Musician and Activist Jon Batiste Like You’ve Never Heard

Pixar’s holiday release “Soul” was an instant hit. The man behind that film’s memorable music was none other than Jon Batiste. He’s a familiar face to many as bandleader on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” and has recently donned another hat in his “We Are” campaign – a series of protests that explore civil justice through music] He speaks with Michel Martin about his art and his activism.

Read Transcript EXPAND

CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR: Now, let’s change directions slightly. Disney’s Pixar, the latest movie, “Soul,” was an instant hit offering up a dose of jazz and positivity for both young and old. Our next guest, Jon Batiste, is the man behind that music and the story is even inspired by his life as a composer, singer and pianist. He is also band leader, of course, for the “Late Show with Stephen Colbert” and he’s a Grammy nominated musician who recently dawned yet another hat in his “We Are” campaign which is a series of protests that explored civil justice through music and community. And here is our Michel Martin speaking to him about how his activism and his new album intersect.

MICHEL MARTIN: Thank you, Christiane. Thank you, Mr. Jon Batiste. It’s so good to see you. Yes indeed. Good to be seen and good to see you.

JON BATISTE, RECORDING ARTIST AND ACTIVIST: Yes, indeed. It’s good be seen and good to see you.

MARTIN: Well, thank you for that. Of course, we’ve all been seeing you. What have you been doing during COVID? I mean, your life is so public. You spend so much of your time on stage and performing and being the energy source for other people. And I just wonder if there is anything about this period that has made you shift the way you think about your work and about yourself and who you are in this.

BATISTE: It is making me evaluate my choices in life. What did I accumulate? Do I like the people I’m around? Do I like the decisions that I’ve made and the rhythm of my life? Do I want to go back to that afterwards? And of course, all of that influences, the art that you create. Because then you start to take stock of what you’re putting out there and what do you want to put out there and you know you have a limited amount of time and nothing is promised in. We’re losing loved ones. We are losing summers. We’re losing so much. And a real consideration as an artist, what do I want to go back to and what do I want to put out there once we get back to some semblance of normality?

MARTIN: How did the “We Are” protest start? I mean, I have to saw that for folks who followed your career know this, but you’ve always been kind of a public performer in the sense that — of even when you were in Julliar, you were performing in the subways and in the, you know, streets and so forth with your (INAUDIBLE). Like how did you decide to get involved in the protests? That had to have been — that is not the easiest decision particularly at a time of COVID when we do have a global health crisis.

BATISTE: Well, the truth is, it was a question that I asked myself. Am I really about all the things that I’ve been about and said I’ve been about publicly and then have represented over the course of my career? Am I really about love, joy and community? Am I really about this art and this culture and representing black excellence and representing what brings people together in that tradition of black excellence? All of our super powers? Am I really about that? And if I am, I’ll do what the ancestors did who would be in a similar situation. They would put themselves on the line. They would go out there and they would represent it just like they did in all the other times when things weren’t as bad. So, that’s it. It was really testing my mettle. Am I really about what I say I’m about?

MARTIN: We got to play some of it. Can we play a little bit of “We Are”?

MARTIN: You know, everything about this song is like it makes you want to move. It’s like a chant. It is like a call and response. It does so many things. How did it come to you?

BATISTE: I wanted to have a song that felt appropriate played in the club and also played at a protest march. And to have those two things on that axis is something that I really subconsciously roped and the time came for it to actually be put into action this past summer. But the song, we wrote the song in August of 2019. This album, it feels so prescient in so many ways because we wrote a lot of the music prior to the events in the world leaning toward the subject matter of the music. And that’s really something that happens when an artist goes so deeply internal and deals with themes that are timeless. Themes that are recurring. You find that a lot of things start to become prophetic because the deeper you go inside the more you realize, oh, we’ve been grappling with a lot of the same issues for many, many centuries.

MARTIN: I want to point out that you started this in 2019. I mean, obviously, there are things happening then. I mean, you know, Trayvon Martin had been killed, you know, years before. Tamir Rice had been killed sort of years before. So, all these things were sort of percolating in you. Was there — I’m sort of wondering what was that period like for you? You know, like the pilot light in the boiler stays on. OK? You don’t necessarily see it until you have to go deal with it. But was that what that was like for you, this sort of just waiting for its moment to be seen?

