‘What matters in music’

Guitarist Randy Napoleon remembers the great Freddy Cole

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MONDAY, June 29 — Jazz lovers suffered a big loss Saturday when Freddy Cole, master interpreter of jazz and blues standards and younger brother of jazz legend Nat King Cole, died at age 88 of complications from a heart ailment. Cole played an intimate concert benefitting the Jazz Alliance of Mid-Michigan in East Lansing Aug. 22, 2018, with MSU jazz guitar Professor Randy Napoleon on guitar.

Few people felt last week’s loss more keenly than Napoleon, a member of Cole’s band for more than 15 years.  The two men met in New York in 1999. Napoleon subbed on guitar for Cole a few times and Cole was an informal mentor to Napoleon. By the time Napoleon joined Cole’s band full time in 2006, they were close friends.

Were you apprehensive about playing with one of your jazz idols?
I was really scared. The thing about playing with Freddy is you’re never going to get a set list. He won’t even tell you the song before he starts playing it. You really have to use your ears and respond. He trusted you to figure it out and create your own part around what he was playing. As you got to know his language, it became incredibly fun to play with him, because we could hit things together, or I could play around what he played. It got to where we could read each other’s minds and there’s no short cut to that. We, the band, really became like one. It got to the point where there were no off-nights. Every night we would get to our thing.

So he would pull out a tune you’d never done and expect you to play?Oh, always. When I first joined the band, there was no rehearsal, no set list, nothing. Years into playing with him, he would start playing a song I didn’t know. I hesitate to put a number, but I’d say his book had to be 500 to 1,000 tunes. I learned many of them from studying his stuff, but it’s impossible to learn 50 years of music and impossible to know exactly how he’s going to play it. The thing for him is, he’s thinking about the song less as notes and more as stories. Sometimes someone in the audience would make him think of something and he would go into a story that fit the mood, so he really was singing to the audience. It was not at all a scripted thing. It was almost like having a conversation.But none of it is mysterious. Sometimes people are deliberately tricky about the harmonies they use or the rhythms they play. Freddy played stuff that made sense and was easy to follow, so it was not as difficult as you might imagine. If you were paying attention, you could listen and play with him. It really helped me, too. It made my ears and my response time a lot quicker.

Did you hang out with him off the bandstand?

Constantly, 24 hours a day. We might wake up at 4 in the morning, go down to the lobby, someone would take us to the airport, we’d get breakfast and sit waiting for the plane; we’d fly and drive to the hotel, maybe take a quick nap, do a sound check, we’d eat dinner together, play the gig and then we’d usually go and hang out and sleep on the plane. If it was a driving tour we’d be on the van six to eight hours a day. So you really get to know people. I used to play games in my mind. We’d be out to dinner and I’d look at the menu and predict what each band member would order, and I was usually right.

Freddy was a living link to so many jazz legends. You must have heard a lot of great stories — a post-graduate seminar in jazz history.

That’s exactly what it was. It was so casual for him. It was just his community. He wouldn’t always expand on it. It was funny. I would say, ‘Freddy, did you know Bud Powell?’ He’s say, ‘Oh, yeah, I knew Bud. Nice guy. He liked my brother.’ That would be it. I’d mention someone else and he’d say, ‘Oh yeah, he was crazy.’ I wouldn’t get a lot, but he knew all of them and that was the world he came up in. For us, when we talk about Count Basie, Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra or Nat King Cole, it feels like these legends. For him, it’s just his family and his friends, his circle.

He had a dry sense of humor and liked to underplay everything.

Oh yeah, he loved to laugh. He wouldn’t always talk a lot but he loved being with people. He’d get one glass of wine and sip it really slow. Early on, when I was with him and he was in his early 70s and still full of energy, we would just beg him to go home. We’d have an early lobby call coming up and Freddy was just the king of hanging out. We’d be so tired. We’d say, ‘Freddy, can we please go home?’ He loved finding an after-hours jam session and just sitting in the back. He loved meeting people and he seemed to genuinely like everyone. You had to be quite a jerk to get on his wrong side.

He was clearly having health problems when he came to East Lansing in 2018, but when he started playing, he came to life and the spirit just lifted the body with it.

Music comes from somewhere else. The last gig I played with Freddy was last August at the Chicago Jazz Festival. It was a large concert in Millennium Park, maybe 10,000 plus people. Freddy was physically very weak, but his singing was just ethereal. It was more powerful than ever. It was the ultimate lesson on what matters in music. As young musicians, we’re trying to develop our facility, our speed and accuracy, power and projection and all these things. In his extreme old age, Freddy was stripped of those things, and yet he was still able to control this whole audience. You could hear a pin drop. They were waiting on every word. It was really amazing. And Chicago was his hometown. It was really special.

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