“Social Music.” “Love Riot.” Jon Batiste is out to change the lexicon of jazz.
Coming from a long line of New Orleans jazz musicians, Batiste has taken the music world by storm since releasing his first album at the age of 19. Now all of 28, the Julliard-traned musician and songwriter has re-imagined jazz music, pulling it out of the far left-hand side of the radio dial and putting it on street corners and subways.
“It's the freedom,” Batiste said, speaking of his love for the genre. “You have the freedom and the creativity that comes with taking something that's already there and making it your own. The thrill of doing that spontaneously with a group of people is what drew me to jazz.”
Rather than just releasing albums (he has five), or selling out Carnegie Hall (which he's done), Batiste considers himself an ambassador for jazz. One who's highest calling is to show people that they've been fans of the genre all along, whether they knew it or not.
He calls it “social music”: the concept of putting the music viscerally in the hands of his audience. Getting crowds on their feet, moving them from one venue to another, walking them around town and getting them moving.
“Over the years it's something that evolved,” he explained. “Because the concept of “social music” is bringing music to people, wherever they are. Whether it's pre-planning something or doing it down in the street where the people are. Bring that energy—we like to call it a “love riot”--that kind of energy is kinetic. It's healing.”
“Love riot.” It's another concept of Batiste's. Not content to simply perform for whomever pays to get into a venue, Batiste has taken his music quite literally to the streets in loud, spontaneous riots of music.
“The first one actually took place on the Lower East Side, on a street corner,” he recalled. “We started playing for a few people, and that turned into 200, 300 people in a few minutes. It was incredible.”
“It was something I'd thought about doing because we wanted to find ways to expose people to our music who'd probably never go to hear it in the concert hall,” he continued. “Whether they thought they might not be into (jazz), or whether they just didn't have the opportunities to see it live. So we decided what better place to do that then New York, in the subways?”
But Batiste is more than just a phenomenally talented street performer: he was recently named the Artistic Director at Large for the National Jazz Museum in Harlem. It's a mantle Batiste takes great pride in. He understands that he's creating a new legacy, just as surely as he's carrying forward the one he was born into.
“I'm the curator of programming,” he said. “I'm responsible for structuring the creative vision for what the museum will be for years to come. As I tour, I'm an ambassador for the museum, focusing on education by going into the schools in every city we go to and delivering Masterclasses and spreading those programs that I've curated in Harlem all over the world.”
And how does he get the attention of children who've maybe never heard jazz before?
“We play,” he says simply. “It's not a question of whether or not they're into it, it's a question of positive exposure.”
And positive exposure is what Batiste lives and breathes. After all, that's what a good love riot is all about.
"It's this communal energy," he said. "I love the feeling of that."
Originally appeared in Cityview January 15,2014