June 29, 2020

FTV: Hats off to Joe Saylor

   Some musicians wear hats and I never gave it much thought until I saw Dwight Yoakum in the movie Sling Blade (1996).  As a disciple of the Bakersfield Sound, I always assumed Yoakum’s ever present cowboy hat was symbolic of his country music roots.  Despite the ample locks of hair that streamed from under his western chapeau, it turns out he has a profoundly bald pate under his hat.  With the hair on the top of my heading receding at an ever increasing rate, I am not making any statements about baldness.  It isn’t like he was trying to hide anything (he did not wear his hat in the movie), I just hadn’t given any thought as to what was under his ever present head gear.  Over the last couple of decades, Roger McGuinn, the former leader of The Byrds, began wearing a  Panama style hat.  McGuinn’s headgear has also become a permanent fixture, but is it due to an ebbing hairline or is it just a fashion statement?  When Donna the Buffalo performed at the Porcupine Mountain Music Festival in 2018, leader Jeb Puryor was sporting his trademark brimless beanie hat that has been his trademark since we first began spinning their Rockin’ In The Weary Land album in 1998.  Fashion statement or cover up, hats have been part of music for a long, long time.  Like the cobalt colored granny glasses McGuinn sported in his Byrd days, musician’s hats can sometimes stimulate their own fashion trend.

     The late Neil Peart, the drummer extraordinaire from the band Rush, began wearing a kind of pillbox hat similar to Puryor’s in the second half of his long career.  Anton Fig sported a beret of sorts during all the years he played with Paul Shaffer’s band on The Late Show with David Letterman.  Fig has appeared more recently in Joe Bonnamassa videos and he is still a hatted drummer (subbing a baseball cap for the beret in recording sessions).  It has grown to be such a part of Fig’s image that I didn’t even recognize him without it.  He was part of the stage band at a Bob Dylan Tribute concert in 1992 and sans his trademark hat, it did not hit me who he was until I spied his name in the credits.  Fig’s drumming counterpart on Saturday Night Live, Shawn Pelton, seems to favor the type of ‘newsboy’ cap worn by Dr. Archie ‘Moonlight’ Graham in the movie Field of Dreams.  Pelton even wears his signature hat when filming drum instruction videos.  The latest drummer I noticed wearing a hat at all times is Joe Saylor, and in his case, we are back to the ever present Dwight Yoakum style cowboy hat.  The bearded Saylor hides not a receding hairline under his hat, but a shaved head (but one won’t find many pictures of him without his lid).

     I really didn’t know much about Joe Saylor until I began tuning into The Late Show with Stephen Colbert to get his daily summary of what Colbert called Donald and the Giant Impeach.  The  whole sordid affair made it hard for me to follow the unfolding story on CNN or the network news shows.  Somehow the sprinkling of humor Colbert added to each day’s proceedings made it easier to swallow this nonsense.  I won’t get further into the politics of the situation beyond saying that humor like Colbert’s is what people need to smooth the rough patches on the road of life.

     Having not been a regular Late Show watcher since David Letterman retired, I started to take notice of Colbert’s house band.  John Batiste and Stay Human (or Stay Homin’ as they have been billed during the ‘broadcast from home’ episodes dictated by the COVID-19 pandemic) replaced Paul Shaffer’s CBS Orchestra so I was curious how the new house band would compare.  The ‘bumpers’ the band play for the audience during commercial breaks aren’t usually heard in their entirety by the TV audience.  Returning from station breaks, the camera will pan across the band and that is when I began to take note of the be-hatted drummer in the band, Joe Saylor.  When Colbert’s normal studio entry music ends, he an Saylor always exchanging knowing looks and a couple of drum fills as if to say, “Yeah, baby, here we go again!”  My initial research on him was supposed to find out why Saylor always wears a hat, but in the end, I found out his story is much more interesting than ‘he always wears a cowboy hat’.

     Saylor grew up in the relatively small (population 14,000) college town of Indiana, Pennsylvania,  His parents were both public school music teachers so he was raised in a musical environment.  His father noticed something in the way young Joe banged on the pots and pans in the kitchen, so by age three, he had a toy drum set.  The family attended a church that featured a full band so his dad would let him sit up front with the drummer.  When Joe wasn’t sitting in for the drummer, he would be playing percussion, tambourine, woodblock or shakers just to be involved.  His natural aptitude for the drums had him taking lessons from local college students by age eight.  Saylor outgrew his teachers so at age twelve, his father began dropping him off on Saturdays at the home of jazz drumming legend Roger Humphries, sixty seven miles away in Pittsburgh.

     Saylor describes his ‘lessons’ with Humphries:  “My dad would drive to Pittsburgh every Saturday and drop me off at Roger’s house.  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 Bill Strayhorn, all jazz legends.”  When Saylor told this story to Jeff Potter in Modern Drummer magazine in 2014, he summed up the whole experience saying, “I couldn’t believe I was so lucky to experience being around those people.  I remember going back to sixth grade the following Mondays and thinking to myself, ‘I had an experience this weekend that none of my classmates would understand.’”

