I first met Jonathan at Summit Series, a conference for young entrepreneurs wanting to make a difference in the community. We went to find a piano, and he got into this incredible improv/jam session with Kenna (Kenna Zemedkun); the music struck a chord and that moment resonated with me. From that moment, we became not only close friends, but Jonathan became an artist ambassador for Music Unites to help fund a free after-school youth choir in Harlem. I’ve seen him develop his vision and talent: he is involved in contemporary jazz music, humanitarian affairs, education, and can sell out Dizzy’s at Lincoln Center in a heartbeat. His improvisational skills enable him to compose beautiful melodies and his knowledge and appreciation for music spans all genres of music. He is as comfortable talking about Phoenix, Bruno Mars, Lady Gaga or legendary jazz artists like Wynton Marsalis (who is a mentor of his). In 2012, we’re going to see his career flourish on both the music front and big screen with his acting career. I know that he will soon be recognized as an influential artist making a mark on an entire musical genre in jazz. That being said, what makes him so special also has to be his humility. Jonathan always says: “I’m only worried about the next note.” That’s him in a nutshell.
Alright, let’s start.
I’ll try and be as honest as possible!
How about this: insert one lie in your responses, and then I (and the readers) will have to guess what it was.
[laughs] No problem.
Even though you’re primarily known as a musician, you just came back from Sundance, where you were presenting Spike Lee’s Red Hook Summer. How was it received?
Very well. It was one of the most well-attended movies at Sundance, with incredible people like Chris Rock and Cuba Gooding Jr. The film covers religion, race, a lot of controversial material…
A regular Spike Lee movie! Who do you play?
I play T.K. Hazleton, a cab driver and church organist. Everybody in the movie has multiple jobs, since they come from poor communities. On Sunday they get together for sanctified services at the Church. I scored the music for that part, and really enjoyed playing the social cab driver who gets to talk to everyone.
You’re very much like that anyway: easy-going, social… You’ve hugged me three times since I first arrived ten minutes ago.
You started playing instruments at a young age in New Orleans. Did your parents force you or was it organic?
I just liked it. My daddy played the bass. He still does. My uncle played the keyboard and was a showman. I also looked up to my drummer cousins who played every instrument: saxophone, trumpet… At first, I simply wanted to be onstage and hang. I started playing the drums, percussions, then piano when I was about 11. My mom, she said, “You should go to piano, there’s already enough little drummer boys out there.”
Is that what you studied after high school? Music?
My vision of Juilliard is a total fantasy fueled by movies like Fame. Is it like that, with disgustingly talented individuals jamming around and improvising during lunchtime?
It was just like that. One time in the cafeteria, we took out our instruments. People started dancing on the tables; one person did a backflip and caught a sandwich I had thrown in the air with his feet.
There is an element of jazz in each of your songs, even though you’ve been known to tackle many different musical genres. How come?
Jazz is foundational, and you can include it anywhere. For the average listener, it seems like an inaccessible type of music, but you can hear it everywhere. Watch this.
[Jonathan rushes to the piano and starts playing a jazzy version of…]
That’s “Just Dance” by Lady Gaga, right?
I hear you perform on subway trains. You’ve heard of that Joshua Bell experiment right? (World’s greatest violinist who played in the Washington subway, most people passing through and ignoring him)
I have. We perform in the subway when we’re coming back from shows, and if people aren’t clapping by the first song, they will by the second one. To go back to the previous topic, you have to create an experience original enough for people to notice. Change the way in which you present yourself and your music in order to educate people on what you’re bringing to the scene.
It’s interesting. That said, you don’t really do any marketing or a huge push to promote yourself… yet your shows are always sold out.
I don’t really care, man. I actually like not pushing this super hard and having people interested. I’ve learned that “what’s fast don’t last, what’s slow is sure.” We’re going to be here for a long time. Not a flash in the bag, famous for a year, or the jazz taste of the month.
What are the three songs that our readers should listen to in order to be introduced to your music?
To know what I’m about spiritually: “Kindergarten.” “Everytime,” which has me experimenting with American music and focusing on R&B, soul, and jazz marching band elements. Also check out my rendition of “Teenage Dream,” because that’s like eating cake.
What albums has the Stay Human Band put out, and what are your plans for the future?
MY N.Y. is the album that was recorded on the subway and in the New York streets, which also includes a fifteen-minute film. We are also going to make a recording in February with Avatar Studios, which will include interactive components, concert extras… A bunch of talented musicians will be featured, like Asher Roth and Mark O’Connor.
How can Daily BR!NK readers contribute to your success?
Easy. Three things:
Join our street tram — when we’re in your town, email us at the email@example.com, come to a gig, help us greet people on the way out with a smile. If we go to Utah and you say you want to join, reach out.
Come to the gig and bring a friend. If you come to a gig, never come by yourself — you’ll miss sharing a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
What about people like me who have no friends?
Tell people you know, make friends there!
Make sure to check back tomorrow and we’ll reveal Jonathan’s lie!