When GroundUp Music Festival was first conceived, it not only meant introducing Miami to touring musicians that played a more eclectic sound than what is typically heard in the city these days, but it also intended to deepen the organizers' investment in the local music community, a goal unheard of in the big business that is music festival entertainment.
Led by Snarky Puppy, the four-time Grammy Award-winning jazz and funk-infused jam band, and festival director Paul Lehr, outreach and education beyond the lighted stage and neon lights have been at the forefront of GroundUp's mission.
The three-day festival, which debuted in 2017, was only the beginning of things to come. One needs to look no further for GroundUp's community commitment than Allapattah, where a recent collaboration between a longtime member of Snarky Puppy and a group of Miami high school students has resulted in an original jazz record.
Developed by Zach Larmer, chief operating officer of Young Musicians Unite (YMU), the project's objective was to take YMU's top jazz ensemble, the Jazz Collective, and produce an album of purely original music.
"We applied for an [National Endowment for the Arts] grant and were funded for this project," Larmer says, adding that the GroundUp Music Foundation was a co-applicant on the grant. "It wasn't out of character to have them as a partner."
Larmer approached Snarky Puppy's pianist Shaun Martin, calling him a natural fit, to work with each student member of the Jazz Collective tasked with composing an original song. Martin, a Dallas native, obliged, traveling to YMU's Allapattah studio to workshop the material and later record the album, adding an artist-in-residence wisdom to the project. "He is the guest star of the album," Larmer adds.
The interest was mutual.
"One thing about us with Snarky [Puppy] is that we've always had an affinity towards teaching — not how to play our way, but how to play your way, how to express your feelings through your instrument," Martin says.
"A lot of times, I recognize that young people need as much of an ear as they do an outlet," he says.
Guerwen Gue, who plays bass guitar for the Jazz Collective, was beside himself at the thought of working with a member of Snarky Puppy.
"I was terrified of what he was going to say. I thought, Is he going to like it? Are the lines any good? Is the melody OK? I was having all of these thoughts in my head," says Gue, a senior at Young Men's Preparatory Academy in Wynwood who plans to continue studying music after high school.
Gue found peace in Martin's magical presence at the YMU studio.
"The way he entered the room and started playing. Boom! — like a burst of energy." Gue adds that the Snarky Puppy pianist taught him to extract more juice from his original material. "I can't wait to hear my tune on Spotify. It gets me excited just thinking about it."
Gue's track, "Changes of an Everlasting Moon," is one of five tracks on the album Presence, which will release on February 3. The Jazz Collective also features Jordan McAllister (alto sax), Aidan Johnston (guitar), Andre Perlman (trombone), Gabriel Johnson (trumpet), and Max Leon (drums). YMU teacher Taylor Vega also contributed to the album.
Gue credits the experience with kickstarting his creativity. He has since been composing music for another local jazz quartet and recording additional tracks. "That would not have happened if I didn't have that time with Shaun," he adds.
The project was a first for everyone involved, even Martin, who found the experience very refreshing.
According to Martin, the collaborative project is a deeper expansion of Snarky Puppy and GroundUp's mission. "We keep generating an audience, and everything is built organically from the ground up."
The festival returns to the Miami Beach Bandshell on February 3-5 and is as interactive and engaging as the band itself. In the past, guest musicians invited by Snarky Puppy have rubbed elbows with former Doobie Brothers' lead singer Michael McDonald and the late David Crosby following on-stage performances. "It's up close and personal," Martin says.
Snarky Puppy's Michael League is bullish about Miami's growing music scene. "With GroundUp Music Festival, I feel like we're giving the city something that it actually wants and needs but has had in kind of short supply. It's always been about getting involved with wherever we are and also building community, not just among musicians. That's a very huge thing for us."
League says it's important for them. "Music is not a thing that lives in a weird fishbowl. It's an all-encompassing thing that exists in communities among groups of people. We try to engage with as many different facets of it as we possibly can."
Larmer plans on continuing to engage with GroundUp and Snarky Puppy. "[Miami] is a place where there is a community of people who appreciate this type of music. It's an amazing vibe," he says. "Everyone is intermingling. It all comes together with connecting with an audience that appreciates this music with musicians who need that type of audience and proving that it can be done in a place that people may have written off otherwise."
GroundUp Music Festival. Friday, February 3, through Sunday, February 5, at Miami Beach Bandshell, 7275 Collins Ave., Miami Beach; groundupmusicfestival.com. Tickets cost $130 to $875 via gumf.tixr.com.