In the last few decades, contemporary jazz music has become more synonymous with martini bars and intellectuals than the working-class crowd it catered to when it originated in African-American communities in New Orleans and Chicago a century ago.
Young people have long heard jazz sampled in hip-hop singles or elements of the genre punching up pop, R&B and disco, but it’s rarely as accessible and mainstream as more commercial styles.
Twenty-six-year-old New Orleans wunderkind Jon Batiste and his band Stay Human – which joins forces at McGlohon Theatre on Thursday – is working to change that misconception with music that defies strict genres and delivers infectious performances in traditional and nontraditional venues (like New York City subways).
“Jazz from the beginning was a social music,” he says, referencing the title of his eighth and latest album, “Social Music.” “I think that people often forget that. That’s part of the reason I feel like people feel alienated from jazz. People that are in the power positions to create the tastes of what the general public is going to follow – they’re not convinced that jazz has that level of engagement that can draw people in.”
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Batiste is betting his brand of jazz – which seamlessly flirts with funk, R&B, rock, gospel, world music, classical and other genres – is engaging enough to capture even non-jazz fans.
“I want to reach jazz fans who don’t know they’re jazz fans yet. I think that’s the power of what we do with live music,” he says.
Batiste started out studying classical and jazz as a child and was drumming in his father and uncles’ R&B, funk, and New Orleans soul combo by the time he was 8. He didn’t pursue music as a career, but when he moved to New York to study at The Julliard School, his band began picking up steam.
“I think music chooses people,” he says. “It draws you in like a force. It all fell together (in New York), and once it happens like that, you don’t really have a choice.”
The songs on “Social Music” are reminiscent of a time genres weren’t so defined. In the early ’80s, for instance, MTV aired Prince, Herbie Hancock, Thomas Dolby, Motley Crue and Michael Jackson videos without differentiating among their styles. That era is similar to the “social” era of the Internet that puts all styles on equal footing and gives Batiste’s album its title.
“It’s the idea that everybody now has the ability to, at the touch of a button, get any form of music or contact any person, whether they’re in the same city or same state or across the water in Japan,” he says. “You have all this access and ability. The playing field is leveled.”
In addition to his role of band leader, touring and recording musician, and go-to collaborator for folks like Prince, Wynton Marsalis and others, Batiste is the artistic director at-large of the National Jazz Museum in Harlem. It’s yet another way he works to bring jazz back to the people, particularly students.
“Jazz can be used to learn a lot of different life lessons by understanding the concepts of what jazz is all about,” he says. “Like collaboration – people working together in an ensemble, but having their own voice and the ability to improve. Creativity and expression is going to be important in whatever you decide to study. Jazz can be used as a tool to create community and bring people together.”