The Beauty of Jon Batiste’s Spiritual Journey

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Batiste performing his hit “Freedom” at this year’s Grammy Awards.

(Photo: Courtesy The Recording Academy/Getty Images)

On the surface of things, it seems counterintuitive that DownBeat critics would name the same musician both Jazz Artist of the Year and Beyond Artist of the Year — until you learn that the musician in question is Jon Batiste, and suddenly the double billing makes sense.

Batiste actively promotes the normalization of musical ambidexterity. True, many contemporary musicians embrace the ethos of creative pluralism — why would anyone want to limit their musical identity? Even so, nobody does it better, or more fully, than Batiste.

Consider his Grammy sweep this year. Batiste scored 11 nominations, including those for Best Roots Song, Best R&B Album, Best Jazz Instrumental Album, Best Contemporary Classical Composition, Best Music Video, and Best Score Soundtrack for Visual Media. Of these nominations, he took home five trophies, among them the prized Album of the Year award for We Are (Verve), a musical tour de force that earned top honors as Beyond Album of the Year in the 70th Annual DownBeat Critics Poll.

We caught up with Batiste in early June, just after he’d rallied from a bout with COVID. The timing of his illness couldn’t have been worse, mere days before the Carnegie Hall premiere of American Symphony — an opus he’d spent more than three years composing — originally scheduled for May 7. He was forced to postpone the concert, now rescheduled for September.

“It really hit me hard. I had COVID and pneumonia simultaneously, so I was out for about two-and-a-half weeks at home, alone,” he recalled. “It really deflated a lot of things.”

Batiste also worried about infecting his wife, Emmy-Award winning journalist and author Suleika Jaouad, who is immunno-compromised. (Jaouad chronicled her battle with leukemia in the 2021 bestseller Between Two Kingdoms: A Memoir of a Life Interrupted.)

Batiste’s new large-scale work is more than just another milestone in an already spectacular career. The piece makes a strong declarative statement about where Batiste is heading. Specifically, American Symphony portends a cultural evolution not just in the way that we understand new music today, but in the way that we talk about our national heritage.

American Symphony is a recontextualization of American music, and thus world music, given how deeply entrenched in our culture the concept of a melting pot is,” he said. “The symphony itself is about bringing together musicians from all different cultures — jazz musicians, classical musicians, electronic musicians, Native American folk musicians, brass band musicians. This is the kind of thinking that’s happening in this digital age, where everything is so connected. I think there’s an opportunity now to have a deeper, more relevant understanding of American culture and to transform the educational practices surrounding that.”

Fundamental to this cultural reckoning would be an acknowledgment of certain truths such as the unheralded contributions of Black genius to American culture and the destructive legacy left by the oppression of whole groups of Americans. Still, Batiste sees a way to greater unity in the democratic ideals on which the U.S. was founded — and the birth of jazz is an example of that, he said.

“[Democracy] holds all of these disparate cultures together in one culture, and out of that one culture, jazz music emerged,” he said. “It’s called jazz now, but it really was a cultural phenomenon. Lifting the lid of oppression just a little bit gave a wider variety of people the chance to express their truth. And those people made art — in an irrepressible, creative form — just by expressing the amazing truth of American life.

“I think that now we’re at a point in history where something yet to be named is happening. Many of my peers and colleagues have been striving to find the name for it, and to create the sound of it. It’s an outgrowth of jazz, in that it holds together all of these modern influences. This art form, this way of thinking, has yet to be really codified. I call it ‘social music.’

“To say that jazz is at the center of it would be wrong, but that’s not far from the truth. It’s an outgrowth of the incredible phenomenon that we call jazz, but it’s beyond even that.”

It’s hard to deny the socially galvanizing force of We Are. From Batiste’s exuberance on the video for “Freedom” through the raw ache in his voice on “Cry” to the triumph of the chorus on the title cut, just try not to move or be moved. Lest his intention with the album get buried, though, Batiste spells it out explicitly on the cover: to recognize “the dreamers, seers, griots and truth tellers, who refuse to let us fully descend into madness.”

“There’s so much to say about the people I dedicated the record to,” he elaborated. “People need to know, in their quest, that what they’re doing is important, even if no one sees it and they’re not [winning] Grammys or [performing] on a big stage. The people who are taking care of their communities, who are teaching the next generation, who are in temples and synagogues. The people all across the country who are standing there, in integrity, without anyone seeing them.”

Batiste’s sense of social responsibility seems to grow with his rising visibility in the entertainment world. Always prolific — Batiste has released or collaborated on more than 20 records since 2003 — his career reached a flashpoint after he become musical director of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert in 2015. Soon after, he was hired to write 16 jazz originals for the 2020 Disney/Pixar animated feature Soul, which earned him an Academy Award and a Golden Globe. And next year, he’ll make his feature film debut as an actor, originating the role of Grady, a gifted jazz pianist, in a second film adaptation of The Color Purple, this one based on the Broadway musical.

These high-profile accomplishments augur well for the success of his social and creative advocacy. But beyond discussing the film, due out December 2023, Batiste is quiet on the specifics of his new projects. All he’ll admit is that, for sure, there’s another album in the works.

“I’m starting with the nucleus of We Are, which is the incredible producer-songwriter Autumn Rowe; the producer-songwriter Kizzo, from the Netherlands; and my executive producer, Ryan Lynn,” Batiste revealed. “Ryan and I are working not just on a follow-up to the album, but on several different projects that I can’t speak about yet. Just know that there’s a lot of new music coming, and it’s going to be really, really exciting to share once we’re done.”

Casting a shadow on the exhilaration of these career highs, however, is the ongoing challenge of Jaouad’s leukemia, which recurred earlier this year. Batiste, even as he works unflaggingly for a more equitable future, understands the importance of living in the present.

“I don’t have any goals in my day other than to love [Suleika] thoroughly and to commit to what that entails in the peaks and valleys [of her illness],” Batiste said. “We look at each day as, ‘This is what we have.’ It’s a long road. But it’s made me realize that we’re all going to have this moment where we’re at the edge of our mortality. It does us all a service to look at each day, and our most cherished loved ones, like that. If we’re not doing that, then we’re not doing it right. More than anything, that [realization] has been a gift in this struggle.”

Batiste met Joauad at the Skidmore Jazz Institute when they were just teenagers, before he earned his jazz degrees at Juilliard and launched his career as a musician under the careful mentorship of jazz artists like Curtis Fuller, Louis Hayes, Mulgrew Miller, Roy Hargrove and Wynton Marsalis. He notes that what followed, in both his private and personal lives, emerged from those fertile musical environments.

“It’s so deep,” he reflected. “Just to see where I am now, with all of these incredible opportunities to share my art and to be a light in the world, but also to have this keen awareness of my own mortality. And to think that it started with this skinny kid from Louisiana coming to New York at 17 years old, wanting to play jazz. It’s just incredible.” DB




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December 2022
Kenny Barron
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