Caleb J. Murphy

Joe Saylor: From A Small Town To The Late Show

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This is Joe Saylor’s route to CBS.

Saylor, jazz drummer and Indiana, Pa., native, landed a spot on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert as a member of the house band, Jon Batiste and Stay Human.

In this role, which he and the band earned last year, he has assumed the title of “jazz cowboy,” according to the buzz on social media.

Well before stepping onto the Colbert stage, he and his band opened a concert for rapper Asher Roth. Saylor played tambourine while his bandmates played melodica, saxophone, and tuba.

“These people came to see a rap concert,” Saylor said. “And what they saw first was basically two toys and two archaic instruments.”

Saylor told the story:

“About ten minutes into it, people just started booing and we had never experienced that before, and we just kept playing and we just kept going harder and harder.”

It still was not going well, so Batiste, the band leader, gave Saylor the green light to solo.

Saylor said he was thinking he had to get the crowd into it, and then he noticed a nearby microphone. During his solo, he smacked the microphone with his tambourine with so much force that the stand fell to the ground, causing eardrum-blowing feedback.

The crowd went wild.

“From that point on, they loved us,” Saylor said.

If you were to go back in time even further, you would see him selling his drum set just to make a living. He was determined.

Even if he had been driven to homelessness, he said he would still be sure of his choice to pursue music.

“There was never a time where I wanted to give up or had any doubts,” Saylor said.

His drive to become a jazz musician started at 12-years-old when his father took him to see Roger Humphries, Pittsburgh-born jazz drummer who’s played with folks like Dizzy Gillespie and Ray Charles.

“That night completely changed my life,” Saylor said. “From the minute I walked into that club, I knew I wanted to play jazz. Roger changed my life.”

Throughout school, Saylor played the trumpet and the upright bass, yet the drums stayed constant for him. Ever since the age of three, he had been playing drums on a kid-sized kit that his father bought him.

Saylor said his love for drums first welled up in church when he watched the worship band’s drummer.

“I would always watch him play,” he said. “I was fascinated.”

Then after graduating from Indiana Area High School in 2004, Saylor set off on his pursuit of a career in jazz. He earned his bachelor’s at Manhattan School of Music then later his master’s at Juilliard School.

His tenacity to be his best is clear in the way he plays his instrument.

You may see him gripping the crash symbol against his body as if it were trying to escape while he beats it with his drumstick. Other times, you may see him drumming on the body of his kit as opposed to the skins.

He has even placed his foot on top of his tom drum during a solo.

The skills he has developed have earned a lot of people’s admiration, but he doesn’t seem to get distracted by that. He said he wants to focus on uniting and uplifting people with his art.

“Anytime that I play music for people and it touches them and uplifts them in a certain way, that’s always the best feeling for me, to know that I have that kind of impact,” he said.

“My goal is to uplift and love people through music.”

Even if it means selling his drum set or risking a life on the streets. Even if it means withstanding a booing crowd or sharing the screen with celebrities. 


This article first appeared in my music-magazine-turned-podcast, Musicateur.

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