You can listen to Jon Batiste in conversation with Sam Bleazard by hitting play, or read the full transcript below.
Over the past 12 months, Jon Batiste has scored the smash-hit Disney Pixar movie Soul, won a Golden Globe, been nominated for an Oscar, received Grammy nominations for two separate albums and released a third album WE ARE. He also led several protests for racial justice, advised the new Joe Biden administration on the role of the arts in America and is the arranger and bandleader on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.
You grew up in Louisiana playing music from a very early age – and is it true that your parents owned a grocery and hardware store?
“My grandparents did, not my parents. My grandparents owned a grocery and hardware store in Bunche village in Louisiana, which is a very rural country neighbourhood.”
What are your strongest childhood memories, and how did they shape your playing?
“I think that I lived life and experienced things that are translated into music. I’m more inspired by life than I am by actual music when I’m creating. So, for instance the times I spent at the corner store, or the different family gatherings, or friends that I had. I just got reconnected with a friend of mine from middle school who I used to hang out with all the time. All these characters and experiences I translate into music, and that’s what my gift is because I really believe that music is life.”
You starred in the TV series Treme, which dramatised events in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina – how important is it for you to tell the story of New Orleans?
“I was glad to be a part of that because it was as real as you can get, in terms of depicting what it was like in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. It also featured the music and culture of New Orleans. Treme is the oldest black neighbourhood in America and it’s also where Louis Armstrong was born. It’s a hub of culture in New Orleans in the 7th Ward.
Having a show, even with that name, putting that culture on the map – and everything that happened with that show – it was really cool to see it happen.”
It must have been great to have such a pivotal role in the Disney/Pixar film “Soul”. Can you tell us how you came to be involved, and how that collaboration came about?
“Reputation. They heard of me, and maybe different people within the community of music felt that I would be the right person, whenever they asked around. And eventually I met with Pete Docter, the Director, and we’ve become really great friends since working on the film. But before then it was just a lot of conversations between Pete, myself, Kemp Powers – who was the Co-Director – and Dana Murray who was a Producer, and eventually Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross as well. I was really instrumental not only in the score, but in developing the main character Joe, and also the storyline for the piece as a whole. It really evolved more and more over the two years I was involved in the film.
And they animated your hands as well – is that right?
“Yes, they animated my hands, there were moments where the score was approached in the same way that a method actor would approach a role. People would ask me – how would Joe play this, how would Joe say this, so there are parts where I spoke things into the script and they became dialogue in the story. Not only were they filming me for the hands of Joe Gardener, they were recording me the entire time and they were listening to stories I would tell about being a musician. And all these different experiences somehow made their way into the story.
On your new album there is a collaboration with Zadie Smith on “Show Me The Way” – can you tell us how that collaboration came about?
“My partner is a writer, and we’re all mutual friends with Zadie. My partner Suleika Jaouad has a really great community of writers around her, similar to situations that happened in the old days.
Suleika and I would have friends over and we’d read each others work or perform for each other. Musicians, painters, writers – and Zadie’s a friend of ours, so one day I found out that she had a talent as a vocalist as well, and ever since then we’ve been jamming together. We’ve jammed together many times now, and we’ve performed publicly a couple of times together, where she’s singing, and I’m singing and playing. One day when we were singing and playing during the pandemic over the internet, on Zoom actually, we were doing a virtual jam session, and I was finishing a song at the same time. At the end of the session I asked if she wanted to sing on it, because it just felt like the right thing, and I needed that texture of voice on it for the song, and she fit perfectly. She was down to do it, she’s very organic and spontaneous.
I also want to ask you about another musician that I know has influenced you, as I’m sure many have. Can I ask you about Prince – because I heard you went on tour with him?
“Yes Prince, and several other musicians who he brought into the fold. We did a short run of shows when I was 20 years old. Speaking of Prince it was interesting because he’s got so many different musical eras. The year before that, for me there was a cool full circle moment, when I was 19 and I’d been in New York for about a year and a half. I was at The Juilliard School, and I was in dorms listening to some of his music, as a student does, breaking it apart and breaking into the anatomy of the music – and also putting it back together to figure out how it was made. I was listening to Dirty Mind – which is one of his early records. I was putting the record together and taking it apart, and then actually using elements of what he did to write my own compositions. So needless to say throughout this process I was very deep in the mode of this record, and deep in the sound of Prince – his world musically was very much a part of my orbit. Maybe six months later I get the call that he wants to have us come out and play as one of the bands on his tour dates, so that was just a crazy moment when that happened. It just kinda shows that when you put stuff out into the universe, and you really have some sort of connection to the universal order of things, it will just happen for you.”
“I just like stuff that’s different. I like original stuff, like the music that I make is very original. I like making things that are not at all derivative, even if they’re influenced by other things. And you’re inspired by other things, and of course everyone is inspired, right? So Prince and many of the great artists defy genre, because that’s really a construct that actually doesn’t exist. And with the music I make, the music that Prince made, and all of the greats who I was inspired by made, it’s just a genre into itself – if you even want to call it that, it defies category. And that’s what I love.
You had a debut show in Amsterdam in 2007 during your formative years? What do you remember about the start of your solo career?
“I started when I was fairly young, and in New Orleans I played with my family – then eventually I led my own bands. When I moved to New York City I was really interested in figuring out a way to expand across the globe. That was the first time that I’d produced and curated a performance, where I took musicians from the Netherlands and brought them to Carnegie Hall – and vice versa – took musicians from New York City and brought them to the Concertgebouw and dropped that cultural exchange. I also did masterclasses with students who were my age and younger, with some of them even older, and we went into inner city communities, to Colleges and performed. You know it was just a real turning point for me to realise that at 19 years old my vision and my creativity could have an impact across the globe.”
We’ve really been enjoying the new album WE ARE – what are your hopes and aspirations for the future?
“I just want to keep growing and keep evolving. The more that I keep growing and keep evolving, the more I keep living out my God given purpose and finding the ways to enhance, both my own gifts and those of the community around me – that will make everything better.”