Marty Napoleon, a jazz pianist who was known for his vivacious, percussive style and was often featured with bandleader and trumpeter Louis Armstrong’s All Stars ensemble, died April 27 near his home in Glen Cove, N.Y. He was 93.
His daughter, Jeanine Goldman, confirmed the death but did not provide a specific cause.
Armstrong biographer Ricky Riccardi once called Mr. Napoleon “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.” One highlight was a rollicking swing version of “Sunrise, Sunset,” from the musical “Fiddler on the Roof.”
Mr. 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 Mr. Napoleon’s pianist brother Teddy, were prominent band and studio musicians.
In a professional life dating to his teens, Marty Napoleon had stints with his uncle’s band in addition to 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.
New York Times music critic John S. Wilson once noted Mr. Napoleon’s “driving, propulsive playing” and its “enlivening” effect on small groups. This was readily apparent on his work with Armstrong, whom Mr. Napoleon accompanied for the first time in 1952 and 1953 — until his wife threatened divorce because of a tour that lasted seven months.
He said Armstrong’s manager kept throwing more money at Mr. 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,” he told Newsday.
Mr. Napoleon appeared in Armstrong’s outfit for “The Glenn Miller Story” (1954), a biopic about the big-band leader, and had intermittent engagements with the group through Armstrong’s death in 1971. He was with Armstrong for a second extended period from 1966 to 1968. They played over much of the world, including Cuba and England, and popped up on TV shows hosted by Danny Kaye, Dick Cavett and Jackie Gleason.
All along, Mr. Napoleon maintained a prolific recording career that included dates opposite saxophonist Coleman Hawkins, trumpeter Charlie Shavers and Henry “Red” Allen, among others. Mr. 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, such as trumpeter Bria Skonberg.
Matthew Napoli was born June 2, 1921, in Brooklyn, to Sicilian immigrants; he later legally changed his name.
His first instrument was the trumpet, which he began playing at 8, but a doctor grew concerned that it would exacerbate his heart murmur.
“So what should I play?” he told the Times. “Besides being a musician, my father was a sign painter. Sometimes he painted signs for a moving-van company, and when Teddy was growing up, he’d say to the company, ‘Instead of paying me, give me a piano because my son’s a piano player.’ By the time I came along, we had three pianos in the house, so I just gravitated to the piano.”
His wife, Marie “Bebe” Giordano, died in 2008. Survivors include two children, Jeanine Goldman of East Hills, N.Y., and Marty Napoleon Jr. of Montvale, N.J.; four grandchildren; and a great-grandson.
One of his favorite memories involved the exuberant band put together by Chico Marx, the onetime Marx Brother of stage and movie fame. Mr. Napoleon recalled that it was hard for Marx to escape his vaudeville roots.
“When he did ‘Beer Barrel Polka’ he would roll an orange on the keyboard,” the pianist told The Washington Post in 1984. “One time he threw the orange at me, and I threw it to the drummer, George Wettling. The next day everybody in the band had an orange and oranges were flying all over the stage. Chico loved it. ‘Leave it in,’ he said. ‘It’s great.’ ”