Oscar-winning composer Jon Batiste: “I see jazz as a superpower” | Jazz
In June 2020, composer and pianist Jon Batiste was on the move. During the week, he was composing Pixar’s Black-directed first feature, Soul, from his dressing room at the Ed Sullivan Theater, where he works as a conductor for Stephen Colbert’s Late Show. He was finishing the music for his eighth album, We Are, while composing a 40-minute symphony that will be performed by over 200 musicians at Carnegie Hall next May. And on the weekends, he would then gather a group of players and walk the streets of New York, singing songs like We Shall Overcome and Down By the Riverside to protest the deaths of black Americans at the hands of the police.
“We are protesting to reaffirm our humanity,” said Baritone Batiste on a call from his New York home. “When George Floyd and Breonna Taylor were killed, black people started to feel that our worth as human beings was being suppressed – and we had to talk about it in our own way, through music.” On June 10 – the date that commemorates the emancipation of African-American slaves – the Batiste marches came to a head as the 34-year-old led a crowd of more than 10,000 to the Brooklyn Public Library, just a day after police clashed with other protesters in the area. âThere was a lot of tension in the air, because people had just been cornered by the authorities, but we showed up and it was the songs that brought us closer, rather than fighting,â he says. “That’s the power of social music.”
“Social music” is the catch-all term used by Batiste to describe his varied production and reference to jazz. Coming from a musical dynasty in New Orleans, he first played drums at age eight in the family group, the Batiste Brothers Band, before switching to the piano and developing his ear by transcribing sheet music. video such as Sonic the Hedgehog and Street Fighter II.. At 17, he was immersed in the language of jazz and has already released his first album, Times in New Orleans. During the decade he had graduated from the prestigious Juilliard School, toured around the world, and counted among his friends and mentors Quincy Jones, Stevie Wonder and Herbie Hancock.
âAll of my work comes from within and each album is a recording of a specific moment in time and in my life,â he says. “This is why this latest record speaks of the protests that were taking place. It means that as human beings we all come from a common ancestry and lineage. Only we are the ones who can save ourselves. As long as there are forces of evil in the world, the job is never done.
As he speaks, it becomes clear – in the way he channels emphatic pulpit phrasing – that several of Batiste’s relatives are preachers. Indeed, it is difficult to see his career lauded to this day and not to see him marked for success by a benevolent force. This year alone, he became the second black composer to win an Oscar (after Herbie Hancock’s victory in 1986) for his work on Soul, was nominated twice at this month’s Jazz FM Awards and is currently undertaking a curatorial residence at Carnegie Hall.
He considers We Are his crowning achievement. âIt’s my debut in a lot of ways, because it’s my first record on a label that talks about who I am now as a grown man,â he says. “It was done when I was 33, which is the year Jesus was crucified, so that marks an age of becoming, when so many great musicians like Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder did their best work as well.” If We Are doesn’t quite match the revolutionary genius of What’s Going On or Songs in the Key of Life, her 14 sprawling tracks span the gamut of black American music and her own history, featuring her former high school marching band, her classmate Trombone Shorty, and vocal recordings of her niece and nephew – as well as friends famous Zadie Smith and Mavis Staples. “The rebirth and evolution of Jon Batiste”, this is how he frames it.
For all third-person statements, Batiste’s success has undoubtedly been essential in bringing jazz to a wider audience, including inviting saxophonist Wayne Shorter and the Philadelphia band the Heath Brothers to perform for a live performance. audience of millions of people on The Late. Spectacle. âI see jazz as a superpower,â he says. âIt has never depended on popularity to maintain its relevance because its value is undeniable; it represents all the nuances of the human soul. It’s an honor to play this music because it’s my heritage – it’s the darkest and deepest American classical music that has become a universal art form. Jazz shows you that something can come from a specific experience and that it can be adapted in a way that is not appropriate.
Batiste, who joined The Late Show in 2015, considers his role unique in mainstream American television. âThere are very few people who look like me in these spaces and I talk about things that I don’t hear anyone else on TV,â he says. âI am always touched by the influence we can have on our audience. “
Since the age of 21, Batiste has also been involved with the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, where he is now Creative Director, another role in which he uses jazz as a means of bringing people together. Its event programs, organized in a Harlem Church basement, saw artists like Cotton Club dancer Jacquie “Tajah” Murdock perform to an audience which could include “Mary from the corner store and Philip from the barber shop” as well as Lenny Kravitz .
It is this focus on representation for all horizons that stimulates Batiste’s prodigious production. âIt’s so important for someone who looks like me and my age to be recognized and to win an Oscar for a jazz film with a black star,â he says. âThere is pressure to be a pioneer, to represent and somehow uplift your community, but you don’t have much of a chance to be successful in life and it makes me cry to think about what that might mean for the next me, watching. “
Continuing to wear the mantle, Batiste has a slew of high-profile projects ahead – including a Broadway musical about the life of graffiti artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, and the premiere of his Carnegie Hall orchestral work, American Symphony.
âI’ve been working there for three and a half years, I write my scores by hand,â he says. âAnd I’m proud to say this will be the first time in Carnegie Hall’s 130 years that an all-black orchestra has featured a performance. We’re going to make history and show everyone why we’re here, since the job is never done.
The 2021 Jazz FM Awards will be livebroadcast on Jazz FM on October 28 from 7:30 p.m.