What is Jazz? Jon Batiste Tells Me

Several weeks ago, I realised the ‘save offline’ function of Youtube, and certainly I was relatively late in that realisation. But afterwards I saved multiple jazz performances of Jon Batiste and his band Stay Human, and I play these videos repeatedly en route to the campus and home. Beforehand, having no reliable source of music, the radio was my only choice of on-the-road music, but it was not completely satisfying because radio stations do not always play music – understatement much, I know. Above all, Batiste and Stay Human were not my first ever source of jazz too.

Before Batiste, the jazz artist of my heart was Michael Bublé. The Canadian is versatile in terms of musical genres. From his jazz in “Dream a Little Dream of Me” and “Call Me Irresponsible,” to his pop in “Someday” featuring Meghan Trainor and “Home,” to his easy listening in “Quando Quando Quando,” he proves that he deserves such wide recognition. Yet the most captivating trait of Bublé was his voice, being comfortably tender, naturally reverberating and naughtily firm. Many in fact compare his to Frank Sinatra’s – a figure of Waltz music that transcends spatial and temporal boundaries. Take a break, let’s now indulge in some Bublé-esque jazz:

I still love Bublé, but he did not share a lot about his perception of jazz; which, in addition to my musical illiteracy, leads to the situation that I could not distinguish jazz from other musical genres. If people had said it was jazz, I would have said it was. I had some clichés: jazz could be the music that calms me down when irritated; or it could be the music that cheers me up that when I am down; or it could be both. Also, jazz made me dance. Despite the enthusiasm, who decides what jazz is?

Then I was blessed enough, nevertheless. My routine of watching American comedy – Stephen Colbert, one of my favourite late-night hosts – brought me even nearer to jazz, because I got to know Jon Batiste from The Late Show. Batiste is the bandleader in Colbert’s show, leading a group of talented jazz musicians collectively known as Stay Human, which band he formed in the aftermath of pursuing his master’s degree in piano from The Juilliard School, a performing arts conservatory in New York City. In Stay Human, originally, there is a percussionist (Joe Saylor), a saxophonist (Eddie Barbash) and a tubaist (Ibanda Ruhumbika). Batiste himself is proficient in piano and melodica.

jon batiste 2 Source: Annenberg Center

Batiste-tic jazz attracts me not only because of his personal charisma, fluidity, and skilfulness, but also his unique attitude towards the musical genre known as jazz. Batiste refers jazz to “social music”; a noun phrase that I have not heard from Bublé. Batiste as well tells me that jazz is “improvised music”; despite Bublé performing it well, I acknowledged nothing about musical improvisation from him in five years. Here comes a curious generalisation, concerning whether there is an embedded difference between the jazz recognition by a Canadian artist and by an African-American counterpart.

Jazz is Social and Cultural

I found that there is a difference, indeed. jazz, with its siblings in blues, salsas, and others, took their current shape from the history of African slavery and social emancipation. In other words, they did not appear out of the blue (ba-dum-tss). Long before the historic effort of Abraham Lincoln, Africans were largely deported to and subjugated in the United States. jazz, as a consequence of their later-regained freedom, is a form of collective expression in the African-American community.

Yet, appearing clear is the global interest in such genre amongst many racial communities and nationalities, in spite of the perennial racism rooted in multiple fragments of the world. Such situation in fact empowers African-Americans. Ethnomusicologists believe jazz is racial; jazz is ‘race-music’ and ‘Black-music’ as understood by contemporary scholars of African-American genres. Hence, despite the racism, the African-American community gains social status in the proud name of jazz. But cultural appropriation (or simply, stealing) occurred at some stage of the post-colonial history, as jazz was gradually globalised and Americanised. What is more, modern jazz musicians have transformed jazz into different shapes and forms, which leads to the gradual disappearance of its ethno-historical traits. After all, this seems inevitable.

But Jon Batiste informs me that I do not have to be sad about the world forgetting the historical role of African-Americans in the advent of jazz, because jazz is primordially all about the expression and syntheses of life experience – in different cultures, within different social settings, with different peoples. In this video, before an impromptu jazz rendition of Miley Cyrus’ Wrecking Ball, Jon Batiste shows me once again his intricate understanding of the genre:

He says:

“There’s a lot of great material in the body of work of modern pop culture, and you know, I like some of it. The beauty of jazz is [that] you can accommodate many different styles and melodies; and that’s the same with blues and folk music. So, [when] we play social music, we like to take all of [pop culture] and put it in there.”

I guess, with recognition of its social functions and expressive fundamentals, jazz therefore requires quiet moments of personal interpretation – it is idiosyncratic. Stay Human occasionally performs impromptu jazz sessions on Facebook Live, I found and downloaded several on YouTube for offline consumption; and to my fortune, the video-recordings have clear audio outputs. The wonder, however, is that their jazz gives me different impressions during every single home-campus journey. Such as the performance beneath in which Stay Human attempted to improvise the song “as long as they possibly can”:

An Ode to African-American Music

JonBatiste 3
Source: Jazz Festivals Worldwide

Jon Batiste is 30, a relatively young musician but already a renowned figure amongst jazz enthusiasts and the realm of social music. But I would love to know more than just Batiste and Stay Human as I continue delving into African-American music. Buddy Guy, a blues musician as well clenches my thoughts when he plays his guitar. Such music reminds me of how to be a human every time I forget how to be. It does not have one billion views on YouTube, but every single strand of it tells a unique story of the musician.

Having listened to Batiste, now when returning to Bublé, I feel that the difference of jazz between the two artists becomes so much bigger. But do not misunderstand: nothing is wrong with Bublé, his versatility and vocals still mesmerise me. I also thank him for performing jazz: thus, some alleged racists, who might refrain from listening to ‘black music’, listen to ‘black music’ through a white musician.

Consider as well La La Land: in a New Yorker review of the movie-musical, the author was straightforward in criticising the white-men-washing of jazz. He wrote: “after the first few notes are heard, Seb launches into his elaborate mansplaination of the origins and merits of jazz, talking volubly and inexhaustibly over the music he loves as if it were nothing but the local background station”. Yet I do not blame the musical, not only because at least John Legend performed, but also because it brought jazz to many parts of the world; it to the least seems like a good start.

Ultimately, in the wake of such universalisation of jazz, and with the fear of the world ignoring jazz as ‘black music’ someday, there is doubt that if we really appreciate the musical genre both melodically and historically enough. But whether that genre is fundamentally African-American is answered by black-music scholar Denis-Constant Martin: jazz within this globalised epoch is “Black-American-inspired non-American music”.

The time is 1.24a.m., Batiste’s clever fingers on the piano keys are leading Stay Human in a live jazz session, again. In ecstatic darkness, the melodious loudness of Barbash’s saxophone rings through my lethargic body, telling me: “Hey, stop your typing hands, and open your soul. Let jazz wash it.” Then jazz left, leaving me to ponder about the vivid history of African slavery – the bitter, unforgettable memory and politico-historical caution kept alive through social music.

By Teoh Sing Fei








Header image: Annenberg Center

I live for 90s alternative rock and Robyn's "Dancing on My Own".

Comments are closed.