In Loving Memory of Marty Napoleon

Another great has left us. Pianist Marty Napoleon passed away on Monday night at the age of 93. If you knew Marty, you probably thought he'd live forever, as he remained sharp (what a memory!) and playing right to the end.

I'm a day late as I had a marathon in Newark yesterday so there's already been a wave of beautiful tributes (don't miss this one by Michael Steinman). I did a big birthday tribute for Marty's 90th focusing on his years with Pops so I'd like to reprise some of that and talk about my own personal memories of the man.

Marty's entire history is pretty fascinating but being an Armstrong blog, I'll focus on his multiple stints with Pops. He joined in February 1952, replacing Joe Sullivan and stayed for about a year, a year that found the All Stars making one of their most successful European tours. As Marty tells it, he never really took piano features until Louis's group. Louis wanted Marty to listen to Earl Hines's "St. Louis Blues" feature but when Marty called it one night on the bandstand, he was nervous and stomped it off a little too fast. The results completely broke up the crowd and Marty had a feature that would perform almost nightly in his first go-around with the All Stars. Here's Marty absolutely tearing it up in Amsterdam on November 2, 1952:

Now you know why I've frequently referred to Marty as the most exciting pianist the All Stars ever had. No one else could quite pound the piano like that and send the audience into such a frenzy.

After leaving to go back home to his wife and family in 1953, Marty was replaced by Joe Bushkin for Louis's famous debacle of a tour with Benny Goodman. After the tour, it was time to film the "Glenn Miller Story" and when Bushkin and Teddy Wilson couldn't do it, Joe Glaser called Marty, who came back into the fold and stayed for about six more months. From this stint, I'm going to share Marty's other big feature of the period, "Limehouse Blues," from the Blue Note in Chicago in July 1953. (I should point out the great work by Arvell Shaw on bass and Cozy Cole on drums on both performances that I've shared so far.)

Marty left to go back home the fall of 1953, replaced by Billy Kyle, who held down the chair until his untimely death in February 1966. In between, Kyle grew ill in early 1960 and was replaced again by Marty for another tour (including a trip to Cuba) but alas, no recordings have surfaced from this stint. But as soon as Kyle landed in the hospital, Marty got the call and ended up staying with Louis until his final engagement at the Waldorf-Astoria in 1971 . Marty doesn't seem to have trotted out "Limehouse" or "St. Louis" during this final period, but he could still swing like hell on "Please Don't Talk About Me When I'm Gone" and even "The Girl from Ipanema." Here's Marty working out on "Please Don't Talk About Me" in Copenhagen, Denmark on July 25, 1967:

And "The Girl from Ipanema" just a couple days later in Juan-Les-Pins, France:

Marty's other big feature in these years was "Sunrise, Sunset" from "Fiddler on the Roof." This feature was actually filmed in London in 1968 and can be viewed here (uploaded by Joel Ratner, another Pops lover and volunteer at the Louis Armstrong House Museum who passed away suddenly earlier this year):

And as a composer, Louis recorded two of Marty's compositions. One, "Mm-Mm," is a cute Louis-and-Velma Middleton duet recorded for Decca in April 1955. But the other one is much more interesting and is a real favorite of mine (and Ed Berger's, one of the few people I know who loves the song as much as I do!). The song is titled "Louie's Dream" and features Pops as co-composer. According to Marty, Joe Glaser asked him to write an original tune (I'm assuming so he could put Louis's name on it) and Marty responded with a piece entirely written in Armstrong's vocabulary. The first time Marty played it for Louis, he told him, "That's you." The charming tune was recorded for Brunswick in March 1967 and never issued on anything except a 45. Marty's introduction is wonderful and Pops, though he doesn't solo, plays some excellent lead horn for so late in the game. Dig "Louie's Dream":

After Louis died in 1971, Marty remained busy, especially around the New York area and on the festival circuit. He could still whip a crowd into a frenzy, as demonstrated in this 1982 video of his famed "St. Louis Blues" feature, backed up by Jack Lesberg on bass and Gus Johnson on drums:

Wee! On a personal note, I went to a centennial tribute to Louis at Carnegie Hall in 2001. Jon Faddis played the Louis parts and was sensational. The second half featured guest appearances by greats such as Clark Terry and Arvell Shaw. But then Marty came on and seriously wiped everyone out...and he was almost 80 at the time! Completely stole the show.

