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Art Always Comes First – Michael League

By Bryan Reesman

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Eclectic collective Snarky Puppy and their leader Michael League are proof that music and commerce can click. They have released over a dozen studio and live releases, drawn acclaim for their vibrant and off-the-cuff live shows around the world, and won three Grammy Awards. While they are generally labeled as jazz, the large ensemble siphons everything from world music to rock to R&B and revels in changing things up at every concert.

The man at the heart of this musical outfit is bassist Michael League, who has actually called Snarky Puppy a pop group that likes to improvise with mostly instrumental tunes. He formed the group in college and has seen it grow through his open-minded approach, strong business sense, and the multiple members’ ability to create musical synergy. (The current album features 19 musicians.) His story is one where talent, drive, vision, and serendipitous circumstances all came together in just the right ways, even though at the outset there was no grand plan.

Looking back at a profound musical moment in his life, League recalls when a double bass player and a violinist from a military ensemble visited his high school and played a duo concert for only a handful of students after school. The budding artist went at the insistence of his choir director.

“I was just sitting right in front of professional musicians with no sound system, and just watching them play really made a huge impact on me,” recollects League. “Just the power of music to move people, and also the ability of a human being to do something at that level, was really special. The duo was probably bummed out that they came all the way from D.C. to play for just a few kids who were pretty disinterested, but it had a huge impact on me.”

A military brat, League spent the first seven years of his life in Southern California, the next three in Montgomery, Alabama, and the following eight in Clifton, Virginia during his junior high and high school years. He started playing guitar at age 13 but did not pick up bass until 17. He joked that he was the worst bass player in his class. It’s funny how, 22 years later, he is one of the busiest people in jazz. (He calls JAZZed via Skype during a European tour.) He was originally self-taught on acoustic guitar, and his older brother (by five years) was a jazz musician who drew him into that world. By age 15, League was playing in his high school jazz band and also formed a classic rock covers band.

“I was going more towards the song-based stuff like Zeppelin, Cream, and Steely Dan,” recalls League of his rock jazz tastes. “There’s rock, there’s blues, there’s the influence of American music and jazz also, but done through this compositional filter. Whereas most of the jazz that we listened to when we talk about jazz is less maybe about the composition and more about the interpretation and the freedom within it. Not always, but generally. I was always a song-based person.”

By his senior year at Centreville High School, League had been taking guitar lessons with a private teacher named Dan Leonard in Virginia for two years – “he just helped me immensely” – then he switched to bass. While there were several guitarists in his high school band, there was no bass player and they needed one. (Funnily enough, one of those guitarists is currently Snarky Puppy’s tour manager.) Dave Detwiler ran the jazz program at Centreville, and on top of his duties in school, he invited League to weekly rehearsals with the Georgetown University jazz band.

It turns out that League fell in with bass and decided to study it in college, although he had to learn double bass there. Previously, he had taken one or two double bass lessons in high school from his orchestra director Cheryl Cooley. “She was very generous and invited me over to her house and taught me the basics of reading and the basic positions – bow handling and all this stuff,” recalls League. “But when I went to University of North Texas, I really got my ass kicked for sure.”

Although League attended the University of North Texas (in Denton, near the Dallas-Fort Worth area) for four years, he did not finish the music program. As he jokes, you could finish in four if you took the right classes. But shrugging off a history or math class for an Afro-Brazilian ensemble meant that the process took longer. The bassist still enjoyed his time there, making use of the school’s resources in the way he saw fit as opposed to following a structured curriculum. He believes there are a lot of great and bad things about higher music education.

“There’s something intrinsically disjunct about teaching street music in school and grading it,” believes League. “There’s something disjunct about grading music. There’s a cognitive dissonance there. Music school is just like a government or a nation or a society. You don’t just submit yourself to everything that everybody says you should do or wants you to do. You come up with a plan and use the resources available to you to live the life that you want to live and make the decisions that you want to make.”

That is what League did in college. He took the classes that he was interested in and shirked the ones he wasn’t. But he kept himself open to different things, like 18th century counterpoint and music history classes. The bassist played in the acclaimed One O’Clock Lab Band ensemble and in the Brazilian ensemble. He played with the jazz singers and also took classical dance lessons. “I did a lot of stuff that was outside of the normal kind of jazz path,” he says. “But the whole time I was trying at least to be aware of what it was I wanted to gain from music school.”

