Written by Valerie Esposito Friday, 01 July 2011 00:00
Marty Napoleon, featured jazz pianist and resident of the Regency at Glen Cove, recently performed a series of jazz classics with bassist Bill Crow and drummer Ray Mosca for friends, family and invited guests at the Regency. The trio’s performance, titled Music from the Heart, included the classics Baby Won’t You Please Come Home, The Girl from Ipanema and Prelude to a Kiss, and was met with a standing ovation by the more than 150 guests in attendance.
Napoleon, who recently celebrated his 90th birthday, has been a resident of the Regency for the past four years having moved in to be with his wife, Marie “Bebe,” when she became ill. The Brooklyn native is the son of Italian immigrants and was born into a family of musicians. “Everyone in my family had musical talent,” Napoleon said. “Music was all we did at home. I always knew I’d be a musician.”
As the nephew of trumpeter and former jazz band leader, Phil Napoleon, and brother of fellow pianist Teddy Napoleon, he joined a band at age 17 and without any professional training, Napoleon taught himself to read and play music, rediscovering his passion and enormous talent which he developed as a boy, and led to a career that has spanned more than seven decades.
“Music is my life,” Napoleon said. “Does that sum it up? I’ve lived a very charmed life. I had the most beautiful girl, beautiful kids and family, and talent for the piano. I only had two passions in my whole life – I lost one of them [his wife of 66 years, Bebe, who passed away in 2008], and the other is music. That one I still have.”
Napoleon is best known for his performances with Louis Armstrong and the All Stars, the group that he reluctantly joined in 1952 after promising his wife that he would not go on the road again. After a few more calls from Armstrong’s manager and an offer too good to refuse, Napoleon joined the group but the same situation followed each of the three times he left the group to be with his wife and children. “God made two things that are perfect – women and music,” Napoleon said. “Lucky for me, my wife understood my love for music.”
After touring with the All Stars for months at a time throughout the United States and parts of Europe, Napoleon left the group and began working regular gigs at New York City hotspots and musical festivals. He later played for periods of time with his uncle and brother, and eventually rejoined Armstrong in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Napoleon has also played with musical greats Chico Marx, Charlie Ventura and Gene Krupa and is credited for starring alongside Krupa in the short film Follow that Music.
The lively 90-year-old with a seemingly permanent smile and contagious spirit, still enjoys performing as much as he can. Often times, Napoleon plays for his fellow residents at the Regency and other local assisted living homes, who welcome his performances, complete with jokes and stories between each song.
Having long ago discovered his true calling, Napoleon offers this advice to young musicians: “If you don’t have it [talent], give up. If you do, it’s a crime to stop.”