The jazz pianist Marty Napoleon was known for his vivacious, percussive style, and often featured with Louis Armstrong’s All Stars. Armstrong’s biographer Ricky Riccardi described him 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.”
Napoleon’s family had been immersed in music for generations. His father, grandfather and great-grandfather were guitarists, and his trumpet-playing and bandleading uncle Phil became an early influence on jazz musicians such as Bix Beiderbecke and Red Nichols. Other relatives, including Napoleon’s pianist brother Teddy, were prominent band and studio musicians.
Napoleon had stints with his uncle’s band as well as stints with groups led by Chico Marx, Joe Venuti, Charlie Barnet and Gene Krupa. As a pianist and singer he was part of saxophonist Charlie Ventura’s “Big Four” group in the early 1950s that included drummer Buddy Rich and bassist Chubby Jackson.
The New York Times music critic John S Wilson noted Napoleon’s “driving, propulsive playing” and its “enlivening” effect on small groups. This was readily apparent on his work with Armstrong, whom Napoleon accompanied for the first time in 1952 and 1953, until his wife threatened divorce because of a tour that lasted seven months.
Armstrong’s manager kept throwing more money at Napoleon, until the amounts became too high for him to turn down: “After a while, it got to be really nice with the band because I was making better money, and we’d go to Chicago for four weeks, and I’d have my wife and kids come out.”
Napoleon appeared in Armstrong’s outfit for The Glenn Miller Story (1954), and played intermittently with the group until Armstrong’s death in 1971. He was with Armstrong for a second extended period from 1966 to 1968; they played all over the world, from Cuba to Britain, and popped up on TV shows hosted by Danny Kaye, Dick Cavett and Jackie Gleason.
All along, Napoleon maintained a prolific recording career that included dates opposite saxophonist Coleman Hawkins, trumpeter Charlie Shavers and Henry “Red” Allen, among others. Napoleon also led many of his own trios and quartets on the nightclub and jazz festival circuits, and he played with many promising younger players.
Matthew Napoli (Marty Napoleon), pianist: born Brooklyn 2 June 1921; married Bebe Giordano (died 2008; one daughter, one son); died Glen Cove, New York 27 April 2015.
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