Jon Batiste: New Yorleanian

On Jelly Roll Morton, "Treme," his recent record & more

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Jonathan Batiste
By Dragan Tasic
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Jon Batiste
By Peter Lueders

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In October, New York-based New Orleans native Jon Batiste and his band Stay Human released Social Music (Razor & Tie), their debut full-length album, featuring Batiste on piano, vocals and melodica, Eddie Barbash on alto saxophone and washboard, Joe Saylor on drums and tambourine and Ibanda Ruhumbika on tuba and trombone. The 27-year-old rising star played Carnegie Hall that same month and will embark on a national and European tour through most of 2014, stopping in schools along the way to implement a jazz education curriculum developed through his role as artistic director at large of the National Jazz Museum in Harlem.

The last scion of a New Orleans brass-band dynasty that inspired HBO’s Treme, Batiste holds undergraduate and master’s degrees from Juilliard, merging his classical training with soul-drenched Ninth Ward brio. He recently caught up with JazzTimes on the phone, holding forth on the positive aspects of social networking, Jelly Roll Morton, his commitment to community, and the development of a jazz video game.

JazzTimes: What is “social music”?

Jon Batiste: We call it social music because it’s about bringing people together through the universal language of music. We’re more connected now than we’ve ever been, and cultures have become integrated more so now than ever. All of these unique elements coexist and represent who we are as a band, and that unique blend brings people together.

JT: The track “The Jazz Man Speaks” pays tribute to Jelly Roll Morton. How did he influence your style?

Batiste: Jelly Roll Morton had the formal element of a composer from the European classical tradition, but also the street sensibility of a New Orleans kid who grew up in hard times. I love that dichotomy and those two extremes coexisting. I relate to his innovative approach because I have some of those extremes, coming from a New Orleans musical family of all self-taught musicians, and then going to Juilliard.

JT: Who are some of your other influences on the piano?

Batiste: You would go to Duke Ellington next. He had that dichotomy, that lens, that sophisticated but also very intuitive naturalness. From a more contemporary perspective, Brad Mehldau, Eric Lewis and Marcus Roberts, but definitely Duke and Jelly Roll, as far as a holistic approach to music.

JT: Why did you take up the melodica?

Batiste: At Juilliard, we were thinking of ways to bring music to people who would never experience it otherwise. We decided to go play in the subway, and I can’t take a piano in the subway, so I had to figure something out. With melodica, I can bring the music to the people anywhere.

JT: You’ve appeared in HBO’s Treme, which is partially based on your family. How do you feel about the show?

Batiste: I think the show is great because it puts my New Orleans roots in a light that can be spread to the broader culture. It’s a very insular culture, and even though it has so many mixed cultural mash-ups, it’s still not known very well outside of New Orleans.

JT: You serve as the artistic director at large of the National Jazz Museum in Harlem. How does the museum help spread your message?

Batiste: We’re thinking about the rich lineage of the jazz tradition, and figuring out ways to collaborate with different communities to bring them into the jazz community and vice versa. We did a computer programming course with six young kids from Harlem where we taught them programming and the history of jazz over the course of a month by creating a jazz video game. I’m also doing a series called Jazz Is: Now!, where we’ve had people like Lenny Kravitz, ?uestlove or Monica Yunus from the Metropolitan Opera, people from different styles of music, put in a jazz context. I think there’s not really a place for everyone to congregate as much as there was in the past, if you think about Minton’s and the Cotton Club. We’re trying to create that sense of community that was once a part of the music.

JT: You chose “The Star-Spangled Banner” as the closing track to Social Music. What is your perspective on the connection between the national identity and jazz?

Batiste: As Americans, we don’t really claim jazz music as our cultural or folk music in the sense of, for example, Cuba. When I was in Havana, it seemed like everybody, even like a little kid walking up the street, at least grasped the clave of Latin jazz. It seems like it’s just a part of the fabric of their culture. I think that until we really start to foster a better environment for jazz to thrive, in America the identity of jazz is always going to be in a state of identity crisis. Jazz is fairly new in comparison to other folk music. At the same time, we’re at a turning point where it’s not the golden era of jazz, where all of the founding fathers are alive and creating the music every day in the club. That era is done, but now it’s about figuring out a way to continue to grow, and add to the continuum that they’ve set forth for us while figuring out a way to preserve it.

Originally published in January/February 2014

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