Aspen Times Q&A: Jon Batiste
Jon Batiste and Stay Human opened the Jazz Aspen Snowmass June Experience on Friday with a performance that broke the mold.
As the festival crowd dallied on the lawn outside of the Benedict Music Tent and the seats slowly filled up, Batiste strutted through the aisles playing “Amazing Grace” on his melodica, greeting fans and slapping hands. From there, Batiste and his band launched into an audacious and cheerful set that ranged from “If You’re Happy and You Know It” to “What a Wonderful World” and from Beethoven’s “Fur Elise” to Batiste’s buoyant original composition “Kindergarten” and the anthem of his hometown New Orleans “When the Saints Go Marching In.” Along the way, it incorporated some wild improvisatory jazz that saw Batiste hopping from his Steinway piano to a Hammond B-3 organ, onto the drums and back into the crowd with his melodica.
After the show, Aspen Times arts editor Andrew Travers caught up with Batiste backstage.
Along with headlining the jazz festival, the 30-year-old “Late Show with Stephen Colbert” bandleader spoke at the Aspen Institute’s “Spotlight Health” confab on a panel with Walter Isaacson and talked about jazz history at a Jazz Aspen brunch on Sunday.
ASPEN TIMES: You’re doing a lot more than playing a concert this weekend. How do all these initiatives – talking about health, about jazz history and education – fit into your “social music” mission?
JON BATISTE: I think music is a tool. You can play music as art, and obviously we do that. You can use music as a way to bridge barriers, whether they be racial, social, economic, cultural, educational. Music bridges those barriers because it taps into feeling. When you tap into feeling you can translate messages that can’t be translated in words. That’s why a lot of musicians have been ambassadors. And then there’s using music to represent the culture. So you hit all three of those things, and that’s really what social music is about. That’s what I try to do wherever I go. I try to tap into those three things.
I come with art I’ve created – and we’re beating away at the craft, trying to find the highest level with the greats. I’m very competitive in that way. I’m trying to be at the point in my piano-playing like Thelonious Monk, in my composition like Duke Ellington, in my group dynamic like his big band. We’re trying to reach for that. But we also want to break down barriers in the world. A lot of great people use whatever their gift, whatever their god-given talent is, to connect people that would never be in the same room if it wasn’t for that experience.
And then, of course, I want to do something for the culture. Culture always needs different tiers. You have the base level – the lowest common denominator. That’s great. Then you have the high arts of things that may be obscure to some people. We want to represent all of that.
So social music is music for the people. It’s about art bridging gaps. And music that is supposed to help the culture to sustain itself and keep a dialogue going for the next generation.
AT: How does your work on “The Late Show” as a sidekick and bandleader complement that? It was interesting when Paul Shaffer was on recently, he talked about how complex your music is on the show – he said that even when you’re doodling on the piano during Stephen Colbert’s monologues, you’re actually often riffing on Bach and classical stuff. What kind of impact do you want that to have on viewers?
JB: Well, I’ve got to be me. If I’m thinking about what I’m interested in, it’s all different stuff. My friends in the music world aren’t all artists that are into jazz or classical, but a lot of them are. So what I talk about with a friend one day may influence what I play on the show that night behind Stephen when he’s talking. I’m just making connections in the moment spontaneously. He’s one of the great improvisers in the world, one of this generation’s best. When you realize that about him and you realize that kind of play is welcome. I have so many references musically, I think sometimes that serves the point of what I’m trying to do on the show more than trying to banter and talk. So I’m constantly slipping in references for those that can hear it and for those that can’t. It’s just a manifestation of the job for me. I’m not going to do the job the way that Paul did it, the way that Branford (Marsalis) did it or the way Kevin Eubanks did it, the way Questlove is doing it. It’s just the way it comes out. It’s not premeditated.
AT: It’s clear from your live show that you want to experiment and do things differently – playing the melodica out in the crowd, jumping between genres and improvising with Stay Human. How important is it for you to take risks and experiments in live performance?
JB: To be fresh and to actually approach the music and audience in the space that you’re in with a sense of urgency, you have to look at it like a child. You have to be born in that moment. I’m constantly thinking about resurrection when I step on the stage and I’m trying to create art. The idea of resurrection comes from dying and being reborn again – it’s not like you’re completely brand new, you still have the skills to play the piano, the skills to sing and play the drums and compose and lead a band and all these things that you’ve worked on. But you’re born again with a new vision, a new perspective. You’re looking at things brand new. So when I step on stage I don’t like to have any preconceived ideas. I like to go for whatever I see in that moment with these new eyes, like a child. In that way, Stay Human is like a jam band.
So much has been done, what can you not do? I’m trying to figure that out. I’m saying, ‘I’m new to this, I’m a kid, what can I not do? I try to look at it like this is a playground. If we’re all in the playground, what can we not do? We try to figure out where the line is. That’s where the music happens. Sometimes it’s great. Sometimes it’s greater.
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