Jon Batiste: Staying Human

Bob Kenselaar By

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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."
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