Word is getting out

Jazz guitar studio generating success in competitions and the professional world.

Recent alumna Joceyln Gould during the Wilson Center Guitar Competition in which she took first place in the Jazz Guitar category in August 2018.
Guitarist Nathan Borton is working on his masters degree with Randy Napoleon and serves as a teaching assistant for the professor.
Assistant Professor of Jazz Guitar Randy Napoleon performs regularly with MSU's Professors of Jazz, including Xavier Davis (center), associate professor of jazz piano, and Michael Dease, associate professor of jazz trombone.

Jazz legend Miles Davis once said, "I'll play it first and tell you what it is later." That classic line about improvisation rings true with jazz musicians around the world, but it also applies to what has transpired with the Jazz Guitar studio at the Michigan State University College of Music since Randy Napoleon took it over in 2014.

Napoleon was an experienced performer and teacher when he arrived on campus as the first full-time professor of jazz guitar in the college. Though he knew he had to learn more about his MSU students, do a little recruiting, and apply his own teaching philosophy, he didn’t know exactly what the program would become. Now, after “playing” it for a while, the “what it is” part is becoming clear.

“I'm very proud that we have a studio where all of the guitarists, from top to bottom, are serious about the music,” Napoleon said. “My goal has been to create a jazz guitar culture here at MSU, and the beautiful thing is that there is now a strong sense of community where the older students nurture the younger students.”

Napoleon’s strategy has been to establish musical milestones for each year of study. The result has been underclassmen becoming highly motivated to match the level that the previous class establishes. Instead of occasionally having students maturely tackle difficult music, now it is standard and expected to do so.

“It's been thrilling to watch some of my students go on to big things. Former students like Ari Teitel, Olin Clark, and Jocelyn Gould are starting to have significant careers, and current students like Nathan Borton and Peter Martin are having successes in competitions and performing exceptionally well.”

Napoleon also celebrated the news when the 2019 GRAMMY nominations were announced. Teitel played on Cha Wa’s album Spyboy which has been nominated by the Recording Academy for Best Regional Roots Album. Napoleon himself also earned a GRAMMY nod for Freddy Cole’s album My Mood is You which has been nominated for Best Jazz Vocal Album. Napoleon played guitar and wrote half of the arrangements on the recording.

After studying with Randy Napoleon at MSU, Joceyln Gould headed to New York to launch her professional career. She says she has found networking with other MSU-connected musicians helpful.

Gould, Borton and Martin competed this past summer in the Sharon Lynne Wilson Center for the Arts Guitar Festival Competition in Milwaukee, with Gould taking first place in the jazz category and Borton placing in the finals. Key to their success was having Napoleon as their guide, challenging them as soloists and helping them get steeped in jazz guitar tradition.

“At the Wilson competition, it was daunting to be in that room on the first day, listening to everyone play,” said Winnipeg, Canada native Gould who earned her master’s degree in spring 2018. “They all sounded so good, and I didn’t think I’d make it into the finals.”

She was the only woman competing at the Wilson Center competition in the jazz category – a pioneer who rose to the challenge and won the competition. Now she’s continuing her career in New York.

“Randy is the nicest guy,” Gould said, “and he helped me a lot. He’s calm, encouraging, and he told me I could blaze some trails in New York for myself and maybe other women playing jazz guitar who come onto the scene after me.”

Randy Napoleon (right) has been recording and touring with Freddy Cole for a number of years. Cole's album, My Mood is You, was nominated for a GRAMMY for Best Jazz Vocal Album. Napoleon played guitar on the album and wrote half of the arrangements.

Gould found her way to MSU after earning an undergraduate degree in jazz studies from the University of Manitoba where she studied with drummer Quincy Davis, brother of MSU Associate Professor of Jazz Piano Xavier Davis. Napoleon is a good friend of the Davis brothers, and Quincy Davis thought Napoleon would be a good match for Gould.  

“There’s lots of access to professors in the MSU jazz program,” Gould said. “I did independent study with Rodney Whitaker, and they all give you time and encouragement. It’s really amazing, and Randy was definitely the best fit for me.”

Nathan Borton has had a similar experience. He’s working on his master’s degree and works as a teaching assistant with Napoleon.

“Studying with Professor Napoleon has been an amazing experience,” Borton said. “His attention to detail and demand for excellence has changed my views on what being a professional jazz musician really means.”

Borton explained that Napoleon makes him play everything solo as well as with others which helps in preparation for competitions. The MSU jazz program’s focus on expanding the jazz vocabulary of students is valuable in the long run, too.

“By studying and transcribing the masters of old, you can take what they played and put it into your own playing,” explained Borton, who came to MSU from Wichita, Kansas. “This understanding of the tradition really sets MSU students apart from other musicians that haven't studied it.”

MSU alumnus Olin Clark spent three of his six years in higher education studying in Randy Napoleon's studio. Since then he's built a career playing in New York, including an album release and a number of gigs.

Guitarist and Michigan native Olin Clark earned his bachelor and master’s degrees in music performance at MSU. He studied with Napoleon for three of his six years of higher education and now lives in New York. His album “Bright” which features mostly original compositions resulted in a short album release tour, and he’s currently writing music for a second album.

“Studying with Randy was a great experience,” Clark said. “His approach to teaching is very thorough and personal. He has a vision for all of his students yet prioritizes individual goals and developing unique musical inclinations.”

If his focus on technique, music history and setting high goals for each student are Napoleon’s “play it first” part of that Miles Davis quote, then his students can clearly explain the “tell you what it is later” part.

“The MSU jazz program is a family. As Rodney Whitaker always says, we lift each other up, and Randy lives that philosophy,” Gould said. “I can already feel that in the short time I’ve been in New York. I can go meet a grad of the program I’ve never met, and there’s a rapport and trust even on first meeting. A few have had me sit in on a tune at their gig.”

Clark agrees. “Being a graduate of MSU means you are always a part of the network,” he said.

Napoleon’s goal is to “put exciting new voices into the field,” and he notices how that goal and the successes of his students are leading to more strong applicants to his studio.

“I believe it means something to be from this program,” he said. “The success is breeding more success, and word is getting out.”

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