Jonathan Batiste: Staying Human
Batiste strives to make strong, personal statements in his compositions, as well. "I like my compositions to have a narrative, a story that will make people think of images, pictures, or people that go with the music. My tune 'Kindergarten' is a perfect example of that. It has playful kind of a vibration that makes you think of a schoolyard or a playground. Musicespecially jazzcan be very abstract, and it can be hard for the listener to understand what the intention is, although sometimes the intention is for it to be experienced differently for everybody, which can be great. But for a lot of people who are used to having words to guide how they listen to the music and how to feel, with a hook and a chorus and a story that developsif they don't have that, they just feel lost or left in the dust. So to reach those people, having a kind of narrative with picturesque sorts of melodies and accompaniment that they can gravitate towards gives them a way into it. I think that's very important."
Moving from Louisiana to New York as a teenager was quite a transition for Batiste. "I came here to Juilliard when I was 17, and that was a big shift from New Orleans. It was like coming to the epicenter of art and culture. You're in Lincoln Center and you have all types of stuff going on all around. New York City is just always going; it's true what they say, it really never sleeps. So I was shifting into that as well as shifting into the conservatory environment and being around younger musicians who were probably going to be playing as my contemporaries for the next 20 or 30 years. It was just like a lot of gears shifting all at once. And then, on top of that, I really had to start just figuring out what is it that I really want to do. What is my artistic direction? Because school is just four years. You really have to figure out where you want to go before you get out. So I tried to look at examples of people who I admired and think about what I could do that would get me in that same direction later down the line."
Batiste studied closely with the accomplished veteran jazz pianist Kenny Barron during his student days at Juilliard. "For years I was studying with Kenny, and we would have a duo piano class, where, basically, it was just me and him with two pianos. He would give me a long list of songs, and we would just play through each one of them, as many as we could in an hour and just go back and forth, and that was the lesson. And that was it for years, duo piano with Kenny Barron every single day. At first I guess I was expecting more traditional lesson structure, because at this same time I was studying with William Daghlian, who was my classical piano instructor, whose lessons would be very structured. Whereas with Kenny, it would just be playing. Over time, I realized that was the lesson. You're playing with Kenny Barron. So, that's it. Just check it out!"
Batiste also began playing and touring with top jazz professionals outside of the classroom during his Juilliard years, notably trumpeter Roy Hargrove and vocalists Cassandra Wilson and Abby Lincoln, in addition to working in a group co-led by drummer Lewis Hayes and trombonist Curtis Fuller. He also began his connection with the National Jazz Museum in Harlem while at Juilliard, working with bandleader/arranger Loren Schoenberg, who was on the Juilliard faculty then in addition to being Director of the Museum. "Loren was my jazz history teacher at Juilliard in my first year," recalls Batiste, "but we first met in Aspen when I was 16, and I was touring there with a band from New Orleans. His history class was very difficult in terms of getting a good grade. It covered the history of jazz from early New Orleans ragtime to now, which is a lot to cover, and the test was really difficultpeople were always talking about how tough it was. I was really drawn to his concept of history and style teaching, because he delivered the history in a story format, and the narrative has always been something that I've gravitated towards. So, it was very easy for me to remember, and I didn't have to take any notes. Loren noticed that and he was convinced that I would fail the final. But when I took it, I got an A, and I think he might not have given out an A ever before. He couldn't believe it.