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Jon Batiste on His Oscar-Nominated Soul Score and Being a ‘Black Pop Star Making Black Pop Masterpieces’

13 minute read

Over the past 12 months, Jon Batiste has scored the smash-hit Pixar movie Soul, won a Golden Globe, been nominated for an Oscar, received Grammy noms for two separate albums, released a third album, led several protests for racial justice, advised the Biden Administration on the role of the arts in America, and arranged and performed music for dozens of editions of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, where he serves as bandleader.

And that’s almost all from the confines of his New Jersey home. “I don’t know if I would have done the things that I did this past year had not the rhythm of everything shifted,” Batiste says on a phone call. “I don’t know if it’s good—but I think that anything different is good when you’re creative.”

In the lead-up to the Oscars on April 25, at which he’ll be up for Best Original Score, Batiste talked about his new album We Are, learning from Stevie Wonder and Quincy Jones, and inhabiting the musical spirit of Soul’s protagonist, Joe Gardner. Excerpts from the conversation are below.

TIME: How are you today?

Jon Batiste: I just got the vaccine shot. It’s a trip, man. It’s an emotional experience. I can’t wait to get back on the road and perform again, because I think it’ll have a brand-new meaning for me and the audience. I want to go to Japan, Benin, the Congo, Ghana, Russia.

You place so much emphasis on social aspects of life, even naming one album Social Music. What was it like to have so much social interaction disappear this year?

For me, a lot of my inspiration, even to be social, comes from internal probing and a lot of thinking, processing and developing things within myself that then I want to share with people. I think this year has been, in a lot of ways, a spiritual hibernation for me that will then foster itself into whatever the next artistic resurrection is.

You recently played for essential workers at the Javits Center, which is operating as a vaccine center. What was that like?

Oh, man, it’s almost like how you would imagine the future in a sci-fi film. Growing up, my dad would watch Star Trek a lot, and you’d have all these scenarios where it wasn’t safe to breathe the air and you’d have people wearing masks and helmets and traveling through space and time. And here we are in the largest convention center in the country, playing for these essential workers who are fighting a global pandemic. It just felt like nothing you can imagine going into this field of being a musician.

You and Terence Blanchard became the first Black composers to be nominated in the same year for best score at the Oscars, for Soul and Da 5 Bloods, respectively. What does that mean to you?

Oh my goodness. Terrence and I went to the same high school, St. Augustine High School in New Orleans. We had all the same teachers: Roger Dickerson, Ellis Marsalis, Alvin Batiste. Terence and I were going back and forth about how it’s amazing to have made history, but to come from where we come from—it’s a very small community. I’m honored to be a part of it.

A scene from Soul shows a young Joe Gardner, the protagonist voiced by Jamie Foxx, walking into a jazz club and the whole course of his life changing in an instant. Did you have a eureka moment like that?

When I was 9 or 10, I went to the Louis Armstrong Jazz Camp, and they would lay on some of the heaviest stuff you’d ever see a 10-year-old dealing with: “Giant Steps” or “A Night in Tunisia.” I remember walking into Alvin Batiste’s class one time, and they were playing [the Dizzy Gillespie standard] “Groovin’ High.” And just hearing the sax playing the melody and the way he was explaining it, that was one of the first moments where I was really enamored with the anatomy of the music. Seeing the transition of the music through this oral tradition from elder to elder to elder—it was just powerful.

You play Joe’s piano parts in the film, and his hands are actually modeled after yours. When you were playing those parts, were you playing as yourself or as the character of Joe?

I was trying to play the spirit of Soul. The movie never had a script that us as composers had from beginning to end, which is truly a nontraditional approach that made way for the music to be a character in the film.

There were moments where I scored the idea of the scene before there was actually a scene. I remember talking to [director] Pete [Docter] about the audition sequence before it had been animated; he just kind of had this vision of Joe Gardner getting into a kind of peak flow state, and the band becoming enamored with him. To create that kind of narrative arc with just music: that set the tone for how Joe plays, and what music meant in the film for the rest of it.

Have you heard any stories about Soul has brought jazz to audiences who never would have heard it, or encouraged young people to take up an instrument?

Endless letters, endless DMs, endless emails. Feedback saying, ‘my daughter now wants to play piano; she’s seven, she’s never played a musical instrument before.’ I got this message from this older gentleman who dropped off playing music and now he wants to get back into it.

When did you start recording your album We Are?

I’d been recording things since 2014 that were a part of this vision of a pop album that was a synthesis of many different styles of Black music. But I didn’t really get around to doing it until 2019, and I had to start recording it in my dressing room [at The Late Show], because I didn’t have a lot of time to do it anywhere else. After six days of recording in the dressing room, I went into the studio, and the first official thing I recorded with the band in the studio to really get the sonic direction and vision of it was a Justin Bieber & DJ Snake song called “Let Me Love You.”

Why did you start with that Bieber song?

I really, really love electronic dance music, the joy of it. It’s a real form of social music that is very contemporary and up to date, but you can hear samples of Egyptian music or folk music from different parts of the world, brought in from the whole history of music.

