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Jon Batiste: Staying Human


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Jon Batiste was named the bandleader of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert (related news). This interview was originally published in January 2013.

Nearly everything about Jonathan Batiste is steeped in New Orleans—from the way he talks, walks, and claps his hands to the way he plays the piano, composes, and leads his Stay Human Band. So, it's surprising to consider he's actually spent most of his adult life in New York City, having arrived in 2004 when he was a teenager to study at Juilliard. Since then, he's been making a firm connection with the City, including a close association with National Jazz Museum in Harlem.

He's also been featured at many other venues in the City—in addition to touring to more than 40 countries—including a number of appearances at Jazz at Lincoln Center. For example, he's led his own band for a week-long engagement at the Center's Dizzy's Club Coca, appeared at a concert with fellow New Orleans pianists Ellis Marsalis and Henry Butler, and he'll be the featured guest artist with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra for a series of three shows on January 18 and 19, 2013 focusing on the music of Saxophonist Gerry Mulligan and pianist John Lewis. The series is part of a month-long Birth of the Cool Festival at the Center and will explore the compositions and arrangements of Mulligan and Lewis, who collaborated with trumpeter Miles Davis in his legendary Birth of the Cool nonet.

"It's very interesting to think about the history of how the Birth of the Cool was the beginning of what developed into a career for Gerry Mulligan and John Lewis," says Batiste, pointing to Mulligan's work with his Concert Jazz Band and Lewis's musical directorship of the Modern Jazz Quartet. "Miles moved on, but those very cool and orchestral ideas resonated with them, and they kept them going for the rest of their careers."

Batiste's work at Jazz at Lincoln Center ties in with another New Orleans connection of his —and here we have to make clear that in saying "New Orleans," we're using a bit of shorthand. Batiste actually hails from Kenner, Louisiana, a suburb of the New Orleans metro area, which also happens to be the hometown of trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, the Managing and Artistic Director of Jazz at Lincoln Center.

"I don't know another person in New York who's from Kenner," says Batiste. "We have that mutual connection. The Batistes and the Marsalises are very big musical families in the New Orleans area. We went to the same schools and had a lot of the same instructors. I met him in New Orleans as a kid, and then when I came to Juilliard, I started to play with him, and over time I started to do concerts with Jazz at Lincoln Center."

The pianist counts John Lewis as among his major influences as an instrumentalist. "John Lewis, Jelly Roll Morton, Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, and Marcus Roberts are five pianists who I'd say are cut from the same cloth who've influenced me. They all have a very conceptualist and composer's approach to playing the piano. And that's a very distinct characteristic of playing that I really want to develop and project in my style.

"There are also people like Bud Powell, Sonny Clark, and Bobby Timmons who have a style of playing that is very pianistic and amazing that I love. With their playing, you have the classic elements of the bebop style where your right hand imitates the line that a horn would play in a solo and the left hand is accompanying that. But with someone like Duke or John Lewis or these other guys, they'll be playing a solo, and they may not play a single line the entire time. It's more of an orchestral approach, playing and developing themes, or maybe playing block chords that feel like a trumpet section. It might be easier to appreciate listening to someone like Tommy Flanagan or Hank Jones because you understand immediately why their music is beautiful and why they're experts at what they do. It can be difficult for people to appreciate the kind of eccentric musical personality that Thelonious Monk has, but there's something about that kind of character and charisma that I really like to strive for. It's quirky."

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. Music—especially jazz—can 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 develops—if 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 Abbey Lincoln, in addition to working in a group co-led by drummer Louis 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 difficult—people 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.

"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 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, of banjoist 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.

Still, jazz remains Batiste's primary focus, and his work with the Stay Human Band is a central part of this. The band has plans for a long-term tour starting in October 2013 and continuing through March of 2014, with trips back to New York over that time. "We'll be going all over the United States and going to Europe in the summer as well," says Batiste. "This will be the first time we'll share that vibration with people outside of the New York area."

Batiste and the Stay Human Band will remain busy in New York in the interim. In addition to their Jazz Is NOW! shows, they'll be featured on February 15 at the Cutting Room in Manhattan. "A lot of things are happening around that," says Batiste. "It's the day after Valentine's Day; it's the week of Mardi Gras; it's during Fashion Week; and it's the reopening of the Cutting Room. There will be a lot of people from the fashion world who are going to contribute to it, and then we'll have a special parade—a procession on a surprise route, with all kinds of surprises along the way, celebrating Mardi Gras season in New Orleans."

Even at this early stage in his career, Batiste has made his mark in a remarkably wide range of areas—as an instrumentalist, composer, educator, and band leader. His Stay Human Band is central to his musical identity at the moment. "I want to get as far into my Stay Human sound as I can, continue the whole Stay Human movement, bringing people into the music. It's a very exciting time for me as an artist."

Photo Credit: Herb Scher

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