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
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2108 GMT (0508 HKT)
The NFL's new Player Conduct Policy was a missed chance to get serious about domestic violence, says Mel Robbins.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 1740 GMT (0140 HKT)
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 2154 GMT (0554 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1023 GMT (1823 HKT)
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 0639 GMT (1439 HKT)
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 2020 GMT (0420 HKT)
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1456 GMT (2256 HKT)
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 2101 GMT (0501 HKT)
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1453 GMT (2253 HKT)
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 2253 GMT (0653 HKT)
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1550 GMT (2350 HKT)
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2123 GMT (0523 HKT)
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 1426 GMT (2226 HKT)
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1828 GMT (0228 HKT)
Rip Rapson says the city's 'Grand Bargain' saved pensions and a world class art collection by pulling varied stakeholders together, setting civic priorities and thinking outside the box
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2310 GMT (0710 HKT)
Glenn Schwartz says the airing of the company's embarrassing emails might wake us up to the usefulness of talking in-person instead of electronically
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 2233 GMT (0633 HKT)
The computer glitch that disrupted air traffic over the U.K. on Friday was a nuisance, but not dangerous, says Les Abend
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 1740 GMT (0140 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says the CBO didn't provide an accurate picture of Obamacare's impact, so why rehire its boss?
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 0040 GMT (0840 HKT)
Russian aggression has made it clear Ukraine must rethink its security plans, says Olexander Motsyk, Ukrainian ambassador to the U.S.
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 0046 GMT (0846 HKT)
The Senate committee report on torture has highlighted partisan divisions on CIA methods, says Will Marshall. Republicans and Democrats are to blame.
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1833 GMT (0233 HKT)
It would be dishonest to say that 2014 has been a good year for women. But that hasn't stopped some standing out, says Frida Ghitis.
ADVERTISEMENT