Randy Napoleon: Playing for the Jukebox Crowd

Trish Richardson By

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When guitarist Randy Napoleon titled his latest effort, The Jukebox Crowd (Gut String Records, 2012), the jukebox he referred to was not some nostalgic 1950s era one that sits idly in a corner. Rather, she is a much sleeker, hipper, and more modern version. She is cool and, of course, jazzy, and she commands center stage. One trait she does share with her older cousin is that she is filled with songs that are worth paying to hear.

According to Napoleon, "I named the record The Jukebox Crowd because the musical direction is diffuse, and I was looking for an image that would tie the different bags together. We interpret straight ahead jazz, soul, blues, and even doo-wop on this record. Hopefully, it's the kind of instrumental jazz that's catchy enough that people would want to hang around a jukebox and put a coin in to hear their favorite song. There was a time when all these music lived side by side, when jazz musicians had hit songs. You might hear [trumpeter] Lee Morgan's 'Sidewinder' side by side with singer Ray Charles' latest record. I hoped that the title would convey that sort of musical landscape, as well as a social environment where people are kicking back and having fun."

He continues, "This record has a little bit different focus than my last two. The solos are shorter; the emphasis is more on the ensemble sounds. This is as much a blues or soul record as a jazz record."

Though Napoleon was born in Brooklyn and currently lives in New York City, he still considers Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he was raised, home. Explains Napoleon, "I feel like something of a hybrid, though. I've been in New York City for thirteen years and I'm starting to absorb the east coast attitude."

While Napoleon has played stringed instruments since the fifth grade, beginning with the violin, it wasn't until he picked up a friend's guitar and started playing that the love affair began. "I really remember holding the guitar and playing it the first time. I was immediately excited about it." Fortunately for Napoleon, his friend had two guitars, and was willing to loan him one of them. "I stayed up all night just trying to figure out a song. I did know that as you went up the fret board, the pitch was going to get higher. I had some idea of how stringed instruments worked from the violin. I just started messing with the guitar. It was truly love at first sight!"

A few years later, while in high school, the emerging guitarist heard bassist Ray Brown's trio for the first time and decided to seek a career as a jazz player. Unbeknownst to him at the time, he crossed paths with two musicians who would play pivotal roles in his career. Brown's trio included pianist Benny Green and drummer Jeff Hamilton. Explains Napoleon, "They ended up being two of my early employers; I feel like I was preparing specifically for that sort of thing. Many of the gigs that I've gotten don't feel accidental for me; they feel like where I was supposed to be. I look up to them and am hoping that someday I can play a fraction as great as they play.

"Not that I feel like I could keep up with those guys in any way," Napoleon continues, "but I do feel that we had common direction. Maybe they picked up on the fact that I really loved their music and I wanted to play in that direction. There's some luck, too, but this whole process has a feeling of fate, almost from the first time I played the instrument. It feels like something that I am supposed to be doing."

Napoleon first connected with Green shortly after moving to New York City. "I came to New York and Benny [Green] had just released a CD with bass, guitar and piano. He needed a guitarist for the tours. My timing was very lucky."

Green recalls, "I first heard Randy with his college big band under Ellen Rowe's direction, at the Notre Dame Jazz Festival where I was among a panel of judges, in the mid-1990s. He knocked us all out with his musicality. He played so melodically, passionately and showed considerable content and a mature use of space. It was very clear to all of us that he was a real thinker and he certainly stood out to me from the other college musicians I heard that day."

Randy reintroduced himself to me on one of my gigs in New York City shortly after he moved there, a year or so later, and he let me know that he'd like to play with me. We got together to jam at my house, and it felt great. I soon learned that he read music well and was eager to rehearse, and I felt it was the natural thing to hire him and that it would be inspiring to receive his youthful enthusiasm, and as well, I respected his clear dedication."

Green became more than an employer to Napoleon; he was also one of the guitarist's first landlords in the Big Apple. Recalls Napoleon, "I was bouncing from sublet to sublet. Some of the landlords in New York won't let you sign a lease if you don't have a guarantor in the Tri-State Area [New York, New Jersey, Connecticut]. So, Benny let me stay with him for a couple of nights. I was sleeping under the piano so his cat wouldn't jump on me! Benny would get up, and he would practice for six, seven hours straight. I mean straight, not a rest. That would be just warming up his hands."

Green also became a mentor to Napoleon, giving him honest, at times brutally so, advice and invaluable insight into life as a professional musician. According to Napoleon, "Benny was really intense. He put his money where his mouth was. He wasn't just someone who was resting on his laurels. He really, really puts his heart into the piano, and then it comes out when he plays. You can hear his influences because he's dug down deep enough to bring them out."

"Benny, more than anyone else, really made me aware of how far it was possible to go. He was very candid with me, in encouraging ways, about my potential, and he believed what I was working at was important. He was also painfully honest with me about what my current limitations were and what I was going to have to do to get past them. Some of the things he would say to me were very hard to hear, but they were necessary, and the lessons were coming from someone who could demonstrate a better way. He really picked apart my playing. This was when I first moved to New York, and I was coming from Michigan, where I had always been praised, where it had been just victory after victory. It was a very humbling experience for me, but in a good way. It made it clear to me how large jazz is and how much there is to explore."

