Story by Jeff Potter
Photos By Rahav Segev
What awaits us down the road? Or around the very next corner? Ask Joe Saylor that question. He has an uncanny tale about a moment of seeming predestination.It happened back in 2004, as the drummer’s high school graduation approached. Weighing the option of moving to New Orleans in order to continue his music studies, Saylor took a week off from school to travel to the Crescent City and scope things out. He recounts the moment, opening with two emphasized words: “True story.”
Saylor continues, “I was just walking down the street one day, kind of aimlessly, because I didn’t know where I was going. And Jon Batiste was standing on the street. I had my stick bag in my hand. He saw me and said, ‘Hey, man! You play the drums? I play the piano. Let’s go play.’
“So I followed him into a building, which happened to be his high school. In a classroom, there was a piano and a drumset. That’s the first time we played together. We exchanged phone numbers, and then we both moved to New York a few months later.”
Fast-forward to today. As a member of Jon Batiste and Stay Human, the thirty-year-old drummer has landed one of television’s hottest drum seats, grooving on his minimalist kit in the house band for the new post–David Letterman Late Show With Stephen Colbert.
On that fated New Orleans day, the friends-at-first-sight clicked on multiple levels. “We have a musical and also a personal and spiritual connection,” Saylor explains. “As far as musical connections, Jon’s favorite drummers at that time just happened to be drummers that I was also listening to very heavily, especially Jason Marsalis, Adonis Rose, and Shannon Powell. They’re all New Orleans drummers that Jon had played with a lot when he was in high school.
“Those drummers have a certain feeling and groove. Shannon has such a deeply soulful feeling in anything he plays, especially when he plays just the snare drum and bass drum. It has this funky but uplifting spirit to it. I was drawn to that. And Jason Marsalis and Adonis Rose both have a very serious, intense ride cymbal swing beat that I was drawn to. These are some of the things that brought Jon and me together. Also, I got to play and hang with Ellis Marsalis when I was fifteen years old, so I started listening to a lot of his music. And Ellis was one of Jon’s teachers, so [Jon] was heavily influenced by him as well.
“So, even though Jon and I grew up in completely different parts of the country, in completely different cultures, we were listening to a lot of the same music.” With a laugh Saylor adds, “The only difference is that he was from New Orleans and was in it; I just had the records.”
Saylor’s hometown, far north of New Orleans’ prolific music scene, was Indiana, Pennsylvania. With a population of merely 14,000, the small town could hardly be called a bustling arts center. But Saylor found abundant inspiration and guidance within his humble environs and just beyond. His trumpeter father and flautist mother were music educators in the public school system. And their local church, the Full Gospel Assembly of God, was a musical nucleus for the entire family. Saylor’s mother was the choir director, while his father played in the band.
“Every Sunday my dad would let me sit up next to the drummer at church,” Saylor recalls. “I was fascinated watching him play. He used to let me sit in from time to time. When I didn’t play drums, I’d play percussion, tambourine, woodblock, or shakers. I just wanted to be involved.”
The telltale signs of Saylor’s rhythmic inclinations emerged early in childhood, with the classic activity of banging on pots and pans. Recognizing his son’s undeniable genes, Joe’s father purchased his three-year-old a toy drumset. At age eight, Joe began lessons with local college students, and within four years his quick advancements inspired his father to seek out the best pro guidance available.
He found it sixty-seven miles away, in Pittsburgh, with Roger Humphries, a jazz drummer who’d worked with the heavies, most notably in a stint with Horace Silver that produced many a classic recording. Young Saylor had found his mentor.
“My dad would drive to Pittsburgh every Saturday to drop me off at Roger’s house,” Saylor says. “I was taking lessons, but it was often more just about spending time with him and watching him play. Sometimes the whole lesson would be just Roger sitting at the drums and playing a solo for two hours straight. Or sometimes the lesson was him taking me across the street to his uncle’s house. At that time, the entire street was occupied by members of the Humphries family, including Roger’s mother and some of his uncles and aunts. Some of them had gone to elementary school with people like Art Blakey, Mary Lou Williams, and Billy Strayhorn, all jazz legends.
