THE SIX: Jonathan Batiste on Style, Music, and 'Red Hook Summer'

Jonathan Batiste

This summer, emerging jazz wunderkind Jonathan Batiste made His big screen debut with Spike Lee’s Red Hook Summer, following a recurring role on HBO’s Treme.  The native of Kenner, Louisiana (also home to Wynton Marsalis) has been carving his path in the music industry since childhood and now draws sold-out crowds to venues including New York City’s legendary Blue Note and Jazz at Lincoln Center.  His ring master sensibility, his passionate study of jazz, his knack for always having an instrument at hand, and his creative performance on the piano are all part of a charm that keys an excited, diverse, and enthusiastic mix of followers who range from music legends and jazz neophytes.  The leader of the Stay Human Band radiates with a message and an energy that suggests that jazz is in store for a revolution.  But the first thing that everyone takes notice of with Jonathan is his dynamism.

EBONY: How did you develop your sense of style?

Jonathan Batiste: My sense of style is influenced by how I feel.  I want to express myself because they see you before they hear you.  You want to come on stage and what you look like should represent the song you are playing or the set you are about to play or the message in your music.

EBONY  Do you have a style inspiration, or do you develop it on your own?

JB:  I develop it, but when I see people who have great style, that’s inspiration.  It’s like when you hear somebody who is a great, great artist, and you are an artist, it makes you feel like “Man, this is why I do this.” It’s like that.  Look at Michael Jackson for instance you see him and the clothes he came out with, especially in the Dangerous era, you’re like, “Ooo, man…”

EBONY:  What about Prince?

JB:  Prince is another one.  I played with Prince in 2010…the America tour.  The one with Misty Copeland dancing on top of the piano!  But Prince played the piano on that song.  But I played two dates with him on that tour.  When we played the gig, every couple of songs, Prince would change his clothes. 

EBONY:  So, you were in "Treme".  How did that happen?  Is that how you landed in Red Hook Summer?

JB:  Well, those two experiences are completely different and separate.  The main character [in Treme] is based on my family’s name and the family tradition, the Batiste family of New Orleans. The Batiste family is four, five generations long, one of the largest musical families in New Orleans.  There’s the Batiste family, then you’ve got the Nevilles, then you’ve got the Marselises.  [The producers of "Treme"] based Antoine, played by Wendell Pierce, off of the family name.  So when the second season came are around, they knew about me and knew I was in New York.  I did three episodes in the second season, and I have two or three episodes in the third season. 

The thing about Spike Lee…that’s a deep experience to work with someone who is that intense and knows their vision that well.  The character I play in Red Hook Summer is super country and super loud.  I suppose he is some version of myself.

EBONY:  How is jazz different than pop culture?

JB:  Jazz has a tradition that has enriched the culture in America.  The intellectualism of it does nothing but make you think on a higher level and make you a better person if you engage in the music and let it do what it does when it is played at its highest level.

EBONY:  What is your philosophy on life?

JB:  My philosophy is to be yourself and love everybody.  If you are yourself and you are loving everybody, nothing can go wrong. 

Jonathan Batiste will be performing at the Rockwood through the end of August and the Ruben Museum of Art in September, both located in New York City.  For more information on his performance schedule visit his website.  He is also the associate artistic director of the National Jazz Museum in Harlem.