Grammys: For Jon Batiste, music is a birthright and a vocation


“Music is a sacred thing, man,” says Jon Batiste.

(Devin Oktar Yalkin / For the Times)

The most important day in Jon Batiste’s career began in a chaotic fashion.

On November 23, the day the Grammy nominations were announced, Batiste was part of the morning livestream, and he had a difficult mission: to pronounce the names of the nominees in five Latin or Mexican categories.

Batiste, who is not a native Spanish speaker, was nervous about navigating the rolling tildes and Rs. “I was focusing on being a good presenter and trying with care and respect to pronounce the names of Latin artists,” he recalls, laughing at Zoom. Some of the names were familiar to him, and with the rest he moved cautiously through each syllable.

On Twitter, people were clowning around the 35-year-old singer, pianist and conductor for his slow pace. “Jon Batiste is fighting for his life,” one wag tweeted. And a TV official added, “OK, give Jon Batiste a Grammy for having to say all those names.” It turned out that Batiste didn’t need help.

Batiste finished his bilingual sailings, then the American roots category was announced. Batiste was previously nominated in this category in 2018, so he paid attention and heard his name announced for a roots performance and a roots song, both for his 2021 album “We Are”. “After that,” he recalls, “I heard nothing more. “

There was a lot of noise in his New York apartment, as it was packed with people, including his musical collaborator Ryan Lynn; his longtime girlfriend, Swiss Tunisian writer and activist Suleika Jaouad; and his parents, sister, and nephews, who flew north because Batiste was riding the Louisiana chariot in the Thanksgiving parade two days later. He got a few more nominations, then a few more, then some more. “Every time my name was mentioned it was pandemonium. It was surreal after a while.

A man in a dark shirt and a gold chain dances with sheer curtains.

“Every time my name was mentioned it was a pandemonium,” said Jon Batiste, watching the Grammy nominations at home with his girlfriend and family members.

(Devin Oktar Yalkin / For the Times)

By the time the Grammys ended, Batiste had been nominated 11 times (a total topped only twice, by Michael Jackson in 1984 and Babyface in 1997), including for album of the year and record breaking. the year. But it wasn’t just the volume of nominations that was extraordinary, it was also the range. In addition to his American roots, Batiste has been nominated in the R&B, Jazz, Sheet Music, Video and Classical categories.

Although he is on television as the musical director of “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” and won an Oscar this year as a songwriter for the Disney-Pixar animated film “Soul,” Batiste is someone who is better known to cognoscenti than to the masses. In the tradition of “Who is Bonny Bear?” Question that circulated widely in 2012, after the unrecognized Bon Iver won the award for Best New Artist at the Grammys, the dominant social media question on November 23 was “WTF is this Jon Batiste?”

Fortunately, Batiste is adept at explaining WTF that he is, analyzing what his success means, and explaining what he wants to accomplish. He emphasizes two interrelated biographical details: he comes from a musical family and he comes from New Orleans.

“In New Orleans, music is part of the fabric of everyday life,” he says. “It is our daily bread. And, he points out, his hometown harbors a wild array of musical styles, in part due to its importance as a port city: the Spanish, French and British have all been there, as have the diasporas. African and Caribbean, and West Africans from several countries. arrived via slave ships.

“There is an amalgam of cultures rooted in the community, and even foods, dances or social functions that accompany this music. Everyone plays music because it’s culture. The guy people buy weed from in high school is playing the trumpet.

His father, Michael Batiste, is a bass player who has performed with greats like Jackie Wilson and David Ruffin. Michael is also a co-founder of the longtime Batiste Family Band, which at one point, according to the group’s website, included 23 family members. Jon’s cousins ​​include the late Alvin Batiste, an accomplished jazz clarinetist, and drummer Russell Batiste Jr. of the Funky Meters, one of New Orleans’ preeminent bands.

At age 8, Jon started playing drums in the family band, sometimes in front of thousands of people. At the age of 11, at his mother’s suggestion, he began to play the piano. Two years later he was leading his own groups and starting to form ideas for making music that recognizes and respects genres, but is not limited to them.

While growing up in a New Orleans suburb, Batiste saw relatives dealing with shady club owners and predatory music publishers. “I was one of the first students in the business, watching my dad and my family, seeing how to create an environment where people want to come to your concerts, how to have a band that sounds like you and not everyone. I understood the ecosystem of leading a group. When I went to New York, I applied all of this to a much bigger playing field.

