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JGT Goes Behind the Curtain with Randy Napoleon



Wayne Goins interviews Randy Napoleon – a prominent jazz guitarist who is making a major impact in the realms of both performance and music education.

Randy’s stage presence has already enhanced several legendary artists of note, and his reputation in the classroom is rapidly spreading throughout the world of academia. Here is a chance for JGT fans to peek behind the curtain of this well-established blazer of bebop.

Above photo by Ed Serecky

JGT: Your career got off to quite the auspicious start—playing with legendary Blue Note jazz pianist Benny Green! Can you share with the audience what that was like?

RN: Playing with Benny was the most intense, concentrated, and humbling experience I’ve ever had. His commitment to musical excellence is extreme. Benny asks a lot from himself, and from those around him.

Randy Napoleon Photo by John Osler

JGT: When did you join his group, and how long were you there? 

RN: I joined his band when I was twenty two years old, I was very inexperienced in life and music. Our practice sessions together lasted for many hours, leaving me mentally and physically drained but with a clear sense of direction and purpose. Benny let me know what it would take to really play this music, it was the greatest possible education. Hearing him night after night was awe inspiring. His emotional range, subtlety, dexterity and fire seemed to be limitless. Benny believed in my potential and challenged me to rise to it, he framed this as a responsibility to the music. 

 JGT: What was the most beneficial thing you took from being in Benny’s band? 

RN: As brilliant a musician as Benny is, he is also exceedingly humble. He keeps his teachers and role models with him every note he plays, and is profoundly aware that we are participating in a powerful tradition. I hear Benny’s voice every time I practice, asking me to dig a little bit deeper into the details.

JGT: Your time with Benny led directly to the next big event—jazz vocalist/pianist Freddy Cole, Nat King Cole’s brother. Tell us about that…

RN: I met Freddy in New York City in ‘99. I was playing a concert with Benny’s trio. I was already a big fan of Freddy’s, and that opened the door for a relationship. I made sure to be in the audience every time he played in the city. Over the next few years, he became someone would seek advice from. Freddy always loved to hang out and check out the scene so sometimes we would make the rounds to go hear music as well. 

JGT: What was your first experience like?

RN: The first time he called me to sub for some gigs wasn’t until 2004. I finally joined the band in 2006. I played my last gig with Freddy in August of 2019 at the Chicago Jazz Festival. Freddy was physically weak by that time, but somehow the music was even more poetic and powerful. We were playing for 10,000 plus people in Hyde Park, and you could hear a pin drop when Freddy sang ballads that night. His ability to connect was super human. When he sang, it was more than the notes or the lyrics, he conjured an aura. It’s impossible for me to express how much of an impact Freddy had on me. His calm and even disposition helped me center. He taught me countless songs. He modeled how to survive in the music business. I’ll spend my life chasing after the feeling he created on the bandstand.

JGT: How did Your time with Freddy compare to the experience you gained with vocalist Michael Buble? How did a jazzer like yourself land a gig with a pop megastar like him? 

RN: I never aspired to the pop world. This was one of those lucky breaks. It was a surreal experience. I felt like part of a sociological experiment, observing how people acted around fame. The culture was so different than any other band I’ve worked in. Michael was always great to me, he is one of those people you just have to like. He would rent skating rinks and we would play hockey. I was usually the only non-Canadian who played. I’m a really horrible skater but they were patient with me and it was a lot of fun. 

JGT: What were the performances like?

RN: We did all the TV shows, Letterman, Tonight Show, etc. That was exciting and interesting to see up close. Those are high pressure gigs, you sit around for hours and then you play for two and a half minutes with millions of eyes and ears on you. I learned a lot from Michael about how to engage the audience. Beyond being an excellent singer, he really knows how to work a room. There were some great musicians in the band when I was there, it was a rolling party but I missed being away from the jazz scene.

JGT: Beyond being just a performer, can you describe your teaching career at Michigan State University?

RN: Being a teacher has been the most meaningful position in my life, only second to being a husband and father. The love the students and faculty feel for each other is overwhelming. We [the MSU faculty] perform with our students, even take them on the road and sometimes record with them. It’s amazing listening to the young cats turn into powerful voices and take flight on the scene. I never imagined how important it would become to me to teach.

