Snarky Puppy and their bandleader Michael League built their enthusiastic audience and indefinable style of jazz/funk/pop/improvisational fusion in hundreds of shows and years of performing around the world, and by following (not always by plan) a few key principles. Keep it live, and pay attention.
The result has been a phenomenal grassroots following and a dazzling musicianship. Now League and his double Grammy-winning group are bringing their musical and communal ethos to the GroundUP Music Festival, a three day event at the North Beach Bandshell and the surrounding park featuring a wildly eclectic range of stellar and hard-to-define artists.
League started the group in 2004 as a freshman jazz bass student in the music school at the University of North Texas in Denton, in part because he couldn’t get into any of the school ensembles (he did play in the pep band at basketball games), but also because he wanted to play rock and funk as well as jazz. After college, Snarky Puppy kept going, playing hundreds of shows “at any bar that would have us” and living the fabled, but not so comfortable, touring-in-a-van-life.
“It’s very easy when no one cares about you and you’re broke,” says League. “Yeah, it was tough.”
But their years as itinerant outsiders allowed them to develop their own music, songs that accommodated funk and rock and soul and playfulness, with jazz style improvisation built in.
“We never really play a song the same way twice,” says League. Playing together “became second nature. It doesn’t feel like a performance. It feels like talking or breathing.”
Their audience encompasses elderly jazz lovers and hipster 20-somethings. Among their biggest fans is 75 year old folk-rock legend David Crosby, who’ll play at GroundUP. Crosby discovered the group on Youtube and began madly tweeting about them, until League called the founding member of The Byrds and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.
Snarky Puppy is one of several wildly eclectic range of stellar and hard-to-define artists.
They range from Esperanza Spalding, the genre-bending bass player and vocalist who’s played with everyone from Prince to Yo Yo Ma, to Pedrito Martinez, the virtuoso Cuban percussionist; from Chris Thile, a dazzling bluegrass mandolin player who’s the new host of Prairie Home Companion, to master jazz bandleader Terrence Blanchard; from British soul singer-songwriter Laura Mvula, to Miami gospel pedal steel player Roosevelt Collier and the Lee Boys.
If they have anything in common, it’s virtuosity, originality, and a way of not only mixing disparate styles, but blurring formerly rigid divisions between popular and “serious” genres like classical and jazz, in a fusion that’s becoming a kind of genre of its own.
The most intimate and unusual aspect of GroundUP will be the workshops and sessions with the artists, which are open to anyone attending. They range from songwriting sessions with Becca Stevens and Michelle Willis, a percussion class with drummers from five countries, a beachside singalong with the leader of the band Magda, and talking about inspiration with League and Crosby.
Paul Lehr, GroundUP’s Miami-bred executive editor, has aimed to make the festival an unusually engaging and immersive experience. There’ll be clusters of hammocks by the smaller Palm Grove stage, food by Michelle Bernstein and other local chefs, and late-night performances at the nearby Deauville Beach Resort .
The hope is to make GroundUP an annual event. “It’s something that would be great to build into the cultural fabric of the city,” says Lehr. “We want people to say this is one of the best things I’ve ever done.”
If you go
When: Noon to 11 p.m., Friday to Sunday
Where:North Beach Bandshell, 7275 Collins Ave., Miami Beach
Info: $85 daily or $225 for a 3-day pass; or $170 and $450 for premium pass; GroundUPmusicfestival.com
Late night shows, from 11 p.m. to 4 a.m., at the Deauville Hotel, 6701 Collins Ave., are $30, or $10 for festival ticket-holders; GroundUPmusicfestival.com