BATISTE: Well, absolutely. We deal with this day in and day out. This isn’t something that happens only when there is a national event. This is our life. You know, the lyric even thinking about the ghetto is full of stars. Shine from afar. On days when it’s hard. And always. That is us. Even if they don’t say, it’s trendy to say black lives matter or put your fist in the air. It’s trendy to say that, you know, represent black businesses and representation matters. When it’s not trendy, we still are stars. We’re still royalty. That is still a fact. And that’s what I was writing the song from.

MARTIN: And I don’t want to give people the wrong impression of this album because it is filled with joy. It is filled with joy. And I want to talk about that. I mean, have you — you are known as a joy giver. I mean, anybody who kind of sees you perform and, you know, you got, you know, a world class smile that, you know, just like, you know — and have you felt like a tension in yourself between being a truthteller and a joy giver?

BATISTE: Michel, you speaking. That’s it. I think that that is a — the practice of being a joy giver and bringing people that sense of catharsis and release is a spiritual practice for me. And the only way that it can be as powerful as it — as powerful and profound as it can be is if I face the truth and if we face the truth collectively. I think art is really a way to point to the truth, shine a light on the truth. Art is a window to the truth. And there’s joy in knowing, even if the truth is painful, even if the truth has things about it that we don’t want to accept and are not willing to accept. The only way that we’re going to continue to be able to fight it and move forward is if we know the truth and if we can have moments where we release is why — when were enslaved we sung spirituals and hymns and songs of freedom. It’s why when Jon Lewis and Martin Luther King Jr. were on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, they were singing spirituals. That’s why we have the music.

MARTIN: Speaking of pure joy, how about “I Need You?”


MARTIN: I love everything about it. I mean, I love the — there’s the kind of the little flirtatious with the cute girl who, you know, letting you know you’re paying attention to all that’s around you. It’s just so interesting because there has been this kind of tension in the African-American kind of tradition of the fight between kind of the secular and the sacred, you know?

BATISTE: Oh, yeah.

MARTIN: And that swing music and lifestyle, well, a lot of people thought that was like music of the devil. You know, a lot of people weren’t going to be allow to that kind of music. I was just curious where that song came from or that whole vibe, like that whole vibe.

BATISTE: Oh, yes. I love thinking about things on those axis’s like sacred and secular. You know, Saturday night into Sunday morning. I’m thinking of this song in the same way in the sense of it’s something that you would hear on — Little Richard playing in the Chitlin’ Circuit in the south or you could hear it on contemporary pop radio. And it’s all of those things at the same time. It’s really a 12-ball blues form, which is one of the oldest forms. And in the video, my dance partner and I and all of the ensemble of dancers are doing a version of the lindy hop and the jitterbug but contemporized. And we’re in an art gallery in this painting from the ’30s comes to life. And when it comes to life, the dancers jump out of the painting and we have basically the juke joint happening in the art gallery. And to me, that’s a real, real quest for me as a musical archeologist to dig up things from the past but then instead of presenting them in a museum in that kind of way I take them and I make something brand new out of it. So, people will hear it and they may not even know the depth of how, oh, this is a style of dance from the ’30s that was originated in Harlem by black dancers and this is a style of music that you may hear in the Chitlin’ Circuit in the ’30s and ’40s in Little Richard and in Fats Domino, all these people would play. But at the same time, I just — it makes me feel so good. After 2020, we can’t forget about fun. We can’t forget to have fun. A part of us remaining human and our humanity being asserted is us having fun and having joy in our life. We can’t be sad all the time. And we have to have some sort of release of the pain and the tension that we felt.

MARTIN: It’s interesting because you’ve got all these threads in your life. I mean, you’re the band leader for the Stephen — for “The Late Show” and, you know, you’re on television every night, you’re in people’s houses every night and with a particular kind of vibe. Do you think you would always have given yourself permission to pull the threads together like this or is there something you had to get to a place where it was OK for you?

BATISTE: I think I had to get to a place where I felt that I had the authority to lead. I hold myself to such a high standard. I feel like a perfectionist all the time when I’m working and building the craft and I feel that leaders have to hold themselves to a higher standard. And if you’re in the jazz world, are you in the music world, are you in entertainment or all these different worlds that I’m kind of straddled in, I feel to really know enough to lead and represent all of these different facets of creativity, took years of study, 33 years of study, from the time I was born. So — and to be at this point now where I feel like I’ve gathered so much information and also understanding of who I am and what I want to say has taken that amount of time. And now, this is something that I think is also a part of fate and you walk into a calling. I feel like now with the world being in the place that it’s in and the things that I bring to bear, is time to lead, baby. So, let’s get out there. Let’s go. Can’t hold back no more. You did enough.

