If Jon Batiste and his band, Stay Human, don’t get you onto your feet or at least shaking your shoulders in your seat, you must live in a different zone, on a different plane. When heplayed the small tent at the Newport Jazz Festival last summer, he was pounding the ivories in a NOLA beat and then he was out in the crowd with his harmonabord (a cross between a harmonica and a small keyboard), urging people to join him in his joyous musical spirit. And no one could resist: everybody, bar none, was up and dancing, in true New Orleans style.
This year, the Festival has added a third day to celebrate their 60th Anniversary, and Batiste heads the line-up for Friday, August 1, with a raft of “emerging artists” in his wake, including the very danceable Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks, the very daring John Zorn and his Masada Marathon, the world premiere of Rudresh Mahanthappa’s Charlie Parker Project, and local favorite, the University of Rhode Island Jazz Festival Big Band.
Saturday’s line-up runs the gamut, from Wynton Marsalis and his Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra to a symposium on jazz with Dr. Henry Louis Gates; Sunday’s big names are Bobby McFerrin, David Sanborn, Dr. John, Gary Burton, Ron Carter, and the Mingus Big Band, with the newer generation represented by Vijay Iyer and Ravi Coltrane. Plus, Friday evening’s show at the International Tennis Hall of Fame features Marsalis with the Orchestra and also tribute to Billie Holiday from Dee Dee Bridgewater.
When Batiste and the band (Eddie Barbash on sax, Ibanda Ruhumbika on tuba and Joe Saylor on drums) came to Newport’s Casino Theatre on International Jazz Day in April, to perform for 200 middle-schoolers and elementary-school students, the response was even more energetic than with the Newport crowd. The kids understood the language the musicians were speaking with their instruments. A blatted chord from Batiste sent the drummer off the stage...but into the throngs, where they kept the band’s rhythm with their claps, their stomps and their finger snaps.
At one point, Batiste had a few kids come on stage to do an almost Celtic dance, a kind of aerobic hop; then he had them doing scat with him, “abba dabba doo.” And though the band touched down on a pop tune the students recognized for a few moments, the rest was a history lesson in jazz, from Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer” and Louis Armstrong’s version of “Sunny Side of the Street” through Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean a Thing” and Jelly Roll Morton’s “New Orleans Blues.” This music just seeped into the pores of the kids (and the adults who were there, too!), and Jon Batiste became for that hour a true Pied Piper.
As the 27-year-old musician does periodically in New York City, where he lives and works— after growing up in New Orleans in a musical family and coming to Juilliard. He and his band members are as apt to swing into a couple of numbers in the subway as to play Carnegie Hall, where people were standing on their chairs, “unable to contain their enthusiasm,” according to Batiste.
At an April concert at NYC’s Webster Hall, which holds around 1300 people, the band took off on a musical parade to Union Square, with 1000 people following!
“We did our ‘love riot’ on stage that makes people expectant that we will march, so that when we do, they’re prepared to come along,” Batiste explained, when we spoke back in the spring.
Batiste calls his band “Stay Human” because he believes in “the benefit for everyone from that transference of energy you get from live music” and because “we all believe that we can change the world with our music.”
The title of the band’s newest album, “Social Music” underscores that sharing of music.
“Whether the people listening have different backgrounds or experiences,” he noted, “it brings them together, dancing, clapping, singing. It’s also blending different genres together that makes the music more accessible...and that’s social.”
Wanting to encourage the audience to participate fully in the performance, the band comes on stage with a “game plan and specific objectives,” but they always leave room for spontaneity.
“The moments that we concoct—we welcome them,” he quipped, with a soft laugh. “And when those moments come, anything can happen!”
The sounds of New Orleans that provide “an undertone” to Batiste’s music are reminiscent of “the mash-up of cultures that’s there, the rhythmic and harmonic things that are still in the air.”
At the same time, he sees New York City as such a cultural mecca, such a global mixture, that it’s a “gateway to the rest of the world.”
“When we travel to other countries, I always try to include their music,” he explained. “I want to be open and malleable to their cultures, just as New York is.”
As for the importance of doing shows for young people, Batiste couldn’t be more adamant: “Live music and the arts are so underappreciated. The generations to come don’t have access to it. There’s not really that role model to them, something that will impart to them the power of art. And that’s so key, because the lessons from the arts you can use in so many other parts of your life—creativity, collaboration, finding the most efficient way to improve. That’s very applicable to anything they decide to do.”
As artistic director of the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, Batiste will be in a good position to promote his ideas of “education, humanitarianism and performance coming together.”
And he’s looking forward to the band’s return to Newport: “The show there will be an incredible performance for informed listeners and new listeners alike and for all ages. It’s going to be amazing!”