It's hard enough to play jazz professionally. Now imagine you're playing with Louis Armstrong and musicians like trombonist Trummy Young, clarinetist Barney Bigard, bassist Milt Hinton, drummer Cozy Cole and vocalist Velma Middleton. That's jazz of the highest order. Plus artists who know a thing or two about entertainment. Pianist Marty Napoleon did just that, both in the U.S. and on foreign tours with Louis Armstrong's All Stars in the early '50s and late '60s. [Pictured: Marty Napoleon and Louis Armstrong]
In Part 3 of my three-part interview with Marty, he talks about Armstrong's distaste for deviation and bebop, as well as Armstrong's ego:
JazzWax: Did you replace Earl Hines in Louis Armstrong’s All Stars in 1952?
Marty Napoleon: Actually, I didn’t. Another guy, Joe Sullivan, followed Hines. But he drank a lot, and one day he fell off the piano stool. Louis told Joe Glaser, his manager, to get rid of him. Glaser called me and asked if I wanted to go with Louis. I knew Glaser from when he booked The Big Four.
JW: What did you say?
MN: I said no.
JW: Are you kidding? What did Glaser say?
MN: He said, “Marty, did you hear me?” I told him I did but that I had promised my wife Bebe that I wouldn’t go back out on the road. But Joe made me a financial offer I couldn’t refuse. The money was too good. So I went with Louis. I didn’t see my kids for seven months.
JW: What did your wife do?
MN: I used to have Bebe come out and join me, but she couldn’t bring the kids. I left the band three times. Each time, Joe would call and offer me more money [laughs].
JW: What did you tell your wife each time?
MN: “Honey, guess what…” She’d get ruffled momentarily but she understood. Louis loved being on the road. He had no kids, and his wife Lucille didn’t mind.
JW: Louis liked to listen to his own music on his phonograph and tape recorder, didn’t he?
MN: Every day he’d play the same records of himself in the ‘20s. Over and over and over again. In the summer, when we’d get to a hotel, if we were on his floor, we knew he was going to leave his door open and play those records. It got to the point that the guys in the band would ask in the lobby when checking in, “What floor is Mr. Armstrong on?” Then we’d ask for a different floor.
JW: Did Armstrong truly dislike bebop?
MN: He hated it. Louis wanted me to play the same solo on stage every night. He got annoyed at me a couple of times when I deviated. We were playing I Surrender Dear one night and added a bebop phrase. He’d say, “Stop playing that bebop shit, you’re playing the song wrong.”
JW: A bebop phrase?
MN: During my first two weeks with the band, we wound up in Honolulu. We were playing Big Butter and Egg Man. There was no announcer. Louis was announcing the songs. At the end of the song, I hit a C-9 chord. As I’m holding it, Louis came over and banged my hand, to tell me to stop playing anything that sounded like bop. He really hated bebop with a passion.
MN: He never explained. I think he wanted everyone to play like he did, and he resented that bebop trumpeters were getting so much attention. I think he thought bebop was sloppy and for corner-cutters. Every time he did an interview and was asked about Dizzy and Clark Terry, Louis would say, “Man, they all doing me.” Louis had quite an ego.
JW: Where did you join the All Stars?
MN: In Reno, in 1952, I was downstairs meeting the guys. Louis was being dressed by his valet. Before the show, Louis ran down the program for me. He told me at which point I would do a feature piano solo. I told him I didn’t have a feature worked out yet but mentioned that I could sing. Louis said I could do anything I wanted for my slot.''
JW: What did you sing?
MN: Darktown Strutters' Ball, which I had done with the Big Four. When I finished, the house came down.
JW: What happened?
MN: Louis told Joe Glaser, “Get rid of that SOB. He gets too much applause.” After that I didn’t sing with the band. Louis didn’t want me to sing. He also didn’t want me to deviate on the piano.
JW: Armstrong had some set of ears, yes?
MN: He could hear everything I was doing on my piano solo slot. When he heard me doing things differently that one night, he sat me down after to play tapes of the earlier band. He said, “This is what Earl Hines used to do.” I took the hint. That was the last time I deviated. [Pictured, from left: Louis Armstrong, Earl Hines and Billy Eckstine]
JW: Did audiences enjoy your piano solo segments?
MN: Loved them. When a band does a show, you save the best for the last. I was getting so much applause, Louis wouldn’t let me do an encore even though he let everyone else have one. Not only that, instead of occupying Earl Hines’ slot in the show for a solo spot, he started moving me down in the program.
JW: And yet you remained with Armstrong for some time.
MN: The first time I left the band, I left on April 17 and arrived home the next day. On April 19, I got a call from Joe Glaser asking me to come back, saying that the band wasn’t working out with Joe Bushkin at the piano. Apparently Bushkin didn’t get along with Louis. [Pictured: Joe Glaser, Louis Armstrong and Cork O’Keefe sign the contract for the Fleischmann’s Yeast Show in 1937]
JW: Why not?
MN: Bushkin used to put his leg out and play a million notes behind Louis. He also once waved to someone in the audience while Louis was playing a ballad. Louis didn't like that and let him go. Louis told me the first day I joined the band, “When it’s your spot, you do what you do. When I solo, I don’t want to hear any rambling back there." The third time Joe Glaser called, I insisted. I said, “Look, Joe, I really don’t want to go out on the road. My wife doesn't want me to be away from the family for such long stretches." To Glaser’s credit, he came up with a clever idea.
JW: What did he do?
MN: He said, “I'm sure your wife misses you. Here's what I’ll do. I’m going to send her a check every week.” And that's what he did starting in 1966, and I went back with Louis. We spent the entire summer playing locally at Jones Beach. I stayed with Louis until 1971, when he played the Waldorf Hotel. It was his last gig.
JW: What did your wife say about Glaser's idea to pay her the check?
MN: She said, “You mean I’m one of the All Stars now?” [laughs]
JazzWax tracks: Marty Napoleon recorded Jazz From Then Til Now in 1958 with Charlie Shavers, Sol Yaged, Paul Hubbell, Pee Wee Russell, Harry Sheppard, Dick Rath, Chubby Jackson and Mickey Sheen. You'll find it here.
JazzWax clip: Here's Marty Napoleon playing Girl From Ipanema in 1968 while with Louis Armstrong...