Sonically, I wanted to break the band and I away from doing things the way we’d done them in the past. We wanted to find that blend of what we’re drawing from, which for me, I’m literally thinking of 400 years of music. But then you want to make it sound like it’s of today. So I’m thinking of those two things at once and trying to find that nexus point—and that song felt like the perfect place to start.

You’re an incredible jazz pianist, but you also rap very well on We Are. Where did you pick up that skill?

It’s so funny because back when I was growing up in New Orleans, there was this huge Southern rap boom: the Hot Boys, Master P, OutKast. You had all these different folks, including from the neighborhoods I grew up in, that became global superstars, talking about streets we grew up on and things that happened during our school year. Jay Electronica went to the same school as me, although he graduated earlier, and started these freestyle battles in the courtyard during lunch. I was doing these battles and making beats. Then I got known for piano, and it’s almost like I forgot that I could do that.

What is the connective tissue between jazz and hip-hop?

The connective tissue between hip hop and jazz is overstated in that it gives the impression that one led to the other. I think it’s more interesting to think about the connective tissue between rock and roll and hip hop. When you talk about rock and roll, you don’t think about the beginnings. You think about the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith.

But rock and roll started with Black dudes in the south: Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino. And what ended up happening is there was this sort of adolescent revolution, which created a whole vision of music that was based not only in sound and culture, but based in a philosophy. And if you look at what largely happened to that style of music, in that perception of rock and roll, it became predominantly white.

To me, hip-hop is the new rock ’n’ roll. Rappers are the new rock stars. Hip-hop is basically the music of a community that was meant to be marginalized but couldn’t be repressed. This is a larger conversation. In general, the connection of hip-hop to jazz is overstated. There’s definitely a connection, with Black heritage and where the Black community has gone from the early part of the 20th century until today. But there’s a whole lot more than that.

You talked to legends like Quincy Jones and Stevie Wonder while making this project. What kind of advice did they give you?

Their advice is their presence. Talking to Stevie Wonder about the weather is a lesson in how to be a great musician, because his essence exists in a space of greatness. His essence exists in everyday life, so that’s why when he goes into the booth and sings, he’s just singing his life and his joys and sorrows.

Most of the time, we’re not talking about music. It’s just about life. Stevie, I remember him telling me once, ‘Don’t let anybody take your joy away.’ And that really resonated with me. And just in general, the whole aspect of your music being no more or no less than you are as a human being.

You were very involved in the protests last summer. Did you have conversations with Stephen Colbert about how The Late Show should address systemic racism?

The show is always about evolving. People who have watched the show and are fans of Stephen or me have seen our evolution. The goal is to incorporate as much of the evolution of the world around us as possible. And I had to have a lot of candid conversations after everything that happened—that’s what all of us were doing. We talked about how we have to elevate our consciousness as a nation.

Have you talked to Questlove, whose band the Roots is the house band for The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon, about the unique position you inhabit as Black bandleaders of historically white institutions?

We recently did a performance together, and it was just a really interesting thing to talk about all we’ve been doing. We’re both tethered to this history—there’s only really a handful of people you can point to who have been musical directors for the various late night institutions since Ed Sullivan, Johnny Carson. I’m the youngest person to ever have this post.

Quest, on the other hand, will say, ‘We’ve been out on the road for 25 years and I thought of this as a retirement gig, but it’s almost become a renaissance for us.’ So it’s just really interesting. Me starting in my 20s, a lot of people are just getting to be aware of me now. Whereas Quest is moving into directing; music is not even the thing that he’s thinking about right now, primarily. A lot of it is about, what does this position in culture mean to you at this stage in your own artistic development?

I read that you recently had a phone call with the Biden Administration. What role do you hope to play?

The arts are important, beyond just entertainment. Having someone who can articulate and execute on that, and recruit others in different sectors of culture to be a part of fostering that understanding, is something I think is really important. I’ve always been someone who is great at bringing people into a room and setting the intention for us all, and using the music and the art as a way of making that manifest.

I always find great opportunity when a new administration comes in that is open to these kinds of ideas and visions. I don’t have any specific plans, but I think talking is just the first step. There have been a few calls since then.

You have so many disparate musical interests. Do you think you’ll stick with being a pop star for a while?

It’s funny because there are all of these records I have in me to make, and it’s all about the timing. People who know me have seen the hard drives: they know I have 10 records that are in process at any given time. So I function from the perspective of, Where is everything inevitably leading me toward? And it feels like the way it has led me is to definitely take the torch of Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, and be the Black pop star making Black pop masterpieces.

Have you thought about what you hope your legacy will be?

I don’t think this is egotistical—although I know how stuff comes across in print—but there’s nobody like me. And because of that, what my legacy has the potential of being is quite massive. I feel that I’m the only person in my generation who can do a lot of things. That’s something I’ve always felt. But as the years continue, it’s become evident that’s the truth. I’m getting started. I feel like within the next 10 years, you’ll see a lot of stuff from me that is really what I consider to be my life’s calling.

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