“So I’d sit and listen to them talk about growing up with those people, and they’d show me old black-and-white photos of young Art Blakey. I couldn’t believe I was so lucky to experience being around those people. I remember going back to sixth grade on the following Mondays and thinking to myself, I had an experience this weekend that none of my classmates would understand.”
Ironically, the drumming resource Saylor did bypass was the one closest within reach. “Indiana is a small town, but it’s a college town,” Joe explains. “And they had a great drum line in the marching band at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. I loved watching the drummers in the marching band. When I got to high school, I joined, mostly because I had to—my dad was the band director! I hated it, though. I wasn’t into it. I just wanted to play drumset. Now, when I look back at my younger self, I wish I had taken it more seriously. But at the time I thought, Aw, this is dumb—I want to swing out!”
The young Saylor can be forgiven—in his household, jazz LPs, largely big band music, were constantly spinning on the turntable. And Humphries initiated Saylor into another facet of jazz. “He exposed me to bop, and especially hard bop with artists like Art Blakey, Freddie Hubbard, Max Roach, Clifford Brown, Coltrane, and Miles Davis.”
The upstart was hooked. Eager to form his own group, Saylor recruited his two best friends, pianist Angelo Versace and bassist Philip Kuehn. Seeking to raise the bar for all, Saylor tapped Humphries’ musician/teacher connections so that his buddies could also study with jazz pros. With their collective initials as a moniker, the trio launched paj3 (pronounced “page three”). Improving by leaps and bounds through their high school years, they picked up local gigs, eventually graduating to more substantial dates in Pittsburgh. And they even rubbed elbows with legends.
“Having my dad as the high school band director was great,” Saylor says. “He brought in guest artists for us to play with, like Jon Faddis and Slide Hampton. And he would set up gigs for us to play with them—outside of the high school—when they were in town. He would set up gigs in Pittsburgh at clubs, with the paj3 rhythm section accompanying various artists.”
The young friends also performed with Ellis Marsalis when he came to town to teach a master class. “That’s where I learned how to play with people,” Saylor recalls. “The practice room is different, especially in jazz music. The place you really learn how to play is on the bandstand. And it helps learning with people who can really play.
“My advice to younger players is to get around older musicians,” Saylor emphasizes. “Be around them as much as possible, and try to play with them. That’s where you really get the essence and the feeling of the music. You can get it somewhat from listening to recordings. But there’s a difference between listening to a recording and actually being with the spirit of those people in person.”
Saylor studied with Humphries for six years, eventually advancing to the level where the teacher subbed out some of his own gigs to the fledgling player. By the time Saylor was seventeen years old and covering dates with Humphries’ band, he remembers realizing, Okay, I can do this professionally.
Soon after that first fortuitous meeting with Batiste in New Orleans, Saylor packed his bags for New York City to attend the Manhattan School of Music, where he studied closely with John Riley and Justin DiCioccio. Subsequently, he earned his master’s at the Juilliard School under the guidance of jazz greats Carl Allen and Kenny Washington.
Once engaged in their conservatory studies, Saylor and Batiste gathered freelance gigs, and Batiste recruited Saylor to form a trio. Rounding out the unit with Saylor’s longtime bassist friend, Kuehn, the Jonathan Batiste Trio gigged regionally for several years and in 2006 released the independent CD Live in New York: At the Rubin Museum of Art.
When Kuehn left town for a summer, the band found itself adrift. But the temporary setback turned out to be a serendipitous open door. “We were left with no bass player and no gigs,” Saylor recalls. Tuba player Ibanda Ruhumbika stepped in to fill the gap, along with saxophonist Eddie Barbash. The new unit set upon a grassroots strategy—or perhaps a pavement strategy—that would change its future.
