It certainly makes for a pretty interesting work experience. But Barbash has had no
shortage of opportunities to play with incredible musicians since his high school
years in the UNCSA School of Music and throughout his subsequent journey in New York City and around the world. For
him, being a musician is as much about who you play with as it is about the music
He’s always loved music but it was possibly after his first jazz band concert in fifth
grade when he realized he wanted to be a professional musician. “I just remember I
never wanted it to end. I love playing music with other people,” he says.
As a high school student in Atlanta, that passion for music began to concern his mother.
“I was spending so much time practicing that my mom got worried,” he laughs. “I didn’t
have a lot of friends who were also musicians, so she suggested an arts high school.”
After doing their research and checking out a few other high schools, they ended up
at UNCSA. “When we came up and visited, it was awesome,” Barbash remembers. The sense
of community was immediate. In fact, three of the people he met that very first day
ended up being some of the most influential during the two years he spent in high
Going to UNCSA was really the beginning of my life as a musician, socially,” he says.
“I started playing professionally and getting paid for it. I was in a community of
friends who did what I did.
Going to UNCSA was really the beginning of my life as a musician, socially. I started
playing professionally and getting paid for it. I was in a community of friends who
did what I did.
To him, the juxtaposition of the small-town Southern charm of Winston-Salem with the
creative, artistic culture of the School of the Arts was a perfect combination. “There
is a soulful, community-oriented, friendly atmosphere. It’s casual, but everybody
works so hard,” he says. “Not everyone is serious and intense, but they all really
love the arts. And it attracts such incredible teachers.”
Among those incredible teachers was saxophonist Taimur Sullivan, who began teaching
at UNCSA the same year Barbash became a student. “He was amazing. He is great because
he’s such a warm person and an incredible musician. To hear him play, he is one of
the best I’ve ever heard.”
He also studied flute with Tadeu Coelho, learning the second instrument for his application to Juilliard (where he was accepted
and attended for undergraduate studies). “He was one of the best teachers I’ve ever
had at anything,” he says. “In two years, he taught me enough flute to get me into
Juilliard. Lessons with him were always amazing.”
And then there’s the coveted job of Ron Rudkin, who directs UNCSA’s Jazz program. “He was so much fun to work with. I secretly always
imagine that when I’m older, I will move back to Winston-Salem and take Rudkin’s job,”
After graduation, Barbash moved to New York to attend Juilliard and explore the music
scene. “I immediately started playing gigs and I met Jon Batiste,” he says. He transferred
from Juilliard and finished college at The New School, all the while constantly playing
music in New York and beyond. With Batiste, he played prestigious venues like the
Kennedy Center and the mainstage at the New Orleans Jazz Festival.
They hit even greater success when they signed with a major booking agent and label,
embarking on a European and U.S. tour that lasted from the summer of 2013 through
2014. “There was a nine-month period where we had no more than two weeks off at a
time,” he says. “It was hard, but it was a really great experience.”
After that, Barbash decided it was time to take a break and spent the remainder of
the year just practicing and playing music he loved – bluegrass and string band music,
among others. He started his own band and spent time “figuring out what I wanted to
In the fall of 2014, Jon Batiste and Stay Human booked a gig on Comedy Central’s The
Colbert Report. “Stephen Colbert just really loved us, we were one of his favorite
bands he had on the show,” Barbash says. They must have been, because less than a
year later they became the house band for the Colbert-hosted Late Show.
Performing for a nationally broadcast television show has been a learning experience
and has challenged him as a musician to think outside the box. “It’s definitely not
like any other performance,” he says. “The way the taping works, there’s a lot of
stopping and starting. And it’s not ‘our’ show or audience so we are learning how
to engage them.” But after a few months, “we are starting to get into a groove.” And,
of course, there’s always the added perk of working with legendary musicians and guests.
Through it all, Barbash has stayed connected to his UNCSA roots. He dates School of
Dance alum Katheryn Walker and played for several years in a band, The Amigos (now
Silver City Bound), with UNCSA graduate Justin Poindexter. He also frequently sees fellow saxophonists Sam Owens and Travis Calvert. Even in
New York, there is a close School of the Arts community.
“Whenever I meet someone who went to School of the Arts,” Barbash says, “I always
feel an instant connection. It’s special that way.”