Jonathan Batiste on what it means to 'Stay Human'
I ran into young vanguard Jon Batiste this weekend. We performed at the Brosella Folk & Jazz Festival in Brussels, Belgium. He was with his Stay Human Band. I was the featured guest of a young Belgian band that invited me to coach them for a performance of some challenging traditional New Orleans music.
After our respective Sunday shows, we spent some time unwinding in our hotel lobby.
Jon and his band were exhausted, and rightly so. The energy of their shows is incredibly high, and they are near the end of a pretty grueling multi-city European tour anchored by the prestigious North Sea Jazz Festival and Montreux. Nonetheless, we stayed up for a good hang, discussing this and that over sparkling water, potato chips and Belgian chocolates. The bar had already closed.
As musicians touring internationally, our distance from home gives us an interesting objectivity when we watch domestic newsworthy events unfold. Although, on one hand, when a controversy confronts our community we are mostly helpless, watching international news service coverage and seeing our friends and families on social media grappling to understand. At most (for me, only if I have free wi-fi), we can join the virtual dialogue. On the other hand, for better or worse, we have way too much time in airports, hotels, and various forms of ground transport to discuss the events amongst ourselves, and often our hosts often expect our opinion.
However, this isn’t a preface to our weighing in on the disappointing Zimmerman acquittal. We spoke mostly about music, Jonathan’s music, and I’m glad to share what he and his band had to say. It’s the type of inspiration that illustrates the best possible convergence of idealism and pragmatism and a reminder of what we can all achieve with creative thinking.
First, as Jonathan explained to me, “Stay Human” is not a call to action. First it was a composition of his, but the moniker expressed what he wanted the experience of his shows to convey.
“It’s a reminder to people to stay mindful about the unifying and healing power of live music.” The Stay Human Band, he continued, “came out of an ethos of trying to communicate with people, all people, and bring them together.”
The great thing about Jonathan, an “old soul” in a 26-year-old frame, is that as he and the band reminisced over the steps they took to evolve in that direction, those lofty ideals seemed reasonable, achievable. He related his passion for observing human behavior; he told me about his early NYC gigs that instigated his desire to make the music of his jazz trio more palatable for his peers. We discussed that trio’s synergy, their decision to simply be “super-swinging, and bluesy,” Jonathan’s intense absorption of Thelonious Monk with particular attention to melodic simplicity, and their attention to growing their following and taking every gig seriously. Jonathan wants musicians to know, yes, it’s that easy.
Hearing from his bandmates about the summer of 2011 that really galvanized the “Stay Human Band” was particularly fascinating: Daily rehearsals-cum-performances in New York subways. This was where the musicians overcame the duality of their introverted nature with the extroversion required of dynamic, entertaining performers. This was where they amassed a large and eclectic repertoire. This was how Jon started emphasizing the importance of exposing people to the music, and not only bringing it to people in the broadest range of venues possible, but learning how to tailor each performance to its particular space and re-define the boundaries of those spaces. Jon and his band talked about the processes of “creating as a collective” and servicing the audience musically by offering a “synthesis of their different influences in a cohesive way.”
We spoke of many other things as well. Jonathan had New Orleans bassist Barry Stephenson on this tour, which gave us opportunities to talk about Jon’s musical lineage, differences between the New York scene and the New Orleans scene, and even a bit of gossip.
We also talked about the Stay Human Band’s next recording, which will likely have a vinyl incarnation. I asked them if it was going to be a real album or just a collection of songs. Consistent with everything else we’d discussed, Jonathan assured me, “If you are human, there will be something in it for you.”