New Orleans has long been a piano town. And it’s long been a parade town. Therein lies the problem: If you’re a pianist, you can’t join the parade. No one’s yet found a way to strap a Steinway around his or her neck and march down St. Charles Avenue.
This dilemma has often perplexed Jonathan Batiste, the gifted New Orleans pianist now living in New York. The 24-year-old Kenner native is very tall and very thin—almost a living stick man—and he has long, lean fingers to match. Those fingers were made for the piano, for they can reach across an octave and a half with such ease and agility that Batiste can form voicings that other pianists can only imagine.
When he played Jazz Fest this past May, he wore white slacks, a white shirt and a bright red blazer as he sat down at the Steinway grand on the Congo Square stage. When he played “New Orleans Blues,” his composite of several Jelly Roll Morton tunes, he got two different rhythms going at once—a push-and-pull Caribbean rhythm in his left hand and a rippling European rhythm in his right. At times he lifted his hands off the keys and started slapping the second-line groove on the dark wood of the piano itself.
The whole time he seemed to be squirming on the piano bench, as if it were unfair that he couldn’t get up and walk around the stage—or even into the crowd—the way his high school pal Trombone Shorty does. As soon as the number was over, Batiste leapt off that bench and strolled around the stage, glad to be free again.
“It’s frustrating,” he confirmed during an August phone call from Manhattan, “because you always have to sit down when you play the piano. I want to interact with the audience more, and that’s difficult due to the nature of the instrument. As much as New Orleans is a piano town, it’s also a trumpet town, and one thing the trumpeters can do is interact with people directly and get that energy back to them. I want to do that too.”
Batiste thinks he’s found the solution to the problem. He recorded his new album, MY N.Y., in places where pianos can’t go: the platforms and trains of New York’s subway system. You could never get acoustic pianos down those narrow stairs, and no extension cord is long enough to reach an electric keyboard all the way from 59th Street to 125th Street. But Batiste’s solution didn’t rely on advanced technology; it relied on a novelty item from his Louisiana childhood.
When he was a youngster, Jonathan’s father Michael played bass with the Batiste Brothers, a popular family funk band in the style of the Neville Brothers. Jonathan was only nine when he began playing congas with the band alongside his first cousin Russell Batiste, later the drummer for the funky Meters. Russell’s dad David played organ alongside his brothers Peter and Paul (keys and guitar), and it was David who would sometimes pull out a small plastic keyboard that you play by blowing through it while fingering the keys.
“Sometimes he would pull out the melodica,” Jonathan remembered, “and go walking into the crowd with it. I felt a strong connection to it from the first. The first draw was it allowed you to get up off the piano bench and still play; it was a portable instrument that’s still like a piano. But I also liked that it was very brazen and distinct. It’s like a horn but it’s not quite a horn. The sound is really unique. The closest things to it are a harmonica or an accordion.”
You could certainly play a melodica in a parade or a subway, Batiste realized, but could you make serious music on it? Because it’s cheap, plastic and often given to children, the melodica is often thought of as a toy, not a serious musical instrument. But that didn’t deter Batiste. When he moved to New York at age 17 in 2004 to attend the Juilliard School, he brought along his melodica. He started using it just as a way to practice between classes or out in the street when a real piano wasn’t available. But as he got more and more serious about the instrument, he started bringing it into his live performances. He called it a “harmonabord” to free it from past associations, but it was still a melodica.
“Sure, it was created as a toy,” he conceded, “but a lot of instruments that are popular now weren’t created for serious musicians to play. The electric bass is a perfect example. We all love it now, but no one took it seriously when it first came out. It was only something to use if you didn’t have an acoustic bass. So anything can be used for serious music; it just depends on who’s dealing with it. If someone has the right concept, they can play serious music on spoons. That’s the great thing about Ornette Coleman; he made great music on a plastic saxophone. So why can’t I make great music on a melodica?”
Batiste hadn’t given up on the piano by any means. Having recorded his first piano album as a teenager with his NOCCA buds in 2004 (Times in New Orleans) he recorded a piano-trio album, Live in New York at the Rubin Museum of Art, in 2006 with his Manhattan group (bassist Phil Kuehn and drummer Joe Saylor). Two piano EPs followed, 2008’s In the Night and 2009’s The Amazing Jon Batiste!. All of them showed off his keyboard skills, but none of them solved the problem of the pianist left behind by the parade.
So, after he graduated from Juilliard in 2008, he started going into the subways with his alto saxophonist Eddie Barbash just to practice. They didn’t ask for money; they just played. Batiste wanted to see how a melodica/sax duo would go over with a totally unprepared audience.
“I wanted to find a way to bring the music to people who wouldn’t usually have a chance to hear it,” he explains. “The subway was the perfect place. Maybe they weren’t jazz fans. Maybe they never thought of going to a jazz club. Maybe they thought of it but couldn’t afford the $30 cover and $10 minimum. When they heard us, they always say, ‘We never heard people play jazz that were close to our age.’ So that’s the first step.”
