Pianist Jonathan Batiste represents a hybrid musician. From the moment you meet him, his accent makes it clear that he is a New Orleans jazz cat. He speaks slowly and deliberately with a distinct twang, pondering each thought as if it were brand new. But his impact on the New York jazz scene throughout the past couple of years has also created a unique pocket of talent that he surrounds himself with. The highly intellectual nature of Batiste lends itself to his music, but as you will see, it is his energy which attracts the crowds. Check out the interview below for insight ahead of his gig at the historic Minton’s Playhouse.
Can you talk a little about your involvement with the Jazz Museum and the programs you are running there?
I’ve been knowing Loren Schoenberg of the museum for seven years or so, since I was a teenager. I’ve been teaching with him since I was about 19, just going to different schools and what not. That slowly evolved into me creating my own program at the museum a few years back called “Jazz is Now.” After that, it slowly evolved into me having a permanent role in the Jazz Museum as a programmer and music curator as well as an overall consultant. It’s more about being a consultant to create programming that will get a younger demographic out to the museum and ultimately interested in live music and live jazz performances or any live instrumental music.
What does the jazz scene in Harlem look like to you nowadays?
It’s interesting because as time goes on, there’s always a new generation of players coming out. They always have something different to offer. Harlem is definitely a hub for a lot of the younger musicians. With the scene in general, there’s a resurgence in Harlem. It’s a cultural resurgence based on the old stuff that was here when Harlem was booming with a lot of the culture during the Renaissance days. You have stuff like the Apollo that’s still here. But with the Jazz Museum going right across the street from the Apollo and I mean, Bill Clinton’s office is in Harlem. There’s a lot of stuff in Harlem that seems to be on the upswing.
Why are you participating in the Harlem Jazz Shrines Festival?
I love jazz education because I feel like it’s a way of passing the torch down. It has historical purposes just as much as it does pedagogically. So Jazzmobile is just another example of one of those institutions that helps keep the history of jazz alive for a younger audience. So I feel it’s important just based on the historic value of it, let alone younger people or non-musicians who aspire to play.
When you play at Minton’s, it’s going to be with your trio. What are you trying to accomplish with them?
With the trio, we’ve been playing together for a long time. It’s been about six or seven years as well. We met in high school. The bassist is Phil Kuehn and the drummer is Joe Saylor. They’re both from the Pittsburg area. They’ve known each other since they were one, so they have this natural synergy. With them, the first thing I was trying to accomplish, which is still similar to this day, is just to be able to play together very comfortably and organically without thinking very much. I can accomplish that with them in a way that I don’t with many other rhythm sections. We’re like musical brothers in a way. We think about playing our instruments, even though they are different obviously, but we think about playing them in a similar way. We approach them the same.
So, once that’s accomplished, the other conceptual things are different for each performance. If we’re playing a Duke Ellington concert, I’m trying to get to the Duke music in a way that is original and unique. Or if we’re playing a concert in a large venue that’s very loud, it’s about figuring out how we can play comfortably and uplift the people in that environment versus playing in a concert hall. It’s different every time. I think with this upcoming concert, we’re going to think more of the historical context of playing at Minton’s and what happened there. And also what we can do to uplift that room and just get to a vibe onstage. I mean, I feel like that’s what it all really boils down to. How do we uplift the people and have an original message?
How do you approach your instruments and how is it similar?
It’s similar because we all have a natural intuitive gift of playing the instrument that we chose. So, with that comes a certain natural talent, but also a certain lack of discipline. And because of that, when we play together, it’s kind of like a party because we are all comfortable on our instruments to a certain degree naturally. What we have to then monitor is if we get too far out or too esoteric for the listener. It becomes too free. So I think that’s one of the things that makes us brothers. We just need a moderator a lot of the time.
When you play, how much of the performance is for yourself and your fellow musicians, and how much is for the audience?
