I drove out to Glen Cove, Long Island, to say goodbye to my old friend Marty Napoleon, who passed away on April 27 (see obituary). His body was there in the casket, but his spirit was on the other side of the room, in a photo display his children had prepared. We saw him as a young man, devilishly handsome and always smiling, playing the piano with bands from Chico Marx to Louis Armstrong.
Marty’s brothers both played music: Andy on drums and Teddy on piano. His parents and sisters were also musical as well as many uncles – including Phil, who was a famous jazz trumpet player from an earlier era.
Marty kept a diary of all his gigs and travels, and for years was planning to write a book. He wanted to include some of the wonderful stories that his uncle Phil always told when he visited the family, and he made a trip to Florida with a tape recorder to visit Phil and get him to repeat them for the record, but for some reason, Phil wouldn’t talk into Marty’s microphone. The book never got finished, a great loss.
I first met Marty in the early 1950s while he was working with Charlie Ventura’s Big Four, with Chubby Jackson on bass and Buddy Rich on drums. It was a hot group, and Marty sounded great. Soon after that we got to play together on a lot of jazz club dates, and in 1965 I was in his World’s Fair quartet, with Ray Mosca and Joe Puma, at the Top of the Fair in Flushing. I didn’t see him much during his days with Armstrong, but then we started doing gigs together with Jimmy McPartland and some other traditionalists.
After Marty moved to an assisted living facility in Glen Cove, Ray Mosca and I often played concerts there with him, and we also were part of his trio at jazz festivals in downtown Glen Cove. Marty still sounded great, and played with his usual infectious enthusiasm.
On a couple of his last gigs, Marty added trumpeter Bria Skonberg to our group. On one tune, after Bria played the melody and took a couple of choruses, Marty began his solo. On his second chorus, we realized that he was improvising on the chord structure of an entirely different tune. I went along with him, and as we came near the end of Marty’s choruses, Bria whispered to me, “I don’t know what to do!” I whispered back, “Let him finish this tune, and then just go back to the one we were playing. He won’t mind.” Bria turned the next chorus into a restatement of the original tune, and Marty went right into it with her, giving her a big smile. I don’t know if he realized what had happened, but the music came out just fine.
I’m going to miss the frequent phone calls and the infrequent gigs with Marty. Whatever the circumstances, we always wound up laughing.
Randy Sandke told me this one, regarding the assisted living facility where Marty Napoleon spent his final days. He said that one day Nat Hentoff visited Marty there, to write an article about him. Hentoff asked, “Do these people here know who you are?” Marty shot back, “They don’t even know who they are!”
Sandke also told me about a musician friend of his who went on a three-month tour of China. Randy wondered if he’d learned any of the language so he asked him, “Did you pick up any Chinese?” “No,” his friend replied, “but there was a girl from Thailand…”
Lee Evans has been a full-time professor at Pace University for the last 26 years. He teaches a music appreciation class, and recently was handed a paper by one of his students, who was reporting on a live concert she had attended. The report included this sentence: “Scriabin was a well-known composer mostly known for his piano works and other organs.”
On a recent panel, Jonathan Tunick held forth on a pet peeve: how orchestra pits on Broadway musicals are sometimes covered or enclosed. Jon explained how the natural sound was suppressed, and how the musicians were removed from contact with the cast and audience. A questioner from the audience protested, “But Wagner covered the orchestra pit at Bayreuth.” Jon replied, “Wagner was wrong…about two things.”
I recently made a donation to the Local 802 Musicians’ Emergency Relief Fund, one of the fine services that our union provides to its members and their families. I thought it would be a good idea to remind my readers that this program needs everyone’s support. Voluntary contributions make it possible for the ERF’s Musicians Assistance Program to reach out to musicians in many ways, offering consultation, guidance, referrals, crisis intervention and emergency relief. They don’t have much of a budget for fundraising, but they really do need your support. (I’ve also added them to my will.) Checks should be made out to Local 802 Musicians’ ERF and sent to Local 802, 322 West 48th Street, NYC 10036. For more info on contributing, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call (212) 245-4802. You can also donate online by visiting www.local802erf.org.