Jon Batiste on the Power of Live

Dean Budnick on July 2, 2020
Jon Batiste on the Power of Live

In this moment of social distancing and turmoil, many of us are yearning for the collective inspiration and joy that is unique to the concert experience. In a special Power of Live section that appears in our new issue, a number of singular voices chime in with their thoughts on the importance of in-person gatherings.

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 “The relationship between the audience and the performer has always been sacred,” offers keyboardist Jon Batiste. The spirited musical director for The Late Show with Stephen Colbert and the leader of his own combo Stay Human came of age as part of a prominent New Orleans musical family. “Think about live performances and stages that, since the beginning of time, have been a part of our lives,” he says. “It’s always been a really therapeutic and cathartic relationship. People go there to forget about their problems for a while—to escape or to get a deeper understanding of the world around them. We’ll always find a way to have that sacred bond—that relationship between audience and performer—even if we’re socially distanced.”

Thinking back to when you were growing up, was there a particular performance that inspired you to pursue music as your career?

I didn’t think about that as a child. Coming up, I was just in the music. Music was a part of my everyday life. We didn’t think about it as a profession. It was just a part of how we would cope. My father [Michael] was one of the first musicians who really impacted me. I saw him perform onstage in front of thousands of people when I was a boy, and I also saw him as an incredible engineer and computer technician. [Jon joined his father’s band, the Batiste Brothers Band, at age 8.]

To see that happening at the same time was impactful to me because it made me realize that music is a practice more than it’s a profession. It’s just some form of practice—some form of ritual that is almost like a religion. You can find solace in it. You can explore it and find a deeper understanding of yourself. You can connect with people in your life through it. You can find a place to express the things that you don’t know how to put into words—it’s an amazing thing. I didn’t think about that until I got to the point, when I was 17 years old, where I almost felt thrust into it. Once I moved to New York, I was at Juilliard and I was getting called to do things that were taking me around the world. It seemed like the progression was inevitable.

Having said that, how has the quarantine impacted your music?

Virtual performance is the next frontier. As far as I’m concerned, there’s so much unexplored territory that’s now being explored, which will lead to innovation. It’s really a stimulating and exciting proposition for me because it opens the door to three things that I’ve always loved to do: It creates a rapid progression toward collaboration, scale and globalization. In terms of the scale of performance, now you can have 500 musicians in one room, so to speak, if you work out the technical aspects. You can create a space for people who may not have otherwise found the time in their lives to work together. I know that’s true for me.

When I’m not in this quarantine era, my life is moving too fast sometimes to do the things that I want to do. And then the idea of creating something that’s global—something that you can share at the touch of a button—is something that I’ve been talking about with social music for almost 10 years. It’s the whole idea of what “stay human” is about. It’s exciting to see the world move in that direction—not in the sense that it’s a tragic time and that people are doing it out of necessity. But people are now seeing the inherent beauty that we hold in the things that make us more alike than different. So we’re seeing the humanity in each other and we’re seeing different ways of highlighting that and trying to connect with each other across the world and that’s powerful. That’s really important for us to remember: We have to stay human.

What impact does that have on the music that’s being created?

It impacts the music in the same way performing at a different venue impacts the music. When I perform in a stadium or an arena, it’s different than when I play in my favorite juke joint in New Orleans or if I’m performing at Carnegie Hall. The venue right now is the internet, so it’s going to impact the performance in the same way as a studio performance. It’s not a live performance. Now we’re just learning a new form.

We’re not going to find a way to replace the in-person performance. But what we are going to find is a new form of human connection. The pros of that are exciting. The cons of it are obvious, but the pros of it are only in their infancy and haven’t been dredged deeply enough to find all the gold that’s there.

There’s that idea of connecting and scaling performances—this form of open collaboration that gives people not only the time and space to do it, but also a deep meaning behind it. Every piece of art you share is helping people get through something. That kind of human connection will become the norm.

I don’t think that when people come into a room together in the near future there will ever be the same feeling—at least not for a long time. This is something that will create a sense of collective trauma. But if you look at the positive angle of it, this new form will breed another dimension of how the artist can connect with their audience.

Do you feel that there is a physiological impact when artists perform in the same room as their audience?

I’ve definitely felt it. I’ve performed and felt something physiological and metaphysical happening between the audience, the performers and the crew.

The atmosphere in the room changes, the aura changes—you can tell it’s from an internal shift that happens collectively. It seems to expand outward and changes the room. It even lasts once we leave the venue, which is one of the reasons why I started doing the “love riot.” That energy would happen and we wouldn’t want to stop so we would take the audience out of the venue and keep it going. To me, every physical thing that we go through has a spiritual root. And if every physical condition, if every emotional condition, if every mental condition has a spiritual root, then it reframes how you look at music.

To me, it speaks to the truth of what music was meant to be before the capitalist structures took hold of it.

There’s nothing wrong with selling albums and selling T-shirts and going on the road and playing in venues because I do that. But I’m saying that the real truth is that music is a way to transform—there’s almost a form of alchemy, a shifting of a spiritual condition. This is what music therapists are starting to discover, whether it’s through speech therapy or any sort of musical connection to medicine—like what they’re doing at the Louis Armstrong Center for Music and Medicine at Mount Sinai. It’s meditation with music. All of this is rooted in the truth of what music actually is and that’s the powerful thing about it.

We don’t see music but it impacts us in a way that we can feel. It changes our state and our emotions, and it makes us act different and feel different. It makes us grab a person next to us—even if we don’t know them—and hug them or chant with them or hold a lighter in the air next to them. People don’t really understand the forces that we’re dealing with when we talk about music, even a lot of musicians, to be honest. But that’s really what it is.

Now, getting back to the root of that and finding a way for us to do that in the modern era is a very difficult thing. So you have to go to places like Port-au-Prince, Haiti, where there’s rara music—I’ve played with them in the street down there. Or you can go to rumba sessions in Cuba, where there’s ritualistic dance. In New Orleans, with the Mardi Gras Indians, you see a tradition that comes from centuries of African drum-circle traditions and Yoruba traditions. People still, to this day, believe in that understanding of the world, which influences the way they make music.

In thinking about transformative live experiences that you’ve had in the audience, what’s the first performance that comes to mind?

That would be when I was in high school and I saw Brian Blade Fellowship. I felt a real connection between the performers. As signified by the name, there was a real fellowship between them that could be felt in how they were risking themselves for the music. You could sense that they would almost risk their lives to make the music, and the moment, happen. It felt like they were dedicated to the music and to each other, which is even more important.

What does the power of live mean to you?

The power of live is the power for us to thrive. It’s the power for us to move into a space where we feel alive. It’s in the name: live. Think about what we’re talking about. You are here on Earth, you are breathing, you are standing on a stage as a performer bearing your soul. You believe in the idea that you can share something of value that is going to exist not only in this moment but also in the collective time capsule of humanity. It exists in the individual time capsules of people’s minds and hearts for a lifetime, for generations to pass on. I’m telling you about the story of a live performance I attended when I was a boy. I’m telling people about live performances all the time, all across the world. And then, they’re seeing me perform, and all those memories and feelings and transformations are transferred onto other people in their lives, whether directly or indirectly. You cannot quantify it; it is ubiquitous.