“It’s wild how it all happened,” Saylor says. “We really wanted to bring the music to the people in a different way. So we racked our brains, saying, ‘How can we play for people if we don’t have any gigs? We could play in the street or the subway station.’ Then we figured, ‘Why don’t we play on the subway cars? But not like typical buskers. Let’s literally play a concert in the subway car for the whole ride.
“So we’d set up in the subway car and play for an hour, the whole way from uptown to downtown. We did that every single night for an entire summer. We ended up getting so many fans. And we eventually realized that this is how we could build a fan base.”
The commuter concerts caused normally blasé New York straphangers to drop their defenses, clapping, cheering, and even boogieing on the swaying and literally rocking subway dance floor. Saylor often grooved the crowd with only his lone tambourine at hand. “When we started getting gigs,” he says, “all these people would show up there. Our fan base just grew and grew. We became known for doing this kind of mobile concert. And that mobile band became known as Jon Batiste and Stay Human.” Embracing its gritty venue, in 2011 the band self-released the album MY NY, which features takes from the train concerts.
At its club gigs, the band would often harken back to its street roots, parading audiences through venues and out into the streets, with Batiste leading the way, wailing on his melodica and followed by tuba, sax, and Saylor providing some impressively funky tambourine playing. The pied-piper unit gained visibility, leading to a stroke of luck: an invitation to appear on Comedy Central’s Colbert Report.
For a July 2014 appearance, Colbert featured the band in support of its album Social Music. While interviewing Batiste, Colbert asked him to define the meaning of the title. Echoing the band’s credo, Batiste responded, “It’s music that’s meant to be shared. It’s meant to be danced to, cried to, laughed to…. The world is global right now. I draw from all styles.”
The group then took the stage, slamming into “Express Yourself,” with Batiste on vocals. Saylor laid down a shimmying, pumping N’awlins groove sparked with cowbell syncopations. As the tune shifted into the bridge, the camera framed Saylor as he fired off hellacious fills over the deep pulse. Batiste tore it up behind the keys, then kicked the stool out from under him and grabbed his melodica. With Saylor close behind, now strutting while playing a snaky tambourine pulse, the surging march was on. The audience—plus Colbert—jumped to their feet. Forming a human train, they low-crouch strided out the doors, surging onto 54th Street and into additional crowds that merged with the celebration. It was the kind of New Orleans–block-party-meets-Manhattan–street scene that the band calls a “love riot.”
“They liked having us on the show,” Saylor says in an understatement. “Then, when Colbert got the Late Show gig, he remembered us. He got together and had a conversation with Jon, and they found they had similar beliefs, philosophies, goals, and intentions in what they were all about. It’s just that Jon was doing his thing through music and Steven was doing his through comedy.”
With Colbert’s Late Show, the band had found a forum where it could continue to exercise its street philosophy of freely mixing jazz, funk, R&B, blues, pop, and rock, all buoyed by a New Orleans undercurrent. And the core unit could also experiment with diversity, varying its sound with a roster of guest members.
“We in Stay Human tend to not necessarily endorse or embrace a genre as much as to embrace the intention of the music,” Saylor explains. “That’s why we call our music ‘social music.’ It’s not about whether we’re playing jazz or blues or rock. Whatever it is, it’s about the intent, the spirit of the music. It’s social music: music for and with people.”
The passing of the Late Show torch from David Letterman to Colbert was one of last year’s biggest buzzes in the entertainment world. And the selection of Stay Human for the revered house-band position was a colossal coup for a lower-on-the-radar indie group. Saylor and company realized they were filling the shoes of late-night royalty, so they appreciated the opportunity when former musical director Paul Shaffer met with them to offer his blessings and plenty of good advice.
But it was soon clear that Batiste’s group would approach its new high-profile gig by taking a different tack from its predecessors, employing much the same ethos that it had nurtured from the start. The band leans toward originals rather than cover-tune snippets and embraces an in-the-moment vibe, often joyfully winging it.