MARTIN: And then you’ve got another, a whole other life in your role in “Soul,” the Pixar film, that was just released at Christmas time. I am told that the character, Joe, is in part based on you. I mean, he’s got those long fingers, those long hands. And do you mind just telling us like how did that come about?

BATISTE: Yes, of course. I was very honored to be a part of “Soul” and the reception across the world has been incredible. I think something like this is really a way to introduce jazz music in that sacred lineage to a new audience, young people in particular, because Pixar specializes in this multi-generational content. I started working with them as a consultant and as a composer two years ago. And we worked on the film for two years, really trying to nail down the story and the authenticity of the performances and the music as well as the character of Joe which became a character based partially on my essence, mainly my hands and different stories of my life that have really become very instrumental in me becoming the artist that I am today. One in which mirrors what Joe goes through later in his life in the film. He goes to an audition and he is auditioning for the band of Dorothea Williams who is this matriarchal black woman genius. She is like the tradition Betty Carter, Abbey Lincoln who I’ve performed with, Cassandra Wilson, Melba Liston, Carmen McRae, I mean, all of these black queens of the music, that she’s is an archetype of that. So, he goes to audition for her and it’s — it mirrors a time when I first met Abbey Lincoln. And I was 16 years old and I just moved to New York City to go to Julliard and I was there and this was my first gig out of high school. And I go to her apartment. She invites me to her apartment for an audition, which was set up by her drummer, just like Joe in the film is set up by the drummer. This drummer who I knew from New Orleans was playing in her band. He says, I set up an audition. Go to see Abbey. I go there. I sit at the piano. She doesn’t say a word past hello. Puts one of her most famous songs on the piano, the sheet music she lays on the piano. She says, OK. Let’s go. She starts singing. And just expects me to follow along. No instruction. No hint as to what to do, what to play. And just to see that played out in the film, you know, afterwards, you know, she didn’t even tell me, you got the gig. I got the gig but she didn’t say, great job. You got the gig. Here’s the next — she’s like — she starts talking about African dance and then she starts giving me books to read. It just becomes — she starts feeding me and pouring into me the things she wants to pass on. And that’s the thing. These queens of our music become institutions. And there’s numerous things in “Soul” that represent just these little archetypes or little stories or little historic anecdotes of our music. It’s so well done. I’d urge you to see it if you haven’t.

MARTIN: Before I let you go, I feel like honor bound, I must ask you, do you have some advice for younger artists who are coming along and kind of wanting to know which way to go? As a person who does have a foot in all these worlds, who is commercially successful, but who is able to still live a life as an activist and also, do the kind of art that makes you feel fed, do you have some advice?

BATISTE: Absolutely. When I think about it, the funny thing is, I don’t think anyone should follow in my footsteps or in anyone’s footsteps. I think you should gather as much information as you can, which, you know, means reading biographies, studying the work of people who you admire, anybody who you study, inherently that art and that work becomes a part of you. And anything that you love, the more that you indulge in it, the more it becomes a part of you and your voice. So, just continue to do that. But then, at the end of the day when you have all this inspiration, all this information and influence, just find the thing that is calling you and go after that even if you don’t see an example of it and you shouldn’t see an example of it because you’re the only one that exists. So, that’s my advice. Don’t try to be like me or try to be like anybody. Be like you. And that’s how you’re going to actually figure out something that not only is just fulfilling for you but is the most meaningful to others.

MARTIN: You said you were nice enough to play a little something for us so how about “I Need You?”

BATISTE: Oh, yes. In this world with a lot of problems, all we need is a little loving. Thank you, thank you. Oh, you make me thank you, thank you for you for your love.

MARTIN: Well, thank you, Mr. Jon Batiste. It has been a pleasure to speak with you.

BATISTE: Oh, my goodness, like wise. Thank you. Yes indeed.

About This Episode EXPAND

Christiane speaks with Judea Pearl, father of murdered journalist Daniel Pearl, about the release of the men convicted of his murder. She also speaks with economist Mariana Mazzucato about what 2021 holds and with author Stuart Stevens about the state of the Republican Party. Musician Jon Batiste speaks about how his activism and new album intersect–and his involvement with the Pixar film “Soul.”