Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on
 

What is jazz?

By Jonathan Batiste, Special to CNN
December 28, 2012 -- Updated 1044 GMT (1844 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Jonathan Batiste: Jazz is the musical language used to state our deepest, truest feelings
  • Batiste says it's complex and traditional but also contemporary
  • Performers aim to take listeners on a journey to someplace new and different, he says

Editor's note: Jonathan Batiste founded the Stay Human Band and is the associate artistic director of the National Jazz Museum in Harlem. Batiste has been featured on the HBO series "Treme," BET and in Spike Lee's "Red Hook Summer." Follow @jonbatiste.

(CNN) -- What is jazz?

This is an impossible question, and one with many answers. Having spent more than a decade as a jazz artist, I've garnered some insights. As a youngster growing up in New Orleans, surrounded by the city's sounds and rhythms, I was influenced by a wide variety of music: brass bands, blues, ragtime, R&B, soul, rock 'n' roll, Dixieland and more.

I played the percussion in my family's band, switching to piano at age 11. Since then, music has been a part of my everyday life. I've had the good fortune to play with inspiring artists across many genres -- Wynton Marsalis, Prince, Busta Rhymes among them. What's given me the foundation to be able to join such varied musicians is my jazz training.

Jazz is subtle, emotional and accommodating. It is intellectual and sometimes even scientific. Most genres of music are not nearly as multidimensional, which in part is why the art form has such a small audience. In stark comparison to pop music, contemporary jazz seems too circuitous for most listeners to enjoy casually. The challenge for the contemporary jazz musician, as I see it, is making this subtle and complex art palatable to the greater public.

Jazz is complex.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



Some of the greatest musical minds of all-time were jazz artists. They were able to master their instruments, redefine music theory and repeatedly innovate the already formidable body of work present before them. Many of them did so while navigating through the tumultuous social climate from which the music was birthed.

John Blake: Dave Brubeck, ambassador to a new America

As a performer, part of my job is to take the audience on a musical journey to somewhere they've never been. The Stay Human movement I've started is about experiencing music -- not about it being on a stage and untouchable, but something that you viscerally experience on the subways and streets.

Stay Human has grown to be more than a band, and has become a local movement that is expanding and shifting the way people experience jazz. We're trying to harness all of the musical elements that I grew up absorbing in New Orleans, and couple them with contemporary mainstream sounds. I want people to feel and hear jazz as they never thought it could be played.

Jazz legend Dave Brubeck dies
2007: Brubeck on early jazz influences
Hear the unique sounds at Jazz Fest
Inside the Cape Town Jazz Festival

In the midst of the "plug in/tune out" nature of modern day society, we believe that the human interaction of a live musical performance can uplift humanity. Stay Human can happen anywhere. Not only in a music hall or official venue, but on streets and subways or among unsuspecting (and often pleased) patrons at a restaurant. We refer to these moments as a #loveriot and anyone can join.

Keeping the Jazz Fest alive

At the core of the experience is the band, a group of my friends who are all world-class, Juilliard-trained musicians in their 20s. The music is central to the experience, but it isn't just about the music. Ultimately, it's about people from all walks of life coming together to share an authentic and transformative moment through the power of music.

Maya Angelou once said, "I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel."

Jazz is a tradition.

The way jazz musicians walk, talk and greet each other, and the way they play is very distinct. To be a jazz artist is to be a part of a lineage. To play jazz is to contribute to world history. To be a part of this tradition means that you are challenged to transform other people with the sound of your instrument. You are challenged to swing. You are challenged to contribute to the body of work established by some of the greatest artistic minds of all time, work that includes these treasures:

• A performance of "Fine and Mellow" by Billie Holiday, Lester Young and others from a CBS television broadcast in New York on December 8, 1957. It is generally considered one of the greatest moments for jazz ever broadcast on live television.

• "It Don't Mean A Thing" by Duke Ellington features catchy vocals, hard swing, jazz violin and awesome horn section parts that epitomize what the jazz tradition is all about.

• "Every Time We Say Goodbye" Ray Charles and Betty Carter from their album together. Exquisite!

• "I'm Just a Lucky So and So" from the album by Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. It is a supreme example of the blues with utmost sophistication and feeling. The way Duke accompanies Satchmo is masterful, and the personality of the two of them signifies what jazz is all about.

Gene Seymour: Brubeck, jazz master with a big heart

As an artist, it is exciting to explore the sound of your identity. Jazz music teaches you about who you are by exploring the humanity of others. It accommodates who you are. The inimitable genius Charlie Parker stated it best when he said, "Music is your own experience, your own thoughts, your wisdom. If you don't live it, it won't come out of your horn. They teach you there's a boundary line to music. But, man, there's no boundary line to art."

Jazz is an experience.

Jazz is wonderful because it's all about the moment, and I firmly believe in creating unforgettable experiences. With the Stay Human band, it's never only about the stage. What we love is taking the music to the people in the streets -- jumping off stage into the audience, performing in moving vehicles, New York subways, streets and, yes, unsuspecting restaurants.

For me, jazz is all about transformation in the moment. It is the most immediate form of musical expression in existence, and the language that we use to state our deepest, truest feelings. It is the American art form that is globally owned.

What is jazz?

Jazz is now!

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Jonathan Batiste.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 1, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
Carlos Moreno says atheists, a sizable fraction of Americans, deserve representation in Congress.
August 31, 2014 -- Updated 1625 GMT (0025 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Democrats and unions have a long history of mutual support that's on the decline. But in a time of income inequality they need each other more than ever
August 31, 2014 -- Updated 0423 GMT (1223 HKT)
William McRaven
Peter Bergen says Admiral William McRaven leaves the military with a legacy of strategic thinking about special operations
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1611 GMT (0011 HKT)
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1724 GMT (0124 HKT)
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 0106 GMT (0906 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
September 1, 2014 -- Updated 1554 GMT (2354 HKT)
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1434 GMT (2234 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 0243 GMT (1043 HKT)
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1330 GMT (2130 HKT)
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2335 GMT (0735 HKT)
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2053 GMT (0453 HKT)
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1919 GMT (0319 HKT)
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2104 GMT (0504 HKT)
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
ADVERTISEMENT