Marty Napoleon is probably best known as the pianist in Louis Armstrong's All Stars, starting in 1952. That in and of itself would make Marty a superstar, considering who was in that band. But perhaps even more surprising is that Marty did not read music in the early part of his professional career. All of his jazz-playing skills came from his ear and a family thick with musicians, including pianist Teddy Napoleon and uncle Phil Napoleon. What also may be news to you is that Marty started as a vocalist—and something of a matinee idol.
In Part 1 of my three-part interview with Marty, the 89-year-old high-energy singer and pianist talks about growing up in Brooklyn, playing his first gig with Shelly Manne in 1941 (when the drummer was still a New Yorker), and working with Bob Astor:
JazzWax: You grew up in Brooklyn, didn’t you?
Marty Napoleon: I did. I miss the Brooklyn of my youth and my family. I cry every day. My family was so great. I grew up in the Depression, but all I have are pleasant memories. We lived in the Bensonhurst section, at 149 Bay 47th St.
JW: You had many musicians in your family, yes?
MN: Yes, and everyone played jazz. My father played the banjo and my mother played guitar. My grandfather, my great-grandfather and even my great-great grandfather all played guitar. My uncle Phil played trumpet. He led a big New York jazz band in the ‘20s called the Original Memphis Five [pictured]. My cousins and uncles could play, too. The only problem is I never had uncles who owned a clothing or furniture store, so I never could get anything like that at a discount [laughs]. All we did is play music and have fun. And eat.
JW: Did your parents emigrate from Italy?
MN: Yes, my parents were from Sicily—my mother from Palermo and my father from Agrigento. My father was a Good Time Charlie. If more than three people came into the house, he told my mother to put food on.
JW: Your house must have been a popular place.
MN: If a light was on, people would drop by. The neighborhood loved my family. Our home was like living in the country. In the summer, people who came over would sit under the thick grapevine that grew on a trellis over the garage and provided shade. We had a yard out back, too. There were three empty lots adjacent to our house back there but they were never developed. The man who owned them wanted $2,000 a lot, and nobody had that kind of money. So my mom used them for a garden. She grew everything—vegetables, tomatoes, corn. [Pictured: Brooklyn in the '30s]
JW: How many brothers and sisters?
MN: Three boys and two girls in our family. There was Teddy, Andy, Margaret, me and Josephine. Teddy played piano, Andy played the drums, Margaret sang, I played paino and my sister Joselphine sang. My brother, Teddy, of course, went on to play with Gene Krupa for about 14 years.
JW: Did your father feed everyone by playing the banjo?
MN: His sign-painting helped my family make ends meet. Sometimes he’d ask for a piano instead of pay. We had a few pianos at home by the time I was interested in music. In addition to being a musician, my father was a sign painter. One summer, he painted a large country scene and we all took pictures in front of it. That’s as close as we got to going away [laughs].
JW: How did you learn to play piano?
MN: There was so much music in the house. I first was going to play the trumpet, but the doctor advised against it. I had a heart murmur, so piano was it. My older brother Teddy studied piano with a teacher. When I was 8 years old I started asking him questions. He was a big shot already, playing in a band with trumpeter Lee Castle. We knew I was going to be a musician. That was all we did at home and the only profession we knew. I had one year of piano lessons. [Pictured: Teddy Napoleon]
JW: When did you start playing professionally?
MN: I started playing when I was 17. I had a quartet, and we played nights at social clubs. The band was called The FAM Cats. "FAM" was an acronym that stood for the letters in the first names of the guys in the band.
JW: What was your first jazz date?
MN: You’ll never believe this. My first call was from a guy named Shelly Manne [laughs]. Can you imagine? This was 1941. I don’t know why he called me. I didn’t know him. Someone must have given him my name. Billy Shaw, the talent agent, hired Bob Astor and told him if he got a band together, he’d book him into the Wigwam Ballroom in Budd Lake, N.J. So Shelly [pictured] called me. I gave up my quartet that day.
JW: How was it playing in New Jersey?
MN: I loved it. You know who we had on first trumpet and alto sax? Les and Larry Elgart. They were a pair of nudniks.
JW: Where was your first singing job?
MN: It was as a boy singer with Henry Jerome's band at Childs Paramount, a huge restaurant under the Paramount Theater in New York. I played piano as well but couldn’t read music.
JW: You also played in Chico Marx’s band around this time.
MN: Yes, I was with Chico for a year and a half. I was worried all the time that they were going to figure out I couldn’t read. Every week, all we did was play theaters, one after the next. The first time I played with the band I put the music up on the piano and pretended I was reading. On top of my lead sheet in red ink was the list of the songs they would be playing in show, so I could follow along. I would try to find out what they were playing by following along as best I could. By the time I got through with that band after a year and a half, I was reading music.
JW: In 1945, you were with Charlie Barnet. Nice guy?
MN: I loved it. I remember reading an issue of Down Beat magazine that said Barnet was in California. A week later, Jimmy Lamar, a sax player called and asked if I wanted to play with Charlie Barnet’s band. He said we’re going into the Strand Theater for 10 weeks. [Photo of Charlie Barnet in 1946 by William P. Gottlieb]
JW: Was there an audition?
MN: No. I got the job right away. On stage, they built an elevated platform, to showcase different members of the band. This was Charlie’s [pictured] thing, and it was very dramatic. The stage would be dark, and they’d have the spot on me at the piano. I’d play like Duke Ellington—very lush. Then the spot would click off me and another would go on the saxes who had climbed up on that stage. Then it would go dark again and back to me. Then back on the platform, but instead of the saxes, the trumpets would be there. It was very exciting from the audience’s view.
JW: Did Charlie use the platform?
MN: Oh sure, all the time. Except once. One day, we were at the Strand and Charlie didn't show up. We learned later he had gotten arrested after promising a hooker named Broadway Rose that he was going to marry her. Now, when we would open a show at the Strand, we’d be set back on this mechanized movable platform in the dark. The spot would hit Charlie playing Cherokee on that little platform. Then he’d step off and come to the front of the stage while playing. Our platform would slide forward to join him. Well, someone had to be Charlie that night, since he wasn’t there.
JW: Who played the part?
MN: Our lead alto was a little guy named Rae De Geer. When he played, he’d hunch over. So when we opened that night playing Cherokee, the spot hit the platform. Everyone in the audience was expecting Charlie. Instead, there’s Rae, hunched over. The problem is the light guy had the spot set for Charlie. So the light was hitting the top of Rae’s back. When he walked down to the front of the stage, everyone in the band was laughing so hard. He didn’t have any socks on and his suit was disheveled. The audience roared.
JazzWax note: This afternoon, Marty will be appearing with David Ostwald’s Louis Armstrong Centennial Band at Birdland in New York at 5:30. For more information, go here.
JazzWax tracks: To hear Marty Napoleon with Charlie Barnet in 1945, download tracks 12 through 20 from The Jubilee Shows No. 207 & 214. You'll find it here.
JazzWax clip: Here's Marty Napoleon playing St. Louis Blues in 1982...