At the Newport Jazz Festival in August, drummer Nate Smith is seemingly everywhere at once. Most artists are proud to do one set at the storied festival, but Smith is playing three: two with singer José James doing the material of Bill Withers, and one leading his own band, Kinfolk. No matter the context, Smith is a dynamic presence on the stage, an athletic drummer who can shift almost seamlessly from in-the-pocket funk to hard-bop swing.
Born in Norfolk, Va., Smith grew up a little farther north in Chesapeake. His father and brother turned him on to the music and instrument that would resonate with him for years afterward. “My dad had a great record collection and I would listen to his stuff,” he explains. “He listened to a lot of the R&B and jazz of the time—like the Crusaders, David Sanborn, Grover Washington, and Bob James. My brother’s 10 years older than me and he was a drummer in high-school marching band, so I would watch him and try to mimic what he was doing. That was my way in. I didn’t really start playing [drums] until I was about 10 or 11.”