Crescent City Son

Jon Batiste, a Thrilling Jazz Pianist Whose First Goal Is to Entertain

The descendant of a fabled New Orleans musical dynasty, pianist Jon Batiste is a thrilling musician who makes no apologies about entertaining his audiences as accessibly as he can.

02.16.14 10:45 AM ET

Jazz pianist Jon Batiste began his set in New York City this past week with an extended version of “The Entertainer.”

In Batiste’s hands the rag was a declaration; a statement of purpose. Batiste had come to entertain.

And, over the course of an hour, entertain he did. His piano stool barely contained his energy; the room couldn’t begin to contain his charisma. The standing-room-only audience swayed and clapped and danced. Batiste and his band ended the evening by marching off the bandstand and playing amid the crowd. ‘This is our day off,” Batiste told the audience. “And what we like to do on our day off is play for you.” Eventually people filed out, grinning broadly, bouncing on the balls of their feet. And no one was happier than Batiste. 

Batiste plays, in his words, “social music”--a blend of New Orleans style jazz rooted in gospel and the blues updated with bebop runs and contemporary funk licks. The playing is deeply proficient, but never in service to itself–Batiste and his band are built to perform before an audience and leave them wanting more.

There is no more exciting live act playing in the country today.

Batiste is from New Orleans, and his heritage informs both his music and his performance style. “Growing up there, it’s just in the water,” he says. “It seeps into your whole concept of the music. It’s the foundation of my musical understanding."

Wynton Marsalis, also a New Orleans native, has known Batiste for more than a dozen years, and says the younger man has always been a charismatic performer. “I have a deep love for him and his music,” Marsalis says. “He comes from a family of musicians and his style has always been very powerful and moving.”

Miles Davis rather famously played with his back to the audience, and said, "I didn't look at myself as an entertainer." On this night, because of the setup on the small stage, Batiste also played with his back to the crowd. This seemingly bothered him so much that he spent half the set swiveled towards the audience, making eye contact, ensuring that everyone was engaged. Batiste says he is “always looking to connect” with the crowd, so much so that he selected his crackerjack band partially on “their charisma and presence. 

Batiste does not believe that entertainment is at odds with musical proficiency. “We want to engage people as well as play on a high musical level,” he says.

Marsalis is even blunter: “I very much believe you play for people. Like if you don’t want to play for people, stay home.”

Marsalis says the importance of performance is deeply rooted in the New Orleans tradition.

“We have Congo Square,” he says. “We have more balls and parades in the streets and parties and Mardi Gras going back to the 18th century. People are playing music all the time, all the battles of the bands. It makes us be the way that we are.”

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New Orleans native Louis Armstrong said he played "in the cause of happiness." "The main thing," he said, "is to live for that audience, 'cause what you're there for is to please the people." In the latter half of his career, he was derided for this belief, as if art couldn't entertain. Batiste deeply admires Armstrong the entertainer, but knows it took more than a winning smile for his music endure. When Armstrong "put his horn to his mouth," Batiste says, "his playing was of such a high level that it has stood the test of time. 

Batiste is on a national tour, on his own "cause of happiness." He is playing to increasingly larger crowds, and he knows not everyone in the audience is a jazz fan. His goal is to "create a welcoming atmosphere" for these newcomers before "stretching them out a bit" and exposing them to the history of jazz: Musicianship and showmanship, not in opposition, but in service to each other. 

Charlotte was his next stop after New York. When that show was cancelled due to heavy snow, Batiste announced on his Facebook page that he and his band would play an impromptu set on a downtown street corner in the blizzard.

Batiste has played regularly on New York City’s subways and sidewalks. There is a must-see video on YouTube of him joyously leading his band and an increasingly large group of revelers past Katz’s Deli and through the Lower East Side after a gig like a second line. The 16-minute performance concludes with “When the Saints Go Marching In.” Batiste calls these performances “love riots.” Don't miss him when the riot comes to your town.

(Thanks to Ricky Riccardi's What a Wonderful World for the Davis and Armstrong quotes.)