Arts + Literature Laboratory and the Wisconsin Union Theater Present the Madison Jazz Festival: Emerging from the Pandemic with Rhythm


Drummer extraordinaire Nate Smith and Kinfolk II are headliners for the opening Sunday of the Madison Jazz Festival at Breeze Stevens Field.

By Jonathan Gramling

For most jazz aficionados, they knew it was summer when the Isthmus Jazz Festival took center stage on the Memorial Union Terrace for a long weekend in the middle of June. Due to various circumstances, Isthmus bowed out as the event’s main sponsor and the Arts + Literature Laboratory and the Wisconsin Union Theater took over the production of the event and renamed it the Madison Jazz Festival to reflect its new format.

“It began when they had the ‘60’s Reunion’ on campus several years ago,” said Jolynne Roorda, co-director of Arts + Literature Laboratory. “Instead of having the usual Friday and Saturday available for the jazz festival, they had two consecutive Saturdays available. That’s when the idea of expanding it and making it more of a citywide event in

partnership with the Greater Madison Jazz Consortium came about. We’ve continued that even though the festival is not spread out on the terrace over multiple nights.”

One of the national acts who will be giving a headline performance is Nate Smith, drummer and bandleader extraordinaire. Smith is the kind of drummer who can evoke countless rhythms and sounds from his drum kit that blend with the other musical instruments in the group.

Although he is now based out of New York, Smith grew up in Chesapeake, Virginia. And he started drumming when his older brother was in a marching and concert band.

“I started actually on piano,” Smith said. “My mother bought a piano when I was about 10-years-old. And everyone in the house took lessons. I wasn’t a very good piano student. But I learned a few basics and learned how to read music and stuff. But I started to make up little songs on the piano after I took a few lessons. But when I discovered the drum set and also started playing drums in concert band in middle school, I fell in love with the drum set and the drums. That got all of my time and attention.”

And there were so many great drummers to learn from.

“There are so many influences,” Smith said. “Gosh! Everyone from Steve Gadd and Omar Hakim and Harvey Mason and all of the guys playing on the CTI Records dating back to the late 1970s to early 1980s. But even further back, I discovered jazz later on as a teenager. And when I did, I discovered Art Blakey, Alvin Jones, Philly Joe Jones and Jimmy Cobb. Those were the drummers that I listened to. I was listening to them very, very heavily as I was developing. I still do listen to those drummers a lot for inspiration.”

And then there is the great drumming traditions that harken back to the drums of Africa.

“I was obsessed with Drum Corp International,” Smith said. “I was obsessed with the Drumline. Those solos they played were really intricate where they had the orchestral pit. I was really into that. In college, I marched at James Madison University. I marched in their marching band my freshman year. I was way into marching bands as a kid.”

In the early 2000s, Smith decided he was going to make a go of a musical career.

“I’m kind of amazed every time I get to play music,” Smith reflected. “I’m kind of amazed this is what I do for a living. I grew up In Virginia. But in 2001, I moved to New York with the idea that I was going to become a working, touring musician. And it wasn’t until 2003 when I started playing with the great bassist Dave Holland and we started working really steadily that I started to make it. I’m really grateful to Dave for that opportunity. That was the beginning of my steady career as a musician. That was the point that I said to myself, ‘Maybe I can do this.’”

Smith’s drumming style is very complex.

“I’m really into playing polyrhythms on the drums while playing music that is in odd or mixed meters, so that it kind of builds a little every time the rhythmic cycle goes around,” Smith said. “To me, it makes it interesting and it kind of provides a different way of playing the drums, especially if you are playing stuff that is groove-based. A lot of groove-based music is in 4/4. But I like to experiment with playing stuff that is groove-based in odd time signatures.”

While jazz runs through all of Smith’s music, it doesn’t mean that he won’t create unique music drawing upon music of different genres like R&B.

“My music is a hybrid of all of the stuff that I absorbed growing up, all of the music that I listened to when I was a kid,” Smith said. “And I’m always thinking about the song first, writing songs. And once I write the song, I think about how the band will play it. So once I get an idea of what the song sounds like, whether it is an instrumental song or a song with vocals, then I start to think about how the band will approach playing it and arranging it for the band. But I’m always thinking about the song first. The arrangement, all the genre information, all the stuff that makes it R&B or jazz or rock or whatever comes later after I have an idea of what the melody is trying to say.”

And the vocals are just another instrument that Smith uses so that the audience feels the message.

“The vocals are absolutely musical instruments,” Smith emphasized. “On this new project, I’m working with a great young singer named Michael Mayo. He is really one to watch, an up and coming jazz vocalist. He definitely approaches his voice like an instrument. And so he can sing along with all of the instruments and blend in. He has a very agile voice. I really enjoy working with Michael. And I have a friend, Amma Whatt who is also a fantastic vocalist. She’s also featured on this new album. She’s singing really, really beautifully. She’s not necessarily a jazz singer, but she is very musical. And so she can find a way to blend in to any musical situation. She is really great.”

When watching a Nate Smith performance, don’t expect Smith’s drum kit to be placed front and center. Usually he is inconspicuously in the back, but he directs the band through his drums.

“We can kind of conduct and create the environment that the other musicians can then contribute to,” Smith said. “Or we can also create the environment that kind of create musical events that come out of that environment. I’m a champion for drummer band leaders and I am biased because I am one. I’m always running for the drummer band leaders out there.

Sometimes I will play a groove out front and then it is that kind of direction. I’ll set the tempo and the groove. But also in terms of dynamics, in terms of the colors that we use. If I start playing a song with ballads or I start playing a song with brushes, it sets a tone for the rest of the band to follow. We can kind of create a different environment. The drummer can really create a lot of different environments with the sound he chooses.”

On June 13th, Smith will be performing with Jeleel Shaw on saxophone, Brad Allen Williams on guitar, and Fima Ephron on bass at Breeze Stevens Field.

“We’re going to be playing a really drawn-off, stripped-down set,” Smith said. “But there will be a lot of musical directions, a lot of different sounds and colors. There will be a lot of groove-oriented drumming and music in the show. We’re going to be really stretching out and going some different directions. And so I hope that the people are ready to go on a musical journey with us.”

It will be a journey that takes our minds and soul into the air of a warm summer night.