Green concurs that his advice may have been difficult for the younger musician to hear. Green says, "Randy worked very hard for me, learning my arrangements, some of which were rather involved and which I would revise frequently. I didn't cut him much slack; I was pretty hard on him, in terms of the workload and my performance expectations of him. He never once seemed overwhelmed with the idea of being in service to me as the bandleader, and he showed me the utmost respect."

And in turn, Napoleon has nothing but praise to say about Green. "Benny is the hardest working, most disciplined practice fiend I've ever met. That really inspired me. He's very attentive to details, very intense. He will always be one of my top heroes."

Napoleon is also quick to praise Green for being an example of what it means to be passionate about one's music. Napoleon remembers, "We were in a van on tour somewhere, and some Wes Montgomery music came on. Wes is my favorite guitarist; he is the golden standard of jazz guitar. So I said, 'I love Wes Montgomery.'

"Benny looked at me," Napoleon continues, "and said something to me that I'll never forget, which was: 'I need to hear the evidence in your playing that you love him.' I thought that was really great because you hear people use the word 'love' so casually about an artist, but what does it really mean to love them? It means that when you pick up your instrument, that love should shine through. Someone shouldn't have to wonder, 'Where is he coming from?' The way you do that is by digging deep into the music that you love and feel passionate about."

Napoleon continues, "That's something I think about every day when I'm practicing. I think, 'Okay, you say that you love this song or this guitarist. But how are you going to demonstrate that you love it? Are you going to prove that not through your words but through your actions on the guitar?'"

And Napoleon must have learned his lessons well, as trombonist Josh Brown, who played alongside Napoleon for pop/jazz star Michael Buble as well as in both of their own bands, points out: "The thing I love the most about Randy is that he loves guitar, and he loves jazz. Hands down. When he talks about these subjects you can really feel the excitement. When he performs, this immense love he has for these two things just pours out of him."

Napoleon loves his guitar so much so that he wrote an ode to the instrument titled, "Guitar, Guitar, Guitar" on his MySpace page in September 2008. He wrote: "Guitar has a special significance all over the world. In Spain, there is the proud tradition of Flamenco music. Brazilian Bossa Nova is ruled by the guitar. Folk musicians everywhere choose guitar to support their songs, to deliver their message. Rock and Roll is defined by the guitar."

Why the guitar? According to Napoleon, there are practical reasons: "Guitars are not expensive. You can get a beater-upper for next to nothing. I bought my first guitar for thirty dollars with money I made mowing lawns. This makes guitar a democratic instrument, an instrument of the people." There are aesthetic reasons: "The guitar is shaped like a human body. There is a head and a neck, and a curvy body. You hold a guitar close when you play it. When you pluck a note, you actually feel the resonance of the wood in your body. The wood was once a living thing, and it still retains some qualities of life; the wood changes with the weather, it breathes. The guitar is alive." And there are symbolic reasons: "Guitar has become a symbol of romance all over; I've never heard of someone serenading a woman with a hand drum. It could be hip, I just haven't heard of it."

Napoleon's guitar of choice is his archtop. "After I found my first one, I never wanted to play any other kind. I've upgraded a few times, always large archtop guitars with heavy strings on them-I'm currently playing a Stadler guitar; it's a work of art. Tom Stadler carved this guitar by hand; he even built the pickup, everything. It's a super organic, beautiful, living, breathing instrument. I have an electric guitar, a [Fender] Telecaster that I play very occasionally if I have a gig where I'm playing top forty kind of stuff. I'm not really a great solid body player."

Brown continues, "Randy is an incredibly giving artist, really one of the least selfish musicians I know. He really puts a lot of thought in how to reach people. I've played with him for many years now, in almost every configuration you can think of, and any venue, and you can see his playing effect the audience. It's really palatable. I've never played with him and not seen an audience member totally fall in love with him. Randy is a real guitarist, pulling the sound from the strings and instrument instead of relying heavily on the amp for his sound. He is a unique and gifted musician who really connects with his audience, without watering anything down or making artistic sacrifices. Just out there, swinging his butt off!"

Adds agent Scott Levin, "Napoleon is a grounded, approachable, honest and genuine person."

And Green has this to say about his former protégé: "Randy is so admirable in how he continues to treat everyone around him with kindness and respect, be they musicians or not, older or younger, famous or relatively lesser-known."

Once Napoleon completed his tour with Green, a few years went by, during which time, Napoleon says, "I was working with my own groups, freelancing around the city and teaching guitar lessons." Then in 2004, he landed his next significant gig, playing alongside drummer Jeff Hamilton. Says Napoleon, "Jeff and Benny actually heard me for the first time on the same day. I was still in college, playing with the University of Michigan Big Band at the Notre Dame jazz competition. The funny thing is I almost didn't go to that festival because I had the worst flu of my life. I was so sick that day, pure pain. I'm really glad I went!"