By age 17, Batiste had graduated from high school and enrolled in Juilliard School, a performing arts college in New York City, where he eventually earned a bachelor’s and master’s degree in jazz studies. He decided to keep control of his music while he was still expanding and refining it.

“The big labels started offering me recording contracts when I was 18 and 19, and I refused everything. I wanted to make my own independent and roundabout route. One of his indie albums, “Social Music” from 2013, ranked No. 1 on the Billboard Jazz Albums chart. He was invited to appear on “The Colbert Report” and wowed host Stephen Colbert by bringing members of the audience out of their seats and into the streets, where they sang and danced. When “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” debuted on CBS in September 2015, Batiste was the group’s frontman and second banana.

A man with a dark shirt and a gold chain has his hair and face retouched.

“It’s great to see him become popular,” says guitarist Robert Randolph of Batiste, “but everyone in the music world already knew he was awesome.”

(Devin Oktar Yalkin / For the Times)

A man in a plaid coat leans against a tree and puts his hands on his shoulders.

“I was obsessed with being as authentic as possible,” says Batiste of his work as a composer and consultant on the Pixar animated film “Soul”.

(Devin Oktar Yalkin / For the Times)

A man in a dark shirt and jeans sits in a chair in front of a statue of a woman.

Jon Batiste.

(Devin Oktar Yalkin / For the Times)

This ended his independent and itinerant phase. “Because of the TV show, I wasn’t going to be able to tour as much as I did, so I figured I might as well sign a recording deal.” His first album on the Verve label was “Hollywood Africans”, a solo LP for voice and piano that he had produced with producer T Bone Burnett, whom Batiste met at a birthday party for the U2 singer Bono. , if you need a concrete sign that he was approaching the big time.

Batiste considers “We Are” to be his first real studio album, in part because it was the first time he had a budget that never went out of his pocket.

“Jon did it himself,” says star guitarist Robert Randolph, who performed on “We Are”. “He produced and wrote the music. He’s the one in charge, and that’s his vision.

“We Are” was also the first time that Batiste understood and could articulate his worldview, an idealistic and universal humanism in which music unites people but also recognizes the specific struggle that blacks face.

He participated in Black Lives Matter marches, voter registration rallies and protests after the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery. “Every time I do that sort of thing, it makes me realize what my goal is here. I already have a platform, but I also need to build the platform. If people see you from a distance, they don’t smell you, they don’t feel your vibrations and see you putting your life in danger in the first wave of the pandemic with the police next to you scowling – “

Batiste, more and more passionate, stops short and bursts out laughing. “I don’t want to preach to you, brother. He stabilizes and continues. “We have to be with the people, otherwise it’s just empty words, empty notes. People must feel that you really mean it, that it is sincere.

There is nothing distant or ironic about Batiste’s music. Its unconstrained greed is a big part of what elevates “Soul,” one of the top-rated films of recent years, which centers around Pixar’s first black protagonist, jazz pianist Joe Gardner.

“’Soul’ is a love letter to jazz. How to present the spirit and the philosophy of jazz without whitewashing it? I worked there for two and a half years, not only as a composer but also as a consultant. I was obsessed with being as authentic as possible.

His blend of virtuosity, sincerity and positivity is a big part of what made Batiste catnip for Grammy voters. He is socially conscious but not “radical”, accessible but not vulgar and respectful towards musical traditions. “It’s great to see him become popular,” says Randolph, “but everyone in the music world already knew he’s great. “

Batiste puts a lot of responsibility on his own shoulders: representing his family as well as his hometown, uniting listeners across borders and describing the struggle of blacks without succumbing to despair. I asked him why it was important for him to take on such an important challenge.

“There has been a void in our culture for quite some time. We see music as an opportunity for growth. But beyond any financial gain or level of scaling, music is a hell of a thing, man. And I almost feel called to bring it to people in these difficult times. If I don’t, who will? “

A man in a dark shirt and a gold chain stands behind sheer curtains with his eyes closed.

Batiste, 35, appears every night as a conductor in “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert”.

(Devin Oktar Yalkin / For the Times)


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