It’s always for ourselves and it’s always for the audience. If it’s not to the same capacity for the audience and yourself at all times, I feel like there is going to be something missing in the music. It won’t have as high of an impact as it would have.
When I’m playing, interestingly enough, I’m trying to connect to something rather than convey a message. I feel when I’m playing, I try to connect to a source that everyone in the room is familiar with. There’s a certain thing that you feel every time you’re in a room where everyone is uplifted, like when you hear a great speech or if you see something happen that is uncanny. That’s a certain source of energy. New Orleans music also has that timeless, uplifting effect. When I play, I try to tap into that and hopefully make that erupt within the room that we’re playing in. I try to tap into what people are really gravitating towards in contemporary times that uplifts them. It’s an intuitive thing rather than actually trying to communicate with the listener. But I feel that you can only get into that source of energy when you are playing something that is true to who you are at the same time that you consider it of the energy of the room and the people within it.
Minton’s is such a historic venue for jazz. Can you talk about the importance of it?
Man, Minton’s was the type of place that you imagine doesn’t happen but once every 50 years maybe, or once every 100 years. It’s like when you have all of the premier minds and conceptions of a particular field collaborating together in one room consistently. It’s like if you had Beethoven and Bach and Mozart and Chopin all getting together in a room for three years straight or something like that, consistently working on developing a body of music that was represented by all of them. I mean, that just really doesn’t happen very much.
You are one of the artists who resonates with young jazz fans. Who else do you see doing that?
Just to name a few, I feel like Brad Mehldau is definitely tapping into something that resonates with younger listeners. He has a certain quality in his music that really grabs people who aren’t necessarily jazz listeners by nature. They may have never heard of jazz, but if they hear him, they’ll like it. I like Troy Andrews too, Trombone Shorty. Right now, he isn’t playing jazz music, but he has that ability and he has that sound, that New Orleans culture in his sound. I feel that is just as important for live music to have people out there like him that are playing the instrument and doing things that still showcase a live performance.
What can we do to combat the decline of live music?
Create gigs. The level of engagement is 70% based on the artist themselves and maybe 30% based on the actual educational system. If the artists take initiative to create platforms to both express and teach the arts, then people will come. If you build it, they will come. If you go to a school and offer your services, there’s nothing they can really do because you’re bringing it to the people. Or if before your performances you have maybe 30 minutes or an hour of an educational program. I feel that if more artists and more arts professionals took the initiative to bring it to the people, then the people who want it will come forward.
What do you think of the current jazz scene, between the different styles blending and what not?
I feel that straight ahead jazz will always have the capacity of being modern. Saying that to say, I feel like it’s very difficult to play straight ahead jazz and have it resonate with the contemporary young audience. I don’t think that what people are doing right now is going to be the future, but that’s just a guess. It might be. I don’t think it’s going to be the future, just because jazz has to be something specific if it’s anything at all. Anything that is something, is specifically that thing. So for jazz to have all of these different elements and still become the music that it claims to be, I feel is impossible. Now I’m saying that to say that what people are doing is capable of only being done by jazz music, because jazz music is the only form of music that can accommodate so many different influences and still maintain the integrity of what it actually is. But it’s going to come to a point where it’s going to be unclear even for something that is as widespread and malleable as jazz music to be identified as such.
What’s going to need to happen at some point is this stage of creativity that we’re in right now, this stage of intense expression and development of ideas is going to have to come to an end like everything does. It’s going to go back to something that’s more concrete, where everybody again is dealing with similar forms and similar ideas and there’s a unified understanding of what the music is all about. Right now there isn’t, and that’s okay because everything goes through periods of transitions and everything goes through periods of being irresolute, like people. And once you go through that period, then that’s when the clarity comes. It’s like you have a block and then…Eureka. You know where you’re going from there. So I feel like that’s where jazz is right now. People are not really sure where it’s going, and the only way that we can know or find a new road, is to get lost. I think that’s where we’re at right now.
Interview by Eric Sandler