Bringing Jazz On Walkabout: Jon Batiste And Stay Human
Pianist Jonathan Batiste was born and raised in New Orleans as part of the Batiste jazz family dynasty there. He was playing with the family band by age 8. Eventually he took his talents to Julliard, and that's where he met the rest of Stay Human: Joe Saylor on the drums, Ibanda Ruhumbika on tuba and Eddie Barbash on alto sax.
The band is all about avoiding formality — so with them, Batiste goes by Jon — and making jazz as accessible as possible. If that means fusing it with funk or rock or pop, no problem. Ditching the grand piano for a portable piano-harmonica hybrid? Sure. Playing parades on the streets and in the subways of New York? Of course.
Jon Batiste and Stay Human have a new album called Social Music, and they recently met up Weekend Edition Sunday host Rachel Martin to perform in NPR's Washington, D.C. studios. Hear the music, and their conversation, at the audio link.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
That's Jonathan Batiste at the piano. His band, Stay Human, is all about breaking down formality of all kinds. So with them...
(SOUNDBITE OF A PIANO NOTE)
MARTIN: He just goes by Jon.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MARTIN: Jon Batiste was born and raised in New Orleans as part of the Batiste jazz family dynasty there. He was playing with the family band by age 8. Eventually, he took his talents to Julliard and that's where he met the rest of Stay Human: Joe Saylor on the drums, Ibanda Ruhumbika on tuba and Eddie Barbash on alto sax. Together, they have set out to make jazz as accessible as possible. If that means fusing it with funk or pop or rock, no problem.
Ditching the grand piano for a portable piano/harmonica hybrid, sure; playing parades on the streets and subways of New York, of course. Stay Human has a new album called appropriately "Social Music." Recently, they brought their energetic selves down to our Washington studios to play for us.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IT'S ALRIGHT (WHY YOU GOTTA)")
STAY HUMAN: (Singing) And you tear my world apart. Oh. Why you gotta be like that? I say why you gotta be like that? Why you gotta be like that? It's alright. What happened? I say why. Oh, why? Oh, why? Oh, why? Why you gotta, got, got, got, ah, ah, ah.
MARTIN: You guys have fun when you play music.
JONATHAN BAPTISTE: That's - I mean, what other way is there to do it?
MARTIN: I don't know. A lot of people can get kind of serious and, you know, big and heavy.
BAPTISTE: It's serious, too.
MARTIN: Yeah. Yeah.
MARTIN: So a lot of your music though, like videos and on YouTube, it's a lot more mobile than what you guys are doing right now. Like, you're playing in a really nice studio and we've got a big, old grand piano that you're sitting at. But you also - you move around a lot more. That's part of how you like to make music, right?
BAPTISTE: I like to bring music to people where they are. And I wanted to figure out how to do that with this band. So at one point, we decided that we go play in the subway, and play in a moving train and just bring music to people who probably would never have the opportunity, either because of awareness or finances or whatever it may be.
MARTIN: So tell me about the first time you guys went out in the subway system. Was that the first time you actually tried to do this kind of public performance?
BAPTISTE: We went to school together. And at school, I would play in the hallways. Then we would take it into the subway and that was the first time. It kind of happened on the street one night in the Lower East Side of New York...
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
BAPTISTE: ...that the first Love Riot - we call the Love Riots. The first Love Riot was born with two people that transformed in a matter of 15 minutes into 300 people, and cops coming on horseback to break it up in the middle of the street.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)
BAPTISTE: So that was the first one and we said, well, the power of music it is evident today...
BAPTISTE: ...lets do this.
MARTIN: Were you guys all there that first time?
EDDIE BARBASH: Yeah.
IBANDA RUHMBIKA: Yeah.
JOE SAYLOR: Yeah. Yeah.
MARTIN: And, Joe, you just think like a small, little drum with you? Or what to do you play?
SAYLOR: Yeah, I take my...
RUHMBIKA: Just take a snare drum.
BAPTISTE: Right, yeah. Show them. Show them a little something.
