From the moment we met Jon Batiste at his Ralph Lauren Black Label fitting, we knew the ensuing shoot would be memorable. There’s something utterly awe-inspiring about his combination of exuberant energy and jaw-dropping talent—in a flash he transitions from belting a note or busting a dance move to posing with the captivating depth and focus of the disciplined artist that he is.
The New Orleans-bred, New York-based talent is somewhat of an enigma thanks to his diverse mix of influences. Born into a long lineage of Louisiana musicians, Batiste grew up playing percussion in his family’s band, the Batiste Brothers, before switching to piano when he was 11 years old. He went on to study at the prestigious Julliard School in New York and formed his band, Stay Human, soon after. Now he juggles a demanding performance schedule—which often includes his signature, impromptu ‘love riot’ street parties—with his role as Associate Artistic Director of the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, and occasional acting gigs, like playing himself on the HBO series, Treme.
Below, we chat to Batiste on the set of his Ralph Lauren Black Label shoot and learn more about his impressive perspective.
Tell me a bit about your background and growing up in Louisiana. What are some of your early memories of music?
Jon Batiste: I had a lot of different influences culturally. New Orleans itself is a melting pot: French, English, Caribbean, African, Spanish influences, and more. I went to art school and a very academic private school at the same time, and those two worlds were so different and exposed me to such diverse people. So basically, there were just a lot of different people I got to experience growing up.
How did your musical family influence your childhood? When did you know you wanted to pursue music too?
JB: They were so cool, really. When I was a kid I took dance (don’t tell anybody!), tennis, art classes, and all these various extracurricular activities. My dad was a musician, and never pressured any of us to follow. He just said, “If you like it, stick with it.”
It must have taken some serious discipline to get so good at piano…
JB: It does. If you’re going to be great, you really have to go through a four or five year period of practicing eight hours a day or more and listening constantly. You have to be in the shed. You have to face yourself at some point, if you’re going to be great.
How did your background in New Orleans prepare you for New York?
JB: I grew up playing in so many different set ups: Latin, Blues, you name it. By the time I immersed myself in studying jazz and classical music at Julliard, I had already been exposed to so much. I had all these experiences of performing with different types of musicians, which opened me up to things. Not many places have a musical culture as diverse as New Orleans, and there’s a freedom in what you can do there musically that you don’t find elsewhere. There’s an emphasis on performance and charisma—presenting something that makes people want to dance and have a good time. That’s not all there is to me as a musician, but it’s something that’s easier to learn from exposure than from a teacher.
What’s the biggest difference between playing in New York and New Orleans?
JB: You come to New York and you’re either ready or you sink. In New Orleans, there’s a bit of that laissez-faire; even if you mess up one night, you’ll probably be invited back to play. In New York, we did a debut at Carnegie hall in October of 2013, and if we hadn’t done well, we wouldn’t have been called back! It’s about expectation here—everyone is judging so you must bring your best all the time.
Your performances are incredibly engaging, and you’ve been known to take to the streets with an audience. Tell us about your concept of ‘social music’?
JB: The concept is music that is rooted in jazz and draws on various traditions of American music like blues and gospel, but also today’s music, like drum machines and even samples. We like to put all that in an interactive context and go into the audience, bring them onstage, or even take everyone out on the street. We call those moments love riots, because the energy is so kinetic and big. It’s people coming together who don’t know each other, and it’s so beautiful. That’s social music.
Tell us about your role as Artistic Director At Large of National Jazz Museum in Harlem and the importance of education in your career.
JB: I’ve been a fortunate in that I had a lot of experience in New Orleans that was experiential learning, but I also had a lot of great teachers when I was a teenager, like Alvin Batiste, Ellis Marsalis, and Kidd Jordan. Education has always been a big part of the music thing, and everyone that I admired at an early age was an educator. By the time I got to New York, I kind of had a knack for it without knowing. At 18, my teacher at Julliard started the National Jazz Museum in Harlem and since I made good grades he invited me to teach. He told me I had a natural way with the students, and eventually I got more involved with the museum. In 2012, I became Artistic Director At Large. I basically go around teaching and telling people about the museum and helping the programming. It’s so cool! Apart from that, we do outreach in schools and communities in every single city we visit on tour.
Tell me about fashion, which is why we’re here. What’s your personal style?
JB: I like to express myself, because people see you before they hear you. If you have respect for yourself, that’s having respect for everybody else. I dress for the occasion, and the stage is where I do statement pieces. My whole aesthetic is traditional with a twist. I like blazers, suits, and things that are very well-made. I like pairing things that don’t necessarily have the same aesthetic yet complement each other in a way that creates something new—that’s what my music is all about too.