The bassist admittedly had few music fundamentals down when he arrived at North Texas, so his main priority was “to get the nuts and bolts together,” he explains. “Get the scales, get the modes, get the harmonic knowledge, get the ear training, get the technique on the instrument, spend all day practicing, expose myself to new ideas and new music, talk with my friends about things, have them show me records I’ve never heard of. There was a moment in school where I didn’t have to make a decision, but it seemed clear that if I keep pursuing things the way that I want to pursue them, then I wasn’t going to be doing what the school wanted me to do, which was get my modern jazz thing together, be an unbelievable reader, and play in the One O’Clock Lab Band. There were also professors that were encouraging me to write in a very different way than I wanted to write. Of course, my writing was not super developed, but at the same time I think their reasoning was largely [due to the fact that] they weren’t aware of the music that was influencing me.”

The musician formed Snarky Puppy after his first year in college, “three to four years before this kind of major period in which the band started playing in on the black scene and we started accumulating members of the band, like Shaun Martin and Bobby Sparks,” explains League. “They started playing with and became members of the band. Suddenly our heroes and our influences were playing alongside us. It was cool.”

From the first rehearsal of Snarky Puppy, League brought in songs that he had written or arranged that were printed out on sheet music. His bandmates came to his house, and the group started as an outlet for his compositions. Then when they played some gigs and had fun, they decided to keep on playing. They kept writing songs, kept adding things, and made “a little record in a local studio, did a little tour,” according to League, who is the group’s central composer. “So in that way, there wasn’t this grand vision of Snarky Puppy will be playing Royal Albert Hall and Carnegie Hall in 15 years.”

League loves bringing people together, and he loves combining different musical elements to see what might happen. “I feel like I have an addiction for doing things like that,” he says. “I like developing things. To me, it’s also a creative process. It’s as creative to me as composing or playing on stage. When I look at great producers [like] Quincy Jones or Clive Davis, they have this ability to see a person and say: ‘Okay, this artist with this band in this studio, this set of songs.’ Then it’s magic. I really admire and get that disposition, but on a much lower level.”

League’s transition from high school in Virginia to music college in Texas also had a through line which helped in the formation and evolution of Snarky Puppy. While in high school, League played at First Baptist Church in Vienna, Virginia, which is a black Baptist church near D.C. “It definitely exposed me to a bunch of things, but I didn’t really do a deep dive into that tradition until I had dropped out of university, until I was 21,” he says. “I did four years at North Texas and then through I dropped out. Then through this kind of a bizarre twist of fate, I ended up in the middle of Dallas’ gospel and R&B scene, just from playing a jam session that someone asked me to play at their church.”

That church house band was essentially members of the late Roy Hargrove’s RH Factor, and the saxophone player asked League to join his band after that night. Another player that night, Bernard Wright from Jamaica, Queens, became League’s mentor and introduced him to all of the mainstays of the Dallas gospel and R & B scene, including band members of Kirk Franklin, Fred Hammond, Marcus Miller, Roy Hargrove, Snoop Dogg, and Erykah Badu. “Then I brought my band from Denton, 40 minutes north of there,” says League. “I told them about all that, and they started coming down and the scene started mixing. They were very separate. We were very ignorant of what was going on in Dallas while we were at school.”

The world of Snarky Puppy blossomed from there and has certainly been a grand adventure for League and his bandmates. But the large group was formed through the efforts of talented, knowledgeable musicians who created the right kind of musical mind meld that allowed them to mature and evolve. Music education certainly played a part in that.

Despite the fact that he did not finish college, League found the process very helpful for his musical career.

“The bottom line is that knowledge is never a bad thing,” stresses League. “It’s better to know X amount and use 10 percent of it on every gig than it is to know X amount and need 10 percent more. You can always use less of what you have, but you can never use more. The beautiful thing about school is it gives you not only access to lots of knowledge, but if you have four years of your life in which your main priority and your main responsibility is improving at music, you’re probably going to expend more time working on music than you will be if your major is government. Then music is a thing that you do in your spare time, and when you have to choose between priorities and you’re in a time crunch, you’re probably going to go with your major.”

