Today is the centennial of the swinging pianist, Marty Napoleon, who spent so many memorable years touring the road with Louis Armstrong. To commemorate this special day, we thought we’d share some treasures from our Archives related to the life of this wonderful musician.
Napoleon was born Matthew Napoli in Brooklyn, a child of Sicilian immigrants. He wasn’t the first in his family to change his name to “Napoleon”; his uncle was trumpeter Phil Napoleon, who made scores of recordings with the Original Memphis Five in the 1920s. Here’s a photo from Louis’s collection featuring Louis and Lucille in 1952 getting a visit from (left to right) Phil Napoleon, Marty Napoleon, Gordon Jenkins and clarinetist Bob McCracken:
For the rest of the story of Napoleon’s early years, here’s Marty himself in a 1952 interview from Portland, Oregon found on one of Louis’s personal reel-to-reel tapes:
After Earl “Fatha” Hines left Armstrong’s All Stars in late 1951, Chicago stalwart Joe Sullivan was hired as his replacement. Unfortunately, Sullivan was an alcoholic and after falling off the piano bench one night, was immediately fired. At the time, Joe Glaser was booking a popular quartet, The Big Four, made up of Charlie Ventura, Chubby Jackson, Buddy Rich and Marty Napoleon. Napoleon got the call and immediately joined the band just in time for the trumpeter’s first triumphant tour of Hawaii.
It was on that tour that Louis reunited with his old friend trombonist Trummy Young, who would join the All Stars later that year. Here’s a photo from one of Louis’s scrapbooks with Louis, Trummy and Marty enjoying the beautiful Hawaiian scenery together:
Napoleon stayed with the band for a full year, which included an engagement at the Zanza Bar in Colorado in April 1952. Here’s a photo of Marty in action from that performance:
Marty’s first stint with Armstrong also include long tour of Europe in the fall of 1952, the All Stars creating a sensation wherever they went. Here’s a photo of the band greeting a crowd after getting off an airplane on that trip:
Sometime in early 1953, Napoleon decided to show one of his original compositions to Armstrong: “Mm-Mm.” Louis had his tape recorder with him and asked Marty to teach it to him. What followed was a beautiful sequence, which we’re excited to share here. First, you’ll hear Marty play and sing the song while Louis listens. The next time through, Marty continues, but now Louis uses his ears and starts humming and scatting the harmonies he hears. The third time through, Armstrong tries the lyrics, giving them a rough, yet warm reading. By the end, he’s got it down and has everybody sing along! It’s great insight into Louis’s methods of learning a new song and also into the warmth he had with Marty (as usual, the audio has subtle watermarked beeps to prevent any sharing or commercialization without further permission):
Two years later, Armstrong attempted to give his friend a gift by recording “Mm-Mm” as a duet with Velma Middleton for Decca. Marty was no longer in the band and unfortunately, Decca didn’t issue it at the time, but it eventually saw the light of the day in the 1990s and is available to listen to online here–any musicians out there want to revive it?