     The early exposure to jazz had an unintended consequence.  Even though his father was his high school band director, Saylor wasn’t thrilled at being part of the band.  He loved the sound of a marching drum line, but he thought, “Aw, this is dumb –  I want to swing out!  I hated it.  I just wasn’t into it.  I just wanted to play drum set.  Now, when I look back at my younger self, I wish I had taken it more seriously.”  Saylor can read drum scores but found over time he much prefers to follow the other musicians when creating music rather than just playing written parts.

     In high school, Saylor joined two friends in a jazz trio they called paj3 (“page three”) which they coined by combining the first letter of their names.  They expanded from local gigs to more substantial ones around Pittsburgh.  Saylor’s father used his music connections to get them gigs backing various artists who came through the area, like Ellis Marsalis.  After six years of lessons with Humphries (that included playing out on some of his teacher’s gigs), Saylor finally realized, “Okay, I can do this professionally.”  As high school graduation neared, Joe took his sticks to New Orleans to soak up some of the music styles he had heard on some of his favorite records.  While he was weighing a move to NOLA to continue his music studies, the Crescent City provided Joe with a glimpse into his future.

     Saylor told Modern Drummer his NOLA story:  “True story.  I was just walking down the street one day, kind of aimlessly, because I didn’t know where I was going.  And John 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 drum set.   That’s the first time we played together.  We exchanged phone numbers, and then we both moved to New York a few months later.”  Saylor’s musical education at the Manhattan School of Music culminated with a Master’s at the Juilliard School.  Joe’s unplanned meeting with Batiste years earlier brought them back together in New York where they formed the Jonathan Batiste Trio.  They released an independent CD (Live in New York:  At the Rubin Museum of Art) in 2006. When the bass player left the band, Saylor and Batiste found themselves at a crossroads:  “We were left with no bass player and no gigs,” Saylor recalled.  It was a moment that started them moving forward toward their current gig with Colbert’s Late Show.

     The band filled out their ranks by adding tuba player Ibanda Ruhumbika and saxophonist Eddie Barbash.  Their first grassroots campaign (or ‘pavement’ campaign as Potter calls it in his article) was to bring music to the people in the streets and subway stations.  Then they got the inspiration that would separate them from the typical NYC buskers:  “Why don’t we play on the subway cars?  Let’s literally play a concert in the subway car for the whole ride.”  Saylor continues, “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.”  Saylor would provide rhythm with a tambourine and Batiste would play the melodica rather than a standard keyboard.  Even at club gigs, they often found themselves leading a conga line with the audience in tow;  through the club, out to the streets and back again.  Their growing reputation led to a spot on Comedy Central’s Colbert Report in July of 2014.  They played Express Yourself and ended up leading a N’awlins type street parade out onto 54th Street where their block party was joined by people on the street.  Saylor’s understated assessment of their spot was, “They liked having us on the show.”

     When Colbert took over The Late Show upon Letterman’s retirement, he remembered Stay Human’s visit to his old show and called Jon.  Colbert found they approached comedy and music in very similar ways.  The band was offered the high profile slot and given a free hand to keep their street band ethos.  Most late night TV bands tend to use snippets of cover-tunes for the guest’s walk on music and commercial bumpers.  Stay Human uses original tunes, some crafted the very day of the taping.  Saylor calls their style ‘social music’:  “It’s the intention of the 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.”  As for how the music is created, Salyor continues, “There are no charts.  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 (the taping).  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.”

     When they are called upon to accompany guest artists, they will usually get an MP3 of the music to learn before they rehearse with the guest musicians.  Most will follow the band’s relaxed way of putting the arrangements together.  Don Henley was one guest who was quite specific as to what he needed from the band (and being a drummer, especially from Saylor):  “At the rehearsal, [Henley] 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 inch 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.  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.”

     Watching more recent ‘homemade’ COVID-19 episodes of The Late Show indicate that they have expanded the band’s lineup a bit with a bass player, another percussionist, and an additional keyboard player.  I had a couple of other questions about Saylor that have finally been answered.  The first was, “What do the four letters on his bass drum mean?” (a question answered by a sudden flash of insight:  Late Show w/ Steven Colbert).  The second (Does Saylor have a family?) was also answered recently when Baptiste congratulated him on air for the birth of the Saylor family’s first child).  The only remaining question?  Why the cowboy hat?  It probably isn’t to ward off a sunburn on his shaved head as his main gig takes place indoors.  I will let you know if and when I find out what inspired his trademark headgear.  In the meantime, remember the name of Joe Saylor.  I have a feeling that he and Baptiste will be making their brand of social music for a long time.  Seeing Stay Human on the front lines of the NYC ‘Black Lives Matter’ marches certainly fits in with Saylor’s description of their music:  “Music for and with people.” 

Top Piece Video: Speaking of Dwight, Buck and the Bakersfield sound . . . and men in hats!