JGT: You obviously fit in quite well there—your peers have said great things about you.

RN: [Bassist] Rodney Whitaker is my big brother in music and academia, he and the rest of my colleagues at MSU created the most amazing jazz program in the world. When I started here (in 2014) , I paid close attention to how Rodney, Michael Dease and Diego Rivera structured their lessons and got such great results from their students. We are all very close, and I developed my educational approach from what they were doing, as well as my experiences on the road. 

JGT: Can you shed a bit of light on some of your outstanding students?

RN: I’m hesitant to name names because they are all awesome. I’m so proud of all of them. My guitar studio is a small, tight-knit family. I have former students who have won Juno awards, gotten record contracts, tours, Grammy nominations, major pop recordings, tenured professor jobs etc. I have multiple students who have won international competitions. I’m an imperfect player and teacher, but I will say I give my student 100%.

JGT: Let’s switch things up a bit and talk about equipment—what amps, guitars, and strings do you use?

RN: I’m crazy about Benedetto guitars. I’m currently playing a Bravo Deluxe model although at some point I’d like to get a 16B. I use D’Addario strings. I’m neurotic about string gauge and have changed back and forth between 13’s and 12’s. Currently, I’m loving the pure nickel round 12’s on the Benedetto, with a .013 and .017 on top. As for amps, I like tubes but I’m pretty flexible. I prefer something with plenty of headroom so I can play light and bring out accents.

JGT: What kind of effect did the pandemic have on your gig situation?

RN: I used the time to musically reflect on Freddy. I’ve been relearning his book, arranging the songs for solo guitar. My other big project was studying Charlie Parker. I want to be more comprehensive in my knowledge and connection to the musicians who are most important to me. I did some live stream gigs, and a few recordings. I did a concert with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra playing Stravinsky. That was challenging and exciting. It was strange being in a huge concert hall with no audience. The last few months I’ve been back to touring and performing for audiences, and it’s the most amazing feeling.

JGT: Share with us your personal listening list—who are your guitar influences?

RN: 75% of my listening isn’t guitar players. I like Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Kenny Dorham, Sonny Stitt, Louis Smith, Thelonious Monk, Donald Byrd, Horace Silver, Sonny Clark etc. I listen to a lot of singers. I love lyrics. As far as guitarists, Wes Montgomery forever. Kenny Burrell, Grant Green, Joe Pass, Barney Kessel, Oscar Moore, Russell Malone, Bruce Forman, and Peter Bernstein. I’ve been enjoying checking out some cats who came on the scene after me as well like Pasquale Grasso, Dan Wilson, and Graham Dechter. There is a guitarist in Chicago named Andy Brown who plays beautifully. There are so many great musicians, I could go on all day.

JGT: What’s your general approach or philosophy of guitar playing? Any particular techniques, or tips for our young readers out there?

RN: I think about sound first. I threw away my guitar picks because I liked the personality of the sound when the flesh touches the string. Technique comes from the sound you are hearing in your mind. As far as specifics, this is a book length topic!!

JGT: How about chord solos—any specific methodology or unique approaches you’d like to share?

RN: This is also a book length answer! [laughs]. I try to remember that guitar is not a piano. I look for ways to express the harmony with less notes so I don’t get trapped in one approach. The genius of minimalism, Thelonious Monk, was on to something!! Chords aren’t always four notes. Three notes, two notes, even one note can create the illusion of more. I’ve really fallen in love with solo guitar, also duo with a singer is my favorite.

JGT: Rumor has it you recently released a stellar new album—is that true?

RN: Well, I’m not sure about stellar, but yes, I have a new record that just came out featuring the music of Kenny Burrell, Wes Montgomery, and Grant Green. I’m celebrating the Rust Belt Roots of the modern jazz guitar. 

JGT: For those that don’t know, what exactly is the “rust belt?”

 The Rust Belt is a region, but in my mind it is a feeling as well. 

JGT: Thank you so much for sharing with our readers! 

I appreciate you so much for taking the time. I imagine many of the readers are guitarists and I imagine we are all pursuing the same goal of getting some nice sounds out of the instrument. I’m sending lots of love out to our community!

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