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Jonathan Batiste: Staying Human

By Published: January 14, 2013
"So, from then Loren started to have me teach with him out in the field and do things with the National Jazz Museum. I was 18 then, and a couple years later I started to curate programs at the Museum, such as the Jazz Is NOW! series. I produced a summer program, and we did a jazz video game with some kids that we brought in, and eventually I was appointed Associate Artistic Director. And now, we're working on further developing my relationship with the Museum, where I'll be taking a more active role in the creative direction. It's really an exciting time to be there—a defining moment in its development. We've got plans to expand our programs and move into a new space right across the Apollo Theatre on 125th Street. In addition to Loren and me, we have [bassist] Christian McBride
Christian McBride
Christian McBride
as Artistic Advisor, and, of course, the Board is really incredible—a strong Board that has been supporting it for the last eleven or twelve years."

The Museum's ongoing Jazz Is NOW! series regularly features Batiste's Stay Human Band, whose members are all also Juilliard alumni: alto saxophonist Eddie Barbash, tuba player and valve trombonist Ibanda Ruhumbika, bassist Phil Kuehn, and drummer Joey Saylor. The group's limited edition EP, MY N.Y. , (Naht Jona, 2011) captures the sound it has developed after a flurry of activity. "We recorded it in one night after playing on the subways and street corners of New York for, I guess, a month or two straight every night. Ibanda had just joined us, and it was the first time I incorporated a tuba in my music to that degree, and it's been a very integral part of the music since then." Batiste himself adds another unusual sound to the CD, the melodica, an instrument he's been playing off and on for some time. "It gives a different texture to the band—a unique sound that's eccentric and charming, and it can have all kinds of sounds, French or Persian or sometimes a gypsy quality."

Batiste felt he had to document the band at that moment. "We decided, OK, this summer has had a certain energy, we have all of this music, and we really need to capture this, because if we don't capture this now, it's probably not going to be like this again. It really had an exciting buzz around it. We printed maybe a couple thousand, maybe 3,000 of those CDs, and we were out of them in about a week. We played six nights at Dizzy's Club, two sets on the weeknights and three sets on the weekend, and we sold most of them there."

Batiste is expecting to release a CD on a major record label before long, but he's not in a hurry. "There have been people who have been trying to court us with record deals for some time now—a lot of offers, but I don't see the rush for us at this point. I think there's a lot going that we need to protect in terms of the process of continuing to develop the sound. I still don't feel as an artist that I've gotten to the point where I've defined my sound completely. But I'm definitely starting to feel the pressure because there are so many offers that have come in. So many people just want to work with us, which is a good thing, of course. But I feel that I just have to really maintain that calmness and focus."

With the Jazz Is NOW! series, Batiste and the Stay Human Band have cultivated an enthusiastic regular audience they work hard to engage their audiences and build excitement in their performances. "It's incredible the power you can create drawing on the human spirit. We create what we call a bubble, a focus of energy that's generated from the band that's infectious and resonates with people in the room and draws them in. We create that bubble and focus on it and try not to let anything puncture it, because it can be very delicate. But if we continue to focus on it, it gets stronger and more people in the room enter into it, and the energy dominates the room. It creates an illusion that this is the perfect place for us all to focus our energy together."

The series has also attracted a number of surprise guest performers, including a number outside of the jazz world, such as rock guitarist and singer Lenny Kravitz, drummer Chad Smith, of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and saxophonist Jeff Coffin
Jeff Coffin
Jeff Coffin

, of banjoist Bela Fleck
Bela Fleck
Bela Fleck
and The Flecktones, and the Dave Matthews Band.

Batiste has also had some notable collaborations outside of music, acting in director Spike Lee's 2012 film Red Hook Summer, in addition to contributing to the soundtrack, and taking on a recurring role over three seasons in the HBO series Treme, which is set in post-Katrina New Orleans and was created by David Simon, best known for The Wire.

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