MARTIN: A little tambourine action.
(SOUNDBITE OF TAMBOURINE MUSIC)
SAYLOR: This became my - my - I couldn't take my whole drum set on the train. So this became my default instrument.
MARTIN: I did not know that you could do that with a tambourine.
SAYLOR: Neither did I.
RUHMBIKA: This is a bad dude.
MARTIN: So people responded to this? Or did you get a lot of people looking at you like, come on, man - I'm just trying to live my day and all of a sudden I got musicians in my face.
BAPTISTE: That's the beautiful thing about the New York subway system. It's the ultimate social experiment because you have all of these people from different cultures in one place, and they have to ride next to each other, two inches apart. And, you know, it's the guy who would probably never talk to the guy next to him, and they're all together in the same place, very close. And they're not expecting to hear music.
And it's been cool to see the transition of, like, we've been playing and we were in school. And then now, we go out and people recognize us. And they say, hey. They know you.
MARTIN: Does that take something from the experience though, because we started out you could kind of be anonymous and just kind of rogue? And now, people recognize you.
SAYLOR: No, it's better.
BAPTISTE: I like it.
MARTIN: It's better?
SAYLOR: We've made half of our fans on the streets and the subways. People that would've never have come to our concerts or any concerts, you know, now come to everything we play 'cause we met them on a subway.
BAPTISTE: Mm-hmm. They're fans of jazz or fans of live music or fans of classical music. They're fans of music and they don't know it yet.
MARTIN: Hmm. Well, let's hear another song, a track called "Express Yourself."
BAPTISTE: Oh, yeah. Let's do that one.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EXPRESS YOURSELF")
HUMAN: (Singing) Pick your paintbrush and paint. Express yourself and how you think. Dance your dance. Sing the truth. Go for your dreams, they will come true. Blow your horn, play your bass, you know what to do 'cause we believe in you - yes, we do. Express yourself today, 'cause it's the only way. Woo, come on. Come on, all right now. I said to California, Los Angeles, India all the way to Bucharest. Chillin' on the corner in New Orleans, I said we're living it up, I say we're living the dream.
(Singing) And everybody in Egyptland, go on and express yourself. Across the waters in Japan, everybody express yourself. In New York City, Little Italy, Rio to Michigan, Cincinnati, Baton Rouge, y'all ain't heard the news. Express yourself today 'cause it's the only way, yeah, yeah, yeah.
MARTIN: That was lovely.
MARTIN: I read a quote from you that the people don't dance to jazz anymore. That's something you clearly want to change?
BAPTISTE: I think every great art form and every great form of music deserves movement, even if it didn't have the danceable rhythm of like James Brown. Classical music and great ballet choreographed to that. Rhythm is dance and dance is rhythm. So if you have music and it doesn't have rhythm, one of my teachers said, well, that ain't music.
MARTIN: When you guys try to do a Love Riot somewhere where they just didn't work, why did you thought about trying to somewhere and you're like, no, it's not appropriate?
SAYLOR: I don't - no, that's never happened.
MARTIN: No place is off-limits.
BAPTISTE: Not work. I'm not...
RUHMBIKA: People like to be happy. So I mean we've been in like, you know, five-star restaurants just banging on the table, just breaking glasses. And people would be like...
(SOUNDBITE OF A CLAP)
RUHMBIKA: Hey-hey, give more.
BARBASH: Amazing what you can get away with when you're making music.
RUHMBIKA: Take another one.
MARTIN: Well, with that, how about playing us out on the final song? Jon Baptiste and Stay Human have joined us in Studio 1 here in Washington. Their latest album is called "Social Music."
You guys, thank you so much for coming in.
SAYLOR: Thank you for having us.
BARBASH: Thank you, yeah.
BAPTISTE: Yes, thank you.
MARTIN: This song is called "St. James Infirmary."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ST. JAMES INFIRMARY")
HUMAN: (Singing) I went down to St. James Infirmary and I saw, I saw my baby there. She was stretched out on a long, wide table...
MARTIN: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.