Randy Napoleon: Playing for the Jukebox Crowd
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 Bublé 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."