Snarky Puppy and 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.
“It’s about being creative and aware and understanding what’s happening around you and in the audience so you can craft a unique experience for them,” League says.
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.
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. (League will debut his new side group, Bokante, which he describes as “a weird blend of West African, Delta blues and Led Zeppelin — but it makes sense in my head.”)
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. League can go on — in elaborate, enthusiastic detail — about each of them.
“I’ve wanted to throw a festival for years, because it’s really hard to find a festival where every band is awesome,” he says one morning this week at the Miami Beach home of Paul Lehr, GroundUP’s Miami-bred executive director. League is slightly bleary-eyed after flying in the night before from Cuba, where he was producing an album by the Buena Vista Social Club’s Eliades Ochoa, and continuing on to a session at the home of Miami’s Andrew Yeomanson, leader of the Spam Allstars. “So you want to create your own Disneyland.”
This musical wonderland grew out of Snarky Puppy’s philosophy — and history. 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,” League says. “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,” League says. Playing together “became second nature. It doesn’t feel like a performance. It feels like talking or breathing.”
In 2010, their live fluency, and a slowly growing fan base, led to their recording their first live album, “Tell Your Friends,” which hit just as YouTube became a universal source of music. Since then, Snarky Puppy has become an indie phenomenon, with an ardent online and concert following, two Grammys (and a nomination for a third this Sunday), and their own label, GroundUP, distributed by Universal Music Classics.
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.
“He said, ‘Hey, I got this idea,’ ” Crosby says from his Southern California home. “And I said ‘Yes, I’ll do it.’ ” Crosby joined the group’s communal guest-artist-filled “Family Dinner 2” album, and League co-wrote and produced Crosby’s solo album “Lighthouse.”
“I fell in love with them,” says Crosby, who found a kindred spirit in League and new inspiration in the band and their followers. “Their whole life is music. We had a blast [on “Lighthouse”], it was one of the greatest recording experiences I’ve ever had. It was a joy.”
He sees an echo of the ’60s in the younger artists and audiences surrounding GroundUP. “There seems to be a resonance there,” he says. “The singer-songwriters of today … seem to like that kind of rebel spirit, and go for the art instead of the money.”
League returns Crosby’s admiration. “He’s the ultimate risk taker in songwriting,” he says. “A lot of his contemporaries are resting on their laurels. He does not stop moving as a creator, and that’s what attracts me.”
Lehr, whose bass-playing son turned him on to Snarky Puppy, had brought League in to teach master classes while Lehr was executive director of the National YoungArts Foundation, and engineered the band’s deal with Universal. Lehr, who’s now executive director of the GroundUP label, suggested Miami as a venue for the festival and persuaded Frost School of Music Dean Shelly Berg to make GroundUP the finale of the monthlong Festival Miami.
Berg was happy to let Snarky Puppy, whom he had long wanted but couldn’t afford, present at UM. (He and several Frost ensembles will also perform this weekend.)
“They’re so unique and cross-genre, which is what we want our students to be,” Berg says.
Lehr has aimed to make the festival an unusually engaging and immersive experience. There will 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,” Lehr says. “We want people to say, ‘This is one of the best things I’ve ever done.’ ”
The most intimate and unusual aspect of GroundUP will be the workshops and sessions with the artists, open to anyone attending. They include 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.
They’re an expression of Snarky Puppy’s years-deep connection with audiences.
“I wanted each artist to reach over the barrier between audience and artist,” League says. “The days of the dark mysterious artist who hides behind the curtain and does their thing onstage are over. You post something, it goes straight to your fans, they comment straight back to you. I like that. Maybe it makes the artist seem less cool in a rock star kind of way. But it’s nice for the audience to better understand the people whose music they listen to. And everyone we’ve invited is a cool, great person that we know.”
If You Go
What: GroundUP Music Festival
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