After his one-year contract was up, Napoleon chose to leave the band in March 1953 because he missed his wife and young children while on the road. He was replaced by Joe Bushkin, one of Armstrong’s closest friends, but perhaps not his ideal as a pianist (Armstrong complained to a friend that Bushkin played too many notes behind him). Sensing his star client’s displeasure, Joe Glaser persuaded Napoleon to rejoin the band in the summer of 1953, just in time to film the famous “Basin Street Blues” scene in The Glenn Miller Story. Here’s a publicity photo from the film featuring Marty in the top right corner, the All Stars, drummer Gene Krupa, and the film’s star, James Stewart (next to his trombone coach Joe Yukl):
The All Stars spent much of the summer of 1953 at the Blue Note in Chicago. Many performances from the Blue Note were broadcast on NBC’s “All Star Parade of Bands” radio series. A set of acetate discs of one broadcast was sent to Louis and it is from that disc that we’d like to share one of Napoleon’s dynamic features, “Limehouse Blues,” with Arvell Shaw on bass and Cozy Cole on drums backing him up:
As can be heard, Napoleon’s features always built up to ludicrously exciting climaxes and never failed to get the audiences screaming. They also gave Armstrong a rest as he was usually content to sit back and let Marty take over for a few minutes, as seen in this photo:
By early 1954, Napoleon once again missed his family so he chose to leave the band again, his place taken by Billy Kyle who remained until his death on the road in 1966. However, in December 1959, Kyle became very sick and needed to take some time off. Napoleon was brought back just in time for a Carnegie Hall show on December 26, 1959, his first engagement with the All Stars in nearly six years. Fortunately, there was a piano backstage and bassist Mort Herbert and clarinetist Peanuts Hucko were there to help him rehearse and get up to speed, as captured in this backstage photo by Jack Bradley:
Napoleon was still in the band when the All Stars visited Cuba in early 1960, captured in this photo with Louis and Lucille trying on some local hats:
After Kyle’s untimely passing in 1966, Napoleon was immediately summoned back to his old post. Once again, he felt guilty about leaving his family but this time his kids were grown and insisted he not miss the opportunity. Though Louis’s health was up and down and he spent two years convalescing after his stints in intensive care for heart and kidney trouble, Napoleon remained Louis’s regular pianist from February 1966 through Armstrong’s final public engagement at the Waldorf in 1971.
These years were the height of Jack Bradley’s friendship with Louis so here are some of Jack’s photos of Marty from this era:
Once again, let’s check in with Marty from this late 1960s period with the All Stars, still swinging mightily, this time on a 1968 version of “The Girl From Ipanema” found on one of Louis’s tapes. Marty is backed up here by Buddy Catlett on bass and Danny Barcelona on drums–ferocious swing!
Marty remained a busy pianist on the New York City scene for the next several decades after Armstrong’s passing. When the Louis Armstrong Archives opened in 1994, Marty was there on opening day and rarely missed an exhibit opening evening in the years that followed. Here’s a photo from a 1996 gathering with (from left to right) David Ostwald, Phil Schaap, Jack Bradley, Marty Napoleon, George Avakian and Walter Schaap:
One such exhibit opening at the Archives was covered by Queens Public Television, offering this priceless footage of Marty reminiscing about his time with Armstrong:
By the way, the country tune Marty references in the above video is “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” recorded by Louis with that swinging Sy Oliver arrangement in Detroit in February 1953:
We sadly don’t have any video of the following moment but in 2001, the Armstrong Archives hosted an exhibit opening that was attended by Marty, Arvell Shaw and Clark Terry. Word traveled fast and Archives employee Baltsar Beckeld soon got an upright bass and keyboard over from the the Aaron Copland School of Music on campus and the jam session was on!
Marty also attended numerous events that took place to raise awareness and funds for the eventual establishment of the Louis Armstrong House Museum. Here it is in the Armstrong’s Garden at a “Pennies From Heaven” fundraising event in 2001:
When the Louis Armstrong House Museum opened in 2003, Marty was on the gig, sharing with the stage with Clark Terry and Nicholas Payton, as seen in this photo:
And here is a reflective photo of Marty alone at the piano on that memorable day:
By that point, Marty was 82, but showed no signs of slowing down until his wife’s health began to fail. He was deeply devoted to her but still managed to continue performing around Long Island and Manhattan. Here he is at The Regency, the assisted living facility Marty was living at in Glen Cove, still swinging at the age of 91 on one of his features from the All Stars days, “Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone,” backed by Bill Crow on bass and Ray Mosca on drums and filmed in action by Michael Steinman:
Sadly, Marty Napoleon passed away on April 27, 2015, just a few weeks short of his 94th birthday. Unlike the title of that last song, Marty might be gone, but we’ll continue talking about him and celebrating his life and music for years to come. On behalf of all of us at the Louis Armstrong House Museum, Happy 100th Birthday, Marty Napoleon and thanks for the memories!