Q&A with Michael League: Building a Festival from the GroundUP

When the GroundUP Music Fest returns to Miami Beach for its third edition Feb. 8-10, you can bet there won’t be as many green room attendants. “Our headliners just don’t hang out backstage,” said festival creator Michael League, bassist of the blazingly hot cross-genre band Snarky Puppy. “They’re out with the crowds, checking out the music. I go backstage during performances and the rooms are empty. It’s insane.”

You can hardly fault these artists — or anyone, really — for wanting to be out in front of Miami Beach’s North Beach Bandshell in early February, soaking in rays and the sounds of League’s favorite bands while sipping beer from local breweries and munching on food from Miami celebrity chef Michelle Bernstein. It’s a magic formula that has made GroundUP Music Fest one of the most promising new jazz festivals on the international circuit, and one that League says he doesn’t want to tamper with — only improve on.

Keeping in line with their artist-centric, attendee-focused philosophy, the festival will once again feature two stages of music with no overlapping sets, and the number of attendees per day will be capped at an intimate 1800. Moreover, the festival will offer exclusive access to masterclasses with participating artists (a highlight of last year’s edition: the beachside singalong with world music powerhouse Banda Magda).

This year’s edition promises a similar mix of intimacy and immersion. League’s Grammy-winning ensemble Snarky Puppy will perform across all three nights (and in three different lineups) debuting material from their forthcoming album Immigrance. Additional headliners include the multi-instrumentalist Andrew Bird, the saxophonist Chris Potter, and singer-songwriter David Crosby. Soul-jazz sensation Lalah Hathaway and Cameroon-born bass phenom Richard Bona have been named the festival’s artists-at-large, in which capacity they will appear in various ensembles and oversee several different workshops.


JAZZIZ spoke with League about his experience curating the festival and what he’s learned in the three years since its maiden voyage. One surprising lesson: “We don’t need as much alcohol as we thought we did,” League said. “People come here to listen to the music and get into a vibe. They’re passionate about it, just like we are. But don’t get me wrong, they still like to dance.”

Below are excerpts from our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity.

JAZZIZ: This marks the first time the artist-at-large role is being shared. Lalah Hathaway and Richard Bona will split this year’s bill. How’d that decision come about?

Michael League: Well, Lalah [Hathaway] was nominated for a Grammy. Much like she is every year, actually. (It’s amazing. She might as well get a cot at the Staples Center.) She was only going to be with us one night, which I saw as an opportunity to bring in another, very different kind of artist, Richard Bona. He’s a friend of mine, and I’ve been a big fan since I was a kid. They’re very different but both very giving, generous musicians.

They’ll basically have carte-blanche at the festival, meaning they can play with whoever they want. They’ll make appearances with headlining artists, they’ll do masterclasses. They’ll just generally get to do whatever the hell they want.


I’m also excited to see Andrew Bird on this bill. What’s your history with Andrew and how did he get involved with the GroundUP Fest?

I’ve only actually met him one time — at the Byron Bay Blues Fest in Australia. But his bass player is a good buddy of mine, and I first heard of Andrew through him. I just really dug his stuff. There’s a specific kind of artist that’s right for this festival, and that artist can be a West African balafon player or it could be an Argentinian tango band or Andrew Bird. And for whatever reason, in my head, that’s the only kind of artist I’m looking for, even though the lineup is super diverse. There’s just a thing there that each one of these artists has.

What is that thing?

I think it’s a certain kind of union between artistic pursuit and accessibility. That might be the best way of putting. Artistically, it feels like they’re really pushing themselves to pursue this unique vision. But on the back side of that, you can put their music in front of anyone — and their children — and they’ll dig it.

That definitely applies to David Crosby.

(Laughs) Yes for sure.

I heard social media played some role in his involvement with the fest.

Yep, Twitter. The keyboard player in his band said that he needed to check out this group Snarky Puppy on YouTube. So he checked us out and then kind of went on a YouTube binge and started Tweeting us like five to 10 times a day. So I wrote him a Twitter message and he hit me right back and said, “Call me.” We invited him to Family Dinner 2. He was a guest there and we ended up becoming good buddies. He asked me to produce to records for him, one of which featured the Lighthouse Band, which will be performing here.

Three years in, what have you learned about putting on a festival?

I guess I’ve learned that it’s not as terrifying as I thought it was (laughs). I remember the morning of the first festival, I was just thinking I don’t know how we can possibly do this. But of course, everything was totally taken care of. Everything went so right. That’s not to say that it’s easy to put on a festival, because our production team busts their ass, and I’m very grateful for that team.

Any goals for the festival moving forward?

I would love to see this festival be blind, actually. If we were able to sell out in advance, I would like to be at the point where we don’t ever announce the artists, and people show up and it’s like a blind meal, they don’t know what they’re about to hear. They might see David Byrne walking through the crowd and they don’t know if he’s performing or just hanging out. I think that would be really hip.

That sense of intimacy, of blurring the line between artist and audience member — it seems very important to you.

It’s funny, man. We have a backstage area at this festival where the artists are supposed to hang out, but they just don’t use them. They never use them. They’re empty! And that wasn’t something we planned for. We didn’t make an announcement like, “We encourage the artists to stand in front of the stage and check out other groups.” It just happened naturally. And I think because there’s only between 1000 to 1800 people every day, there’s not this feeling of Holy shit, there’s David Crosby. This is my one chance to get a photo. You actually feel weird doing that because it’s so intimate. That’s just the vibe. And honestly, I’ve been so impressed by the audience. They’re there to listen to the music and hang. It’s really something special.

What role does Miami Beach play in the vibe of this fest?

It’s essential to the character of this festival. The palm trees, the proximity of the beach, the breeze, the way the sun hits the stage — all of those things influence the decisions of who plays on what stage at what time and what music is being played. I literally sit there imagining like, Is this what I want to hear on this stage as the sun is setting? So it affects everything.

Miami Beach’s North Beach Bandshell (Courtesy The Rhythm Foundation)

And Miami is a very cool, artistically vibrant, interesting place that doesn’t really get thought of that way, because other things make more noise. And that may be because it’s not the first thing in the window when you go to Miami. It’s more the club scene, the party scene, excess and glamour. But there are so many great artists living there, and such a great mix of cultures and foods. So that’s another mini goal of the festival, to kind of help turn people on to Miami. Having Michelle Bernstein cook every year — that’s been incredible. Having local coffee vendors, local breweries — it’s all to make people who aren’t from Miami think, “Damn, I didn’t know that about Miami,” and to also make people who are from Miami go, “Damn, I didn’t know that about Miami!”

For more information on the GroundUP Music Fest, including a full artist lineup, click here. To purchase tickets, click here

Feature image: Michael League of Snarky Puppy in Heineken Jazzaldia, Basque Country, Spain. (Urko Dorronsoro/Wikimedia Commons)

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