From the February 2014 issue of Offbeat:
At 27, Jon Batiste is already something of a visionary. Since leaving New Orleans 10 years ago to study at Juilliard, the pianist has cultivated a holistic approach to his creative output, which currently includes a tour in support of Social Music, his Stay Human band’s latest release, and the development of new education-focused programs for the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, where he serves as Artistic Director at Large.
In both capacities, Batiste guides listeners toward a hands-on, communal appreciation of music. His impromptu, occasionally mobile performances in unorthodox spaces often blur the lines between audience and artist. Programs like “Jazz Is: Now!,” his TED Talk-esque museum series, rely on interactive techniques to break down barriers between master musicians and jazz newbies. Whatever the context, Batiste seems determined that music should, as he puts it, “bring people to a profound understanding of themselves and each other.”
What’s your main focus at the museum these days?
I’m basically directing the future of where the museum is going, artistically, and cultivating the vision with [Artistic Director] Loren [Schoenberg]. I’ve been developing all these different programs that include “Jazz Is: Now!” but also more stuff that we’ll start to do this year in anticipation of that new space [across from the Apollo Theater in Harlem] opening at the end of this year.
What does your vision for the museum look like?
I want to specifically focus on the tradition of jazz music and how to really make it become more relevant in the eyes of younger people who don’t have much exposure to it, and I want to bring that cultural presence of jazz into Harlem. It’s also going to bring the community together.
Why are the social, active components of music appreciation so important to you?
I think when you talk about jazz, there’s an element to it that’s very intellectual and because of that, it can leave a lot of people feeling excluded because they don’t know “how to listen to jazz” or they don’t really understand what it’s all about. But when you experience something, you’re not thinking about it, you feel it. And when you feel something, I think that’s the first step into opening your understanding. You don’t have to know anything to feel.
How much planning goes into the impromptu or unconventional performances the Stay Human band has become known for?
It’s really mapped out, even though when we approach a venue, I want it to feel as if it were spontaneous and happening for the first time. So I’ll go to a venue, sometimes weeks before, and see a few shows there. Or the day that we’re performing, I’ll go and maybe stay there for an entire day if my schedule permits, and try to figure out how we can transform the energy and space.
I guess that’s my whole concept with anything: What we do is create a love riot and that’s like bringing our energy anywhere we go. So it’s not dependent upon the space; it’s dependent upon the way that we can transform the space.
Have there been any particularly special performances lately that achieved that?
There are so many … When we played at Carnegie Hall, from the first 15 minutes, we kind of broke the rules of the hall. We weren’t supposed to leave the stage but we started the show in the audience. And then we had people standing on the seats while we were playing—and then we started to stand on the seats and then we went in the aisles and it was like we created a love riot in Carnegie Hall.
The show actually sold out less than 48 hours after the tickets went on sale, so for months, there was so much anticipation. And that first 15 minutes of that show when we stepped into the hall and we played and created the kinetic energy that we create in a [subway] train, it was a serious moment. It was surreal …
Have musicians in the audience ever ended up sitting in spontaneously?
Oh my goodness, we’ve had people from bluegrass musicians to Mark O’Connor the fiddle player to ?uestlove even join in. But the thing about it is when we’re playing, you think about who you’re playing with, but it’s not really about that. It’s more about bringing the music to the people where they are.
When we play in the community, my whole concept is these people may not get the chance to go and hear the type of music that we’re playing or have access to hear live music. … We want to bring it to them because we think they’re jazz fans and they just don’t know it yet.
Where were you when ?uestlove joined in?
We’ve been known to throw these secret shows and we have a family of people in New York. Those shows are really when the notable people who are part of our community will come out because it’s under the radar. ?uest has come to a lot of those.
They’ll be curated performances where we’ll take over a space and maybe have three stages in a loft or take over someone’s house and we’ll have different rooms that we’re playing in. It’s really cool. And sometimes it’ll spread out to the street. So one time we had this drum circle and ?uestlove was hangin’ out with us and then it just turned into this thing where it went all night down in Chelsea, you know?
That sounds very New York-centric. How else has the city affected you as an artist?
Well, New York is my home and New Orleans is my home. I’ve been in New York now for 10 years and New York is basically the gateway to the rest of the world. It’s a global mash-up. It’s 160 different cultures in one place, co-existing.
New Orleans is a lot more insular. It’s a mash-up, but it’s a specific cultural mash-up. Of course, the sounds and rhythms of New Orleans influenced me when I grew up there. And that kind of sensibility, [along with] moving to New York and getting to see how it all really comes together in one place— that’s kinda the whole concept of social music. And that’s really where it all comes from: my experience in New York.
New tunes like “Let God Lead” and even your version of the “Star Spangled Banner” feel like they were written to elevate listeners’ spirits. Is that vibe intentional?
I think my intent moves in seasons and that depends upon the season that I’m in as an individual. Like Charles Mingus said, “An artist is always changing all the time.” And that’s because people always change. You grow and you evolve even though you’re always the same person. So I’m sure an element in that album that’s in all of my albums is the same.
But my intent now is to transform listeners and to uplift people through the art of live performance and that genuine human exchange. So that’s what Stay Human is about. But I think that in a year’s time, artistically I could have a different intent because as a person I could be in a completely different place. But I guess the common thread with any changes or evolutions that I would make is always gonna be that I feel the intent of music is to make people come together and to bring people to a profound understanding of themselves and each other.
With so much else on your plate right now, do you have time to work on new music?
I’m the king of having sketches. On New Year’s Eve, I was going through my sketch books—there are about 10 of them. And then I literally have hundreds of recordings of songs that I’ve written or songs that are halfway written or melodic or rhythmic ideas that I’m always writing. And I have things that I’m trying to achieve. So if I’m trying to achieve a certain vibe I’ll just go into my archive and pull something out and finish it. And we’ll work on it on tour, on the road, and we’ll play on some shows so it will come together that way. It’s not really a conventional process. I don’t have time to sit and write at the piano as I used to. But more now I’m putting together things that have been in the ether for me for a while, or trying to achieve certain musical objectives in a moment.
Can you share a musical objective you’ve been working on?
Yeah, there’s this one that I’ve been doing called “Stadium Swing” … That’s not the title of it, but they all have working titles. “Stadium Swing” is this concept of being able to swing out in the jazz terminology of swing and putting that in the acoustic environment of a stadium. Just trying to figure out how to make that transition and write music that accommodates that.
One thing that it’s based off is burnout—that kind of vibration that you get when you hear Jeff “Tain” Watts swing or Elvin Jones swing. You can kinda get that idea or go in that direction but you have to tweak some things. The harmonies have to be more open so they can ring out in the stadium. When the harmonies are dense, it doesn’t translate in that space, it gets swallowed up. You have a guitar in the stadium and they play these open chords, these power chords that ring out in a certain way that works in that environment. Also the intensity of it—the tempo has to be in a certain place because the intensity of the swing may not translate if it’s at a slower tempo.
I think the idea is always to come up with something—even if it’s the most wild thing in your imagination—because even if you don’t achieve it, it’s great because you almost always end up creating something new and interesting. And it might even sound good.