“There are no charts,” Saylor says with a smile. “This band has never depended on reading music. Usually Jon writes the music according to the guest. We pretty much learn everything by ear the day of. It’s half and half: Jon either writes the music beforehand and brings it in and teaches it to us, or he comes up with it the day of. I personally hate reading sheet music while playing. I always have. It distracts me from making music. Some people are great at it; I never have been, partly because my focus is somewhat on the piece of paper rather than fully inside the music. Thankfully, this band has a similar theory about that.
“It’s a balance,” Saylor continues, “because there’s no pressure as far as having to sight-read. But there is the pressure of having to remember a whole lot! These guys have gotten pretty good at that. A lot of times we’ll figure out the arrangement collectively, although the general idea of the song will come from Jon. He may also have a very specific concept and ask me for a particular beat.”
On the occasions that Stay Human is slated to accompany a featured musical guest, the artist will normally supply MP3s beforehand. But the rehearsal approach can vary widely. “We played with Willie Nelson together with John Mellencamp,” Saylor says by explanation. “They sent a recording and said, ‘Learn this song and we’ll play it.’ Nothing very specific. We got to rehearsal, played it down, and they said, ‘Cool, we’ll see you at the gig!’
“On the other hand, some artists are more specific. The most specific so far was Don Henley. It was really cool working with him, because he’s a drummer himself. So he was very specific as to what he wanted from everybody, but especially from the drums. He was even specific to what size drums he wanted me to play and how he wanted them tuned. At rehearsal, he came over to me and said, ‘Yeah, man, it’s great, but it’s not the sound that I want. Could you get a 7″-deep snare drum and tune it to a certain pitch?’ I keep extra equipment there, so I asked my drum tech and he got me what Don asked for.
“Playing with Yo-Yo Ma was special too,” Saylor says. “He actually sat in with us for the whole night. We did six or seven songs with him. We recorded one full-length song that’s up on YouTube and on the Internet as a webcast. It was a classical piece, ‘The Swan.’ It was fun to collaborate and figure out how to play that classical piece in the setting of the Human band.
“That was really cool, because one of the things I love to do is collaborate in other genres—not just other genres of music but other genres of art. For instance, we accompanied and collaborated on the show with a tap dancer, Michelle Dorrance, who recently won the MacArthur genius grant. Playing with Ed Sheeran was also fun, because we played with him in the original Stay Human format of tambourine, melodica, sax, and tuba while he played guitar and sang.”
On a typical workday for The Late Show, Saylor arrives at the newly renovated Ed Sullivan Theater, located on Broadway in Manhattan’s theater district, between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m., depending on whether the band is needed for a rehearsal with a featured musical guest. The members get their own rehearsal time for approximately thirty to forty-five minutes, during which they determine what to play for the “bumpers” into and out of commercials, the numbers they’ll perform for the studio audience during commercial breaks, and the guest walk-on material.
Next, they hit the stage for a comedy rehearsal, providing any cues needed for Colbert’s monologue or bits at his desk. After running down the theme song as a balance check for the sound engineers, the band heads down to the hair and makeup department where, Saylor jokes, “We all get pretty.” Next stop is their dressing room for the night’s wardrobe and a return to the stage to warm up the already-stoked studio audience with a high-spirited number or two. After Colbert makes his entrance and answers a few questions from the audience, the official taping begins at 5:30 and wraps roughly at 7. Post-show, Saylor often finds the energy to head out for freelance dates.
In the course of Saylor’s jazz freelancing, he’s played with numerous notables, including Joe Lovano, Steve Wilson, and Wynton Marsalis. But he cites a particular former engagement as being surprisingly influential to his drumming foundation. The gig, spanning a two-year period (2013-14), was with the New York City institution Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks, a band specializing in authentic re-creations of pre-swing jazz music from the ’20s and early ’30s.