He feels that the “blessing of music and higher education” is that it forces students “to live, breathe, eat, sleep, think music all day long”. It also allows for discourse and debating different aspects of music from other people. He finds that to be probably the most important part of the educational process, “hearing different points of view on the same thing and judging for yourself what you find to be true or what serves you or what inspires you. A lot of people talk badly about music college, and I could definitely pick apart a lot of things that I don’t like about it. But on the whole, do I believe it’s better than not existing? Definitely. More personally, did it serve me in the way that I needed to be served? 100 percent. It was exactly what I needed because it put me on the fire to get my basic knowledge of music together. I don’t know that I would have done that had it not been my daily responsibility.”

Such knowledge is certainly important when not only developing and leading a group like Snarky Puppy, but being a part of it. While there are Snarky Puppy members in other states and even countries, a set group goes out on each tour and knows all the songs in the band’s current setlist. Lately, that includes 42 songs from their repertoire. League says that their live playing philosophy has always been: Make the band happy and the audience will be happy.

“We don’t feel the pressure to play a certain song every night because we know the crowd wants, and I find that you definitely make your own bed,” explains League. “People say you choose your audience, your audience doesn’t choose you. I would say you create your audience. You create what they want. When you say you choose your audience, you’re implying there’s a bunch of people out there, in our case, that are dying to go to a gig and hear a bunch of songs they’d never heard before and don’t already love. And I don’t think that’s the case. I think we made our audience want that by doing it over and over. We’ve conditioned our audience to expect certain things, and one of the things they expect as a different set list every night and each song played differently.”

Now based in Brooklyn after three years in Dallas post-college, the bassist and bandleader believes that one must take risks, even potentially alienating longtime fans at times. He feels that ultimately musicians want people to support them in doing what they want to do. “I’d rather keep the audience small and open-minded than huge and chained to this idea of what they think we are,” says League. “Because sometimes we don’t even know what we are. It’s just unrealistic to expect that any audience is going to love everything you do. So you have to do what you love.”

Outside of Snarky Puppy, League is involved with many musical projects, including a “world blues band” called Bokanté for which he also plays guitar and oud. They have an album out in collaboration with the Metropole Orkest called White Heat. League is also guitarist and musical director for David Crosby’s acoustic group The Lighthouse Band (for whom he has recorded with and produced two albums, Lighthouse and Here If You Listen). He has a record label called GroundUP music (founded in 2012), and he is also the artistic director for the annual Miami Beach festival of the same name, which is four years old.

“Mostly what I’m doing now is producing different artists, largely [those] from around the world who are seeking to combine their musical traditions with more modern stuff,” says League. “That’s where I feel most comfortable and most useful because I have a passion for folkloric music, but also a perspective that’s more contemporary than a lot of people in the folklore scene. And I’m going to make a solo record hopefully in the next couple of years.”

Since 2016, The Lighthouse Band experience has been different for League. He plays a little bass but has focused more on playing acoustic and electric guitar and singing. “It’s funny because it took me back to those early years, like 13 to 16, when I was basically just playing guitar and singing songs, which I love,” remarks League. “I wouldn’t say it sharpened those skills. I would say it brushed off the heavily accumulated dust of some of those skills. I learned a lot.”

When asked how he handles all of these different roles without losing his mind, he quips, “iCal, a really good assistant, and feigning responsibility most of the time.”

The Snarky Puppy bandleader admits that in the last couple of years he has made some big steps in terms of delegation within the band and putting people in positions that he previously held. He notes that he allows them to fail and will not immediately take the reins back.

“As I think about the reason why I feel like I’m going to do a better job, it’s not because I’m better, it’s because I failed so many times that now I know what to look out for,” explains League. “And now I know, if X then Y. If I do this, this thing’s going to happen. And that new person doesn’t know that thing. But the only way they’re going to really know it is by doing it and failing exactly the way that I did. So really, I’m not saying that I’m better when I’m being a control freak. I’m just saying I’ve had that experience before.”

Another thing that League has learned is that doing everything in the way that one likes is less efficient and effective than having other people do them in ways that one might not like and making mistakes or failing that way. Through that process, other members can develop the confidence and experience to perform such tasks. Further, doing everything oneself means one’s quality of life suffers. So now he accepts letting certain things go. Funnily enough, perhaps too much so, according to some colleagues.