Before long, Batiste was trying to convince the rest of his band to come along, but they were skeptical. “Oh, man,” they complained, “I don’t know if I want to do it. I don’t want to take my instrument down there. We just played a gig. We’re tired. It’s so late.” Batiste says, “I really had to put on my salesman’s shoes to convince them.” But convince them he did.
In a popular YouTube video, you can see Jonathan Batiste and the Stay Human Band on the platform at Pennsylvania Station as they are about to board the No. 3 train, the southbound express. Tuba player Ibanda Ruhumbika and guitarist Ryland Kelly carry their instruments in their arms and their instruments’ padded black cases on their backs. The band’s drummer, Joe Saylor in a red-checkered shirt, carries only a tambourine, while Batiste, in a turquoise baseball cap and dark blue blazer, has only his “harmonabord.”
Including Barbash and accordionist Sam Reider, there are six musicians in all, plus two camera operators and two sound recorders. They set up in the middle of the car with Batiste leaning against the sliding doors. Ruhumbika starts pumping out a New Orleans-flavored, descending tuba line reinforced by the tambourine, and Batiste brings in the rest of the group by piping the melody to “My Favorite Things,” hewing closer to Julie Andrews at first than to John Coltrane.
The nearby riders look away, afraid to establish eye contact with someone who might ask for money. But as Batiste’s band keeps playing without asking for donations while 28th and 23rd streets slide by in the windows behind the leader, the riders relax. Several pull out smart-phones to video the proceedings, and the group starts swinging and improvising. When they finally stop, the riders applaud. Some even offer money without being asked for it. Batiste grins and kicks off the next song, Michael Jackson’s “Heal the World.”
“After a lot of experimenting,” Batiste revealed, “we figured out that the best repertoire was songs that people already knew, either classic songs or popular songs, mixed in with jazz songs they might not know. A melodica can articulate a tune that really cuts through, especially when it’s a great melody from Richard Rodgers or Michael Jackson. Then the tuba can play a bass progression with motion. When you add percussion, it pushes that motion along. When you add another horn, it provides a less brazen counterpoint to the melodica’s extreme sound. A tambourine is uplifting; when you hear it, it has that sanctified quality to it. It has the splash of the cymbal and the pop of a snare.
“We didn’t want to be mistaken for those people who go into a car, play for 30 seconds and then pass the hat. We wanted to be the antithesis of that. People would clap and say, ‘I really like that; what do you call that?’ and we’d say, ‘Jazz.’ and they’d say, “Oh yeah? I never knew it sounded like that.’ That was an eye-opener.
Batiste knew he had to document these guerilla subway sessions while they were still fresh and exciting, so he started bringing along the camera and sound crew you see in the above video. A subway train, however, proved to be just about the worst imaginable environment for recording music. There’s a lot of extraneous noise that’s especially hard to screen out when your sound person is being bounced in different directions by each jolt of the train. The musicians themselves struggled to keep their balance through the same jolts while trying to play their instruments. And while many authority figures were willing to look the other way, some weren’t.
It was worth all the hassles, though, Batiste was convinced. There was something about playing before skeptical listeners in an unlikely setting that brought out the best in the players. It wasn’t unlike playing on a street corner in the Marigny or in a jazz funeral through Treme. It was busting out of the jazz cocoon and trying to win over strangers on the street. He took the best of the subway recordings—tunes by Rodgers, Jackson, Charlie Parker, T. Rex, Frank Sinatra and Stevie Wonder—and edited them into an album, MY N.Y., that he released on his own label in September. There’s not a note of piano on the disc, just a whole lot of melodica.
“The parallels to New Orleans street music were obvious,” Batiste declared; “it was all about keeping people engaged. It was like a brass band, even though we didn’t have any brass but the tuba. I went to NOCCA with Julian Gosin from the Soul Rebels, and I’ve played melodica with the Soul Rebels and the Stooges. I still play with them when I go back home, and it’s not that different from what we did in the subway.”
Jonathan Batiste hasn’t abandoned his mainstream jazz career by any means. He spent the second half of August on tour as the pianist in the Wynton Marsalis Quintet. And he recently learned that the HBO series Treme has been renewed for a third season, so he will once again be playing piano in the band led by trumpeter Delmond Lambreaux, the fictional character loosely based on Marsalis, Terence Blanchard and Donald Harrison.
“Delmond’s character reminds me a lot of my own struggles being a New Orleans musician in New York,” Batiste acknowledged. “The struggle is to play music that’s true to who you are, which is always changing. When you come from New Orleans to New York, you find a high-brow, sophisticated way of making music, which is very different from what you knew at home, which is very much a down-home, almost folk music.
“But you can’t take all that New York information in without it becoming a part of who you are too. So when Delmond plays ‘Milneburg Joys’ at the Blue Note in Manhattan and people are like, ‘Are you kidding? Are you really going to play that?’ I could definitely relate because I’ve been there, done that. All you can do is try to remain organic and allow all the things inside you to come out, no matter where they come from.”