Due to the popularity of Dixieland and New Orleans jazz in the United States during the 1950s, bands were often featured on the radio, including for special shows. Phil Napoleon, a jazz pioneer who was among the first New York musicians to swing on records (as early as 1921, a few years before Louis Armstrong’s arrival in NY) often gets overlooked in jazz history books.
His recordings with the Original Memphis Five and other similar recording groups in the 1920s feature him as a solid trumpet soloist and a melodic player who knew how to lead hot ensembles. While he worked steadily in the 1930s and ’40s, he was out of the limelight.
In 1949 Napoleon formed a new Original Memphis Five which was a spirited Dixieland sextet that was regularly featured at Nick’s in New York. In 1956 Napoleon moved to Miami where he opened his own club, making three final records (with Kenny Davern on clarinet) during 1959-60 although he continued playing into the 1980s, passing away in 1990.
Phil Napoleon and his band were featured on a series of broadcasts in the mid-1950s that advertised the Marine Corps. While those pitches are not included on Memphis Blues (which is subtitled The Marine Corps Transcriptions Volume One), the notable classical writer Deems Taylor supplies some tongue-in-cheek commentary that is inspired by (but not as funny as) the NBC Chamber Music Society of Lower Basin Street shows of the early 1940s.
But more importantly, Napoleon and his band (trombonist Harry DeVito, clarinetist Gail Curtis, pianist Johnny Varro, bassist Peter Rogers and drummer Lou Copperman) show that they could say a lot during often-brief performances. Highlights include their hot versions of “Panama,” “At The Jazz Band Ball,” “Honeysuckle Rose,” and “Clarinet Marmalade.”