“I learned so much about drums from Vince and playing with those guys,” Saylor says, “because the drumset was invented by the guys that played that style of music. The roots of the instrument we play are based in that music. So I learned so much about timekeeping, feel, sound, dynamics, and orchestration, because on that gig, Vince actually brings the drumset. His drums are from the 1920s. You play a 28″ bass drum, a snare drum, a couple of choke cymbals, a China cymbal, some woodblocks, cowbell, and additional pieces like timpani and chimes. It’s almost like a percussion section rather than a typical drumset with tom-toms, a ride cymbal, and crash.
“Playing with them on their steady gig twice a week, along with additional dates, was really an education for me. I’d listened to and played a lot of New Orleans music. And the music Vince plays is based in early New Orleans music and the big band music that came out of that, such as the early Duke Ellington band, Fletcher Henderson, and Paul Whiteman.
“Vince is cool because he’s very specific about the music he plays; he doesn’t play any music beyond the mid-’30s. You’ve got to be dead on with that music. Vince played with Sonny Greer. He caught the tail end of playing with the original guys who played that music.
“If there’s anything I’d pass on to younger musicians,” Saylor says, “it’s that it is so important to know the history and the origins of the music you’re playing. When you ignore that, it’s almost as if you’re ignoring your grandparents. Check out where your parents came from; check out where your grandparents came from. It will give you so much insight and wisdom into what’s going on right now.
“I studied early jazz in school classes,” Joe goes on, “and I’ll admit it, I was ignorant. I didn’t pay much attention to it. I literally thought to myself, I’m never going to be playing this kind of music—people don’t play this. Lo and behold, nine years later, I was in the top band in the country that plays that type of music. You never know.”
In addition to the frequent live dates, Saylor played with the Nighthawks on several seasons of the smash series Boardwalk Empire, in which the group often appeared on camera. In the last half of 2014, Saylor’s touring commitments with Batiste increased, forcing him to move on from the Nighthawks. [Check out next month’s issue of Modern Drummer to learn all about Giordano’s current drummer, Paul Wells.]
The uplifting quality that Saylor cites as a core musical value is evident in his energized, deep-pocketed, band-supporting drumming. And the Stay Human band reflects that value in its penchant for high-spirited, positive music and in its animated stage presentation. The quartet wholeheartedly embraces the value of entertaining its audience, showing them a good, rousing time while simultaneously upholding musical values. Batiste’s beaming smile and brightly colored suits light up the stage, and when the pianist jumps to his feet to dance about with the melodica, saxophonist Barbash just may leap on the piano. And Saylor’s physical, impassioned drumming exudes a fully natural showmanship. They’re sincerely having a ball, and they’re charged when audiences share that.
Make no mistake: Stay Human takes its musicianship very seriously. But the group places a high premium on fun too, much like the early marching bands of New Orleans, which brought their communities out into the streets to celebrate life together.
Reflecting on the many ingredients of musical artistry, ranging from heart to intellect to showmanship, Saylor says, “It’s a balance. I think you have to have it all. But everybody has to figure out their own balance of how they do it. For me, I play music because I believe that the spirit of the music is more important than the music itself. And I believe that music is a tool, just as a hammer is a tool. You can either break something down or you can build something up. What I want to do is to build up and to uplift.
“I also believe that the spirit of the basis of jazz music is the blues, and the blues is joyful in the face of adversity. That’s the spirit of jazz, and that’s the spirit that I want to embody.”
Drums: Tama Star Walnut
A. 5.5×14 snare
B. 16×16 floor tom
C. 12×24 bass drum
1. 15″ prototype Fat Hats
2. 20″ prototype Bounce ride
Sticks: Vic Firth, including mallets and brushes
Heads: Remo Coated Ambassador snare and tom batters and Coated Powerstroke 3 (or Coated Emperor) bass drum batter
Percussion: Remo tambourines and cowbell