“The last couple of years I’ve actually been accused several times of being too comfortable with it,” he admits. “[I’ve had] people telling me ‘you need to take the reins back on the situation’ or ‘you need to do this’ or ‘you need to make this call,’ instead of trusting the person who has been tasked with it. That’s been interesting. I’m just not good at doing things halfway. I’m either a workaholic or on vacation.”

Outside of his various band endeavors, League loves to conduct master classes and not only impart his knowledge to other musicians and students, but to learn from the experience as well. His approach to education is to give students what they want from him. Thus, if attendees at one master class are interested in learning how to improvise, he will not deliver a lecture about music business. His priority is transparency and being totally truthful with them, whether they are asking about money, band leading, or composing.

“It’s important to not project this idea of yourself that’s hero-like by obscuring or glossing over the ugly parts of the answers, and at the same time not being so self-effacing that you don’t let them know that you have something to share with them,” advises League. “I really like the question-and-answer format for master classes. That’s generally how we start. Also, I tend to be pretty tangential, so I warn them in advance always – there will be lots of tangents. But I feel that’s where the real kernels of truth and experience come out, rather than just the direct answer to your question. I really like that because [at] some masterclasses, based on a question, I end up playing them demos from my laptop or voice notes that I made in the bathroom six years ago that became songs. Other times, I end up bringing people up to play and doing rhythm experiments. I want to go in with a game plan that allows lots of flexibility and creativity over the course of the session and also humanity because that’s what music’s about to me.”

Beyond clinics, League has also done ensemble coaching “where two groups will play two songs and I’ll work with them,” he explains. “Not doing a Q &A thing, just working with them as playing as an ensemble. I’ve done composition things where I work on students’ compositions with them. I’ve done week-long residencies where each student comes with a song and forms a new ensemble. We rehearse the song throughout the week. I love being put in different formats because it challenges me as a teacher and as a student of music, which I’ll be until I die.”

Music is the key to it all. League has noticed that a majority of the questions he receives at master classes revolve around survival – how to form a band, how to promote it well, how to maintain good relationships within it, and how to make a career as a musician.

“Lots of deep questions about musical philosophy, a lot about why we make music and how to communicate it most effectively,” he adds. “We’ll spend an hour and half talking about that stuff, and oftentimes I feel like there’s real progress made and see that the students like thinking about things in a different way and challenging their preexisting beliefs.”

Following the Q&A, particularly if he is somewhere for a more extended residency, he will be faced with the revelation that the students’ level of playing is often very low.

“We just spent 90 minutes talking about like super heavy, deep stuff that I could talk about with Wayne Shorter, but this person can’t play blues,” notes League. “No conversation or no information about musical concept or philosophy is ever wasted. I don’t regret any of that because those things will stay with them forever as they improve. However, I think sometimes it needs to be said that you must know how to play your instrument and must have a firm and fundamental understanding of tempo, time, rhythm, groove, feel, tone, sound – all of these essential building blocks of music before you really employ deeply conceptual things. And definitely before you start thinking about branding.”

Simply put, before the commerce comes the art. In all of his master classes, he drives home that all of the business, the decisions about branding, and the media dissemination and content creation, has to come out of the art.

“You can’t just look at Instagram and see what people are doing that’s getting hits and then just do that to your music,” remarks League. “Everyone’s music is different and therefore everyone’s approach to branding their music and publicizing their music should be different like a fingerprint. We have had success, I believe, in that we found ways of broadcasting our music that play to the music’s strengths, that play to the art’s strengths. It’s why similar bands use the exact same thing. They make live recording sessions videoed with people wearing headphones and recording studios, and it doesn’t do what our videos did. It’s because their music is different.”

League says he is empathetic towards musicians in terms of moving their musicianship and business forward at the same time, and he acknowledges the difficulty in doing both at the same time.

“At the end of the day, would I prefer a world full of musicians who can’t play and brand themselves well, or a world full of musicians who can really play but have trouble surviving?” he muses. “It’d be great to be in the middle, but I’d rather the second one because at least with the second one, someone can show up in your life and help you. A record label can do something for you, a management company can do something for you, or a powerful person or a patron can step in and do something for you with your musical talent. But if you have the first situation where you’re talented at branding, but the musicianship isn’t there, no one can just come in and make you a great musician. So I think it should get precedence.”

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