After playing with a series of big bands in the mid-'40s, pianist Marty Napoleon recorded in small bop groups in the late '40s. His optimistic, high-energy personality and keen ear endeared him to many of the top players on the scene. He got along with everyone, even Buddy Rich, though that was a close call. [Photo of Marty Napoleon courtesy of Betty and Chris]
Oh, by the way, today's Marty's 90th birthday. Happy birthday, Marty!!
In Part 2 of my three-part interview with Marty, the pianist talks about Charlie Ventura, Chubby Jackson, Carmen Leggio and, yes, Buddy Rich:
JazzWax: You recorded with Allen Eager in 1947?
Marty Napoleon: Yes. I got a call from Teddy Reig [pictured], the producer at Savoy. He asked me to play the session with Shelly Manne, Kai Winding, Allen and Eddie Safranski. Allen could play beautifully but he was a strange guy.
JW: How so?
MN: In the studio, he refused to play anything everyone suggested. He kept saying the stuff was too square. So we recorded four tracks that were based on the chord changes to other things. Like O-go-Mo was based on Idaho. Kai Winding was a doll. A great trombone player. People were always goofing around with his name, which was pronounced Kay. They’d say things like, “Here’s the gorgeous Kai Winding.” He was known as “Miss Kay Winding” in Bob Astor’s band. Kai took it all in stride.
JW: You played in Charlie Ventura's orchestra in the late ‘40s?
MN: Yes, I loved Charlie [pictured]. I was with his big band at New York’s Arcadia Ballroom. I was one of the singers with Lucy Reed. We used to do vocal duets. Al Cohn wrote an arrangement for me for a Sicilian song called Dicitencello Vuie. In English it means You Tell Them. I still can’t believe it. Al Cohn wrote an arrangement for me [laughs].
JW: How did you come to be in Ventura’s Big Four in 1951?
MN: That was me, Ventura, Buddy Rich and Chubby Jackson [pictured]. Chubby called me one night from a hotel. I was playing with my trio at a club called the Lampliter in Valley Stream, N.Y., just outside of New York City. At first I thought Chubby was kidding. He said, “Marty, I’m not kidding. I’m in a hotel with Ventura and Buddy Rich. You’re the guy we want on piano.”
JW: What did you think?
MN: I still didn’t believe him. Finally Chubby put Ventura on the phone, so I knew it was real.
JW: Where did you play?
MN: Joe Glaser [pictured] booked us into Martin’s Preview Lounge in Chicago for two weeks, and we wound up being there for four months. Buddy DeFranco was with a quartet across the street with a singer doing You’ve Changed. But they weren’t getting any business. So they came to see us. On the corner was the Capitol Theater. Next to it was the Capitol Lounge. Dizzy Gillespie was there with a small group. They used to come to see us and sit in. There was no business in their club either [laughs].
JW: How did you get along with Buddy Rich?
MN: Buddy was a piece of work. I sang with the group. But Buddy didn’t like that. He was a singer and wanted to be Frank Sinatra. On one of our Big Four sessions, Mel Torme came running over to Liederkranz Hall where we were recording in New York. He wanted to hear us in the studio. But Buddy said to him, “Mel, would you like to do this tune?,” holding out his sticks to him. Mel jumped at the chance and took Buddy's seat behind the drums while the four of us sang Love Is Just Around the Corner. But Buddy hogged the mike, and when the record came out, the papers said, "With vocal by Buddy Rich." He had achieved his goal.
JW: Was Rich hard on you?
MN: He tortured me. Every time I sang a ballad, the girls in the audience would swoon. They’d put the spot on me when I did a ballad and subdued the light on the other guys. When the girls said, “Ohhh, Marty,” Buddy would imitate them in a mocking way. He couldn’t stand anyone else getting attention.
JW: What kind of beat did he play behind you on those ballads?
MN: That's the other thing. While I’d sing, he’d race the beat and then slow it down. I could see him smiling at me out of the corner of my eye. He'd also use a sock cymbal to try to mess me up. One night he irked Ventura for some reason. Charlie got so mad that he threw his sax down and walked off the stage rather than go after him.
JW: What happened after Ventura left the stage?
MN: Buddy said, “Let’s play Crazy Rhythm.” But he played so loud and hard. Chubby and I just made believe we were playing but we weren’t. Chubby was twirling the bass and everything, and I was making believe I was touching the keys, but I wasn't. People didn't know the difference because Buddy was playing so loud. At the end, the audience gave us a big ovation, even thought Chubby and I actually were laying out. Everybody thought Buddy was a drag.
JW: Even fans?
MN: Some of them. One night in a club, we were finishing Evolution of Jazz. It was a number we did in which we did musical impersonations of different jazz greats. After we were done, we left the bandstand on a break. I was standing against the wall next to Buddy. A girl came over with matchbook cover for an autograph.
JW: What did he do?
MN: He signed it for her. When she looked at his signature, she said she couldn’t believe that she had Buddy Rich’s signature. Buddy smiled and reached into his pocket for a pack of gum. He pulled out a stick and put it in his mouth. The girl looked at it and asked if she could have a stick, too.
JW: What did Rich say?
MN: Just like that, Buddy turned on her. He told her to get her own pack of gum. She said, “I can’t believe how rude you are.” He said, “Get out of here. I’ve been analyzed enough for one night.”
JW: What did the girl do?
MN: She tore up the matchbook with his signature right in front of his face and said, “You’re the lowest of the low.” Buddy blew hot and cold, just like that.
JW: What was Chubby Jackson like?
MN: Chubby was great. He’d get a job in a club and after a couple of nights he’d get fired. It happened all the time.
MN: He’d always start telling the clubs' managers what to do. “You should have the bandstand over there, you should do this, you should do that.” The manager would finally get ticked and say, “Man, you’re telling me how to run my club?” But Chubby was full of fun and enormously inventive as a player. He was on the ball all the time.
JW: Did you enjoy playing with him?
MN: All the time. One time I had a record date and had lined up a bass player for the job. But when Chubby called me in New York, I gave the date to him. This was in 1958. We had Carmen Leggio on tenor, Joe Puma on guitar, me, Chubby and Mickey Sheen on drums. The tunes were all standards, but head arrangements. Even still, we all ended at the exact same place on these songs. That's how tight we were.
JW: How did Leggio wind up in the group?
MN: I was booked to play at the Metropole in New York and needed a horn. I asked my drummer Gary Chester if he knew anyone. He said, “I know a guy. He hasn’t worked in a while. He’s parking cars.” I asked, “Is he good?” He said, “Marty, he’s great.” Carmen came in and got up on stage. My Fair Lady had just came out on Broadway, so I asked him, “Do you know, On the Street Where You Live?”
JW: What did Leggio say?
MN: He said, “No, but play it and I’ll follow you.” So I opened up the tune, and he played the frigging thing with me note for note. I’m fooling around with the melody and everything, and he’s phrasing it just like I’m phrasing it. I kept telling him to take another chorus. He must have taken 40 of them, improvising on every chord change. Carmen was amazing.
JazzWax tracks: The four tracks recorded by Charlie Ventura's Big Four are available only on this import, Charlie Ventura: Quartet & Quintet, here. You can sample the tracks, Nos. 12 through 15.
JazzWax clip: Here's Marty Napoleon behind Frank Wess on Forget the Woman in 1992...