In His Own Words: Jon Batiste on Building Community Through Music

Rashad D. Grove Rashad Grove is a writer from NJ whose work has…
Jon Batiste
Jon Batiste went into another stratosphere over the last two years. He was the biggest winner at the 2022 Grammys, winning five awards, including Album of the Year. Photo Credit: Gilbert Carrasquillo/GC Images

Jon Batiste caught up with Okayplayer and talked about his success, his partnership with Amazon for Prime Day, and more.

Jon Batiste is one of the most accomplished musicians on the music landscape. A master pianist, bandleader, and composer, the New Orleans native combines jazz, gospel, R&B, funk, and soul, to create a sound that is uniquely his own. A child prodigy and member of the highly-regarded Batiste musical dynasty, he emerged as a supremely gifted jazz musician, melding all of the rich musical and cultural influences of the Crescent City.

As a student at the prestigious Juilliard School in New York City, he founded his band Stay Human. The ensemble released Social Music, which topped the jazz album charts in 2013. Since September 2015, Batiste and Stay Human have been the house band for The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.

Batiste went into another stratosphere over the last two years. In 2020, he co-composed the score for the Pixar animated film Soul, which received an Academy Award, a Golden Globe Award, a Grammy Award, and a BAFTA Film Award. He was the biggest winner at the 2022 Grammys, winning five awards, including Album of the Year for his 2021 album, We Are

Currently, he serves as the music director of The Atlantic and the Creative Director of the National Jazz Museum in Harlem.  On top of all his accolades, he was named as one of the 100 most influential people by Time Magazine.

“What I love most about Jon as an artist and human being, though, is that he has handled his success with grace, and his creativity with humility,” Quincy Jones wrote in his tribute to Batiste. “It is all of these attributes that will allow him to continue to grow and accomplish all that he sets out to. And I, for one, am excited for the future that he has ahead of him.

Batiste caught up with Okayplayer and talked about his success, his partnership with Amazon for Prime Day, and how music can create community.

As told to Rashad Grove

On his first music memory.

That’s probably my dad playing the bass. He was an incredible musician and, obviously, he was my first musical mentor. But my first musical memory was hearing him play “Stand By Me” by Ben E. King on the bass. That was what I remember every single time. We would hear him play or sing around the house, he was either doing that or he was playing something by Fats Domino.

On growing up in New Orleans.

When I was a kid I thought every place was like New Orleans. But when I began to travel I discovered there was no place quite like it. My family goes back generations in New Orleans. I went to St Augustine, an all-black high school, and I was in the Marching 100, a popular band known across the South. I was a student at New Orleans Center for Creative Arts and my cousin Alvin Batiste was the creative director. It was just as rigorous as Juilliard [Laughs]. New Orleans shaped and made me who I am.

On what “social music” means. 

It’s a New Orleans thing [Laughs]. Nothing can create a community quite like music. The concept of “social music,” is going into different places in the community where people coexist and create a sense of community through music even though we have different beliefs. In society, music can be a common denominator. I believe that the highest form of music and art is based on our life experience. Music is life and that’s what I mean by social music.

I’m really excited to see what happens next with music because I think where politics fail and with all of the different conflicts that we have, it’s music and art by the creatives that will help to get in touch with who we really are. Music can help us get in touch with humanity through our craft. I think that’s gonna be an important part of leading us out of these dark times. So you know, I’m really excited about what can happen with music beyond just entertainment. What’s really special about any musical collaboration and creative collaboration is that it shows how people can come together from all walks of life, to make something beautiful, even if we don’t all agree on everything. We don’t all come from the same background, so I think we can learn a lot from the creatives.

On reworking a Billy Ocean classic for Amazon Prime. 

I was wondering how we were going to figure everything out. One of the first things I said when we were talking about what we wanted to do was that I really wanted a Jheri curl. I had to have that. If we’re gonna do this, we gotta go all the way to it. Lo and behold,  we put it together. It was a really quick turnaround. We did it in a week. The studio sessions were done in a day and a half. It was a really quick turnaround. I’m use to that with film and TV but it was still fun to collaborate under the gun. I love the pressure. Billy Ocean is an artist that I love! I had such a great time reworking “Get Outta My Dreams, Get Outta My Car.”

On the linage he’s following as bandleader for The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.

When I talk about these figures who when I was coming up who inspired me Questlove was one of them. He was funny and was a real supporter of our band. Before I joined the Late Show, we would do these secret shows in New York. After a while folks started to hear about it and he would come and he invited people to see us play. The  Red Hot Chili Peppers came and we jam with Lenny Kravitz, who actually t gave it out for the year Grammy. We were laughing on stage, because he first heard me in a basement in Harlem at a secret show maybe 12 years ago and he came and played the drums with us and hung out all night. We’ve been friends ever since and that was such a full-circle moment. 

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Rashad Grove is a writer from NJ whose work has appeared on BET, Billboard, MTV News, Okayplayer, High Snobiety, Medium, Revolt TV, The Source Magazine, and others. You can follow him at @thegroveness for all of his greatness.

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