Five years later, I seriously started working on my Louis Armstrong biography. For me, the most important part was the chance to have the surviving All Stars tell their stories of life on the road with Pops. At the time--2006--there were five surviving members: Marty, Joe Muranyi, Danny Barcelona, Buddy Catlett and Jewel Brown. Jewel's the only one left and fortunately she's not going anywhere, as this recent article makes clear. Reports came in that she broke it up at Jazz Fest last week, too!

I set up a phone interview with Marty but we didn't quite get off the ground. His phone had a bad connection and his beloved wife Bebe was in failing health so he seemed preoccupied. Still, he gave me many great stories, which I crammed into the book. But three years later, I got a second opportunity to interview him, this time in public at the Jazz Museum in Harlem. This was actually the first time I met him--and his loving grandson, Brent--and I was just knocked out from the start over how warm he was.

We had a 90-minute conversation, which mostly consisted of Marty telling one great story after another while I just went along for the ride. His memory was frighteningly good. He recalled dates, places, songs, anything, and was on the mark every time. I learned that he had been keeping notebooks for decades charting all of his performances, with hopes to turn it into a book some day. I hope someone can still do it. Just from an itinerary standpoint, it's an incredible thing to behold, but it seemed like his memory soaked up every page and never forgot a gig. The Jazz Museum posted 20 minutes of what was about a 90-minute interview on their website and I urge you to check it out because he has some great stories about Louis. Here's the link.

After that, I sent Marty a bunch of CDs and DVDs of him and Pops and we'd have the occasional phone call, but I didn't see him again until September 2011, when the Institute of Jazz Studies gave me an event to celebrate the release of my new book. When I first started writing it, I used to daydream about having an All Stars reunion some day. That day never came but it was the honor of my life when Rutgers hired Marty and Randy Sandke to perform.

Photo by Ed Berger.
 Marty was in great spirits, telling stories and playing a bunch of his original compositions, including my request, "Louie's Dream."

Photo by Ed Berger.
But the most touching moment came when I surprised Marty by playing something he actually didn't remember: an excerpt of one of Louis's reel-to-reel tapes where Marty teaches Louis how to play "Mm-Mm." It's a beautiful moment with Marty first playing the melody and then singing it charmingly. Eventually Pops picks up the horn and figures it out and sings it with Marty chiming in almost like a duet partner to guide him through it. Marty had tears in his eyes listening to it. He wasn't alone.
Photo by Ed Berger.
 That evening was at the beginning of what one might call a Marty Napoleon renaissance. After his wife's passing, Marty spent more time at the piano and over a long stretch from about 2011-2013, was seen performing around the NY area, at Birdland with David Ostwald, for the Sidney Bechet Society, at Feinstein's and in and around Long Island. Again, check Michael Steinman's aforementioned tribute to Marty for a series of videos Michael shot during this time.

The last time I saw Marty was at a private party his family hosted in September 2013. Every party needs a band so who could blame the Napoleon family for hiring Marty's quartet with Bill Crow, Ray Mosca and Bria Skonberg!? I was thankful to be invited for it was truly a special night. Marty just looked like he was having the time of his life playing in front of a packed room of friends and family. The attendees were hooting and cheering him on and Marty responded, looking like he did in that old footage of him with Pops, feet stamping, head banging, broadly smiling, just putting everything into the music.

As always when someone we admire leaves us, there's feelings of regret. Over the past year, I had been in touch with Marty's dear friend Geri Reichgut about getting Marty out to the Armstrong Archives. I guess I thought Marty would be around forever and let the craziness of my life prevent such a meeting from happening. I wish we could have had a thousand such hangs but I do cherish the times I spent with him. Every time I spent time with him, I left in a better mood than I started.

And his music still moves me to no end. Like I said, I still think he's the most exciting pianist the All Stars ever had and I can't listen to his features without stomping my own feet, nodding my own head and smiling like crazy, too. One of my recent British friends, Jonathan David Holmes, had a memorable meeting with Marty a few years ago. Jonathan recently helped me unearth some ultra-rare footage of Marty with the All Stars, including his swinging take on "The Girl from Ipanema." It warms my soul that Jonathan sent it to Geri and Geri showed it to Marty shortly before he passed. The All Stars are leaving us one by one but we'll always have the music and memories to remember them by for eternity.

Thanks for everything, Marty.


Popular Posts