronouncements as being pure gospel. As a result of this, Marty, who sat behind Louis on the bus, found himself agreeing with everything Louis said. If Louis said, “The moon is green,” Marty would answer, “Yeah, Pops, it sure is.” Of course, this didn’t lead to much of a two-way discourse between them. Another of Louis’ habits was to play his own recordings full-volume all day and night in whatever hotel they happened to be in with his doors and windows wide open. Marty said after a couple of these sessions he and the other musicians would wait until Louis had checked in, and then they would ask the desk clerk if they could have rooms on a different floor. Marty truly loved “Pops” but, as with any long relationships, there were abrasive areas.

Marty, now 81, still takes occasional gigs, but only if they’re in town, and only if he’s certain someone will be there to take care of Bebe. From the beginning of his career he kept a journal, making notes of the “where, how, and why” of the day’s activities. All these notes have been turned into volume after volume of Marty’s life in the business, along with cartons of pictures, memorabilia, and notes not yet transcribed. One of Marty’s biggest disappointments is that he hasn’t been able to produce a book of his life’s adventures. All of this material is stacked up in Marty’s studio, and although he’s asked a few friends who are writers to help him get it all together, once they view the immensity of the project, they politely renege. Any takers?