In 2004, Napoleon got the opportunity to play beside, at the time up-and-coming pop sensation Michael Bublé. Did Napoleon have to audition against hundreds of other talented young guitarists to earn his position? Nope. "Bublé took me on the recommendation of the band," Napoleon explains. "I guess my first tour was an audition of sorts. Michael was very welcoming. My first date with him was in Newcastle, England. I had finished a tour with the Clayton-Hamilton Orchestra two days before, in Japan. I remember the travel day connecting the two tours vividly: Tokyo to JFK, I took a cab home to get fresh clothes, then right back to JFK, and from JFK to London Heathrow, Heathrow to Newcastle. Man, I was messed up!

"I had the jitters I get anytime I'm starting with a new group," Napoleon continues. "I met Bublé at sound check; the first thing he said to me was, 'Don't think of this as a professional gig, I want this to be the best time of your life.' I thought that was pretty cool. It really was like a crazy party for those years in his band."

Napoleon says, "Michael is a very intelligent guy. He is an amazing entertainer. Michael is pure bottled charisma. On and off the bandstand, he knows how to conduct himself as a star. I gained more appreciation for pop music when I was with him."

Playing with Bublé in large arenas, night after night, helped Napoleon overcome some feelings of stage fright that he still had been dealing with at that relatively late point in his career. According to Napoleon, "If you are doing it every night, you can't get all tense. At some point it starts feeling like, 'Okay, this is just another day at the office.' Not that you don't get a little bit excited, and I think that's important so that you can bring some excitement to the job. But too many nerves can be debilitating. I used to feel sick to my stomach, and it would be hard for me to sleep before a big show. That helped me because it was practicing a certain kind of thing-practicing getting comfortable with all the energy coming back from a large crowd.

"Also, having managers and business people running around helped me to get used to that kind of thing," he continues. "Especially when we were doing all kinds of TV shows-it was really a lot of pressure. I think it was good, after a certain point, because I kind of got used to it."

Napoleon eventually decided to leave the Bublé gig and found himself a home alongside veteran jazz vocalist and pianist Freddy Cole. Napoleon says, "Freddy heard me many years ago with Benny Green's band, and we stayed in touch over the years until it was the right time for me to come with him fulltime."

According to Green, "The great Freddy Cole, who had heard Randy with my trio in Toronto, asked me for Randy's information, saying that he'd like to try Randy out on guitar with his group. And the rest is history. Freddie was, and is, happy as a clam with Randy onboard-as is Randy, who, like me, is 'old school' by the standards of some young folks today in his love of the traditions of 4/4 swinging jazz, which is melodic and rooted in the blues."

Cole recollects, "I heard him, once, and then another time he happened to be on the same gig with me. I liked how he approached the gig. When I got ready to make a change, I just called him and he came right in. I just liked the way he played, his approach to the music."

Cole continues, "Randy's very enthusiastic. Fortunately, he is the same both onstage and off. When he gets on the bandstand, he's having fun! And that's what I like. All of us, when we hit the bandstand, it all business but we are also having fun."

According to Napoleon, "Michael and Freddy are very different kinds of people and musicians. I enjoyed my time with Bublé quite a bit, and learned a lot about how to communicate to an audience. But, for me, my time with Freddy has been a lot more personally satisfying. There's a lot more room for personal expression in his band, and I have much more responsibility. I've been arranging for Freddy's records, which has been an amazing experience. Freddy loves for the music to go different places every night, so I feel creatively involved every day."

The guitarist continues, "Freddy is like another grandfather to me. I've learned so much from him about life and music I wouldn't know where to begin. One thing that's true in music and life, he's helped me learn how to relax. Freddy has such ease in all things. I've learned thousands of songs from him also. His feel is just amazing; I'm always trying to get closer to that."

Many of Napoleon's musical goals have already been achieved, at a relatively young age. "Everything measurable that I've thought I wanted to do, I've done. I've recorded CDs as a leader, I've toured as a leader, and I've toured with my heroes. I've played really large venues, really high profile stuff. Everything that I could have described in words is done."

Yet, he still continues to try to master the instrument he loves so much. "I want to play the guitar better; I want to play it more consistently. I want to know that every time I pick up the guitar, it's going to be the best that I can give it. These are the bigger goals I dream of, now. It's just me versus my limitations now."

Selected Discography:

Randy Napoleon, The Jukebox Crowd (Gut String Records, 2012)

Freddy Cole, Talk to Me (HighNote, 2011)

Eric Comstock, Bitter/Sweet (Harbinger, 2011)

Freddy Cole, Freddy Cole Sings Mr. B (HighNote, 2010)

Melissa Morgan, Until I Met You (Telarc, 2009)

Randy Napoleon, Between Friends (Azica Records, 2006)

Josh Brown, The Feeling of Jazz (Josh Brown, 2006)

Michael Bublé, Caught in the Act (Reprise/WEA, 2005)

Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra, Live at MCG (MCG Jazz, 2005)

Randy Napoleon, Enjoy the Moment (Indie, 2002)

Photo Credit

All Photos: Courtesy of Randy Napoleon

[Editors note: Portions of this interview originally appeared in Richardson's book, The Soul of Jazz: Stories and Inspiration from Those Who Followed the Song in Their Souls. For more information, visit her website].

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