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For Jon Batiste, Music Is the Way to Transformation

June 22, 2020

As countermeasure to a world in which a protein particle less than 0.14 microns in size can in five months slay global economies and cause the deaths of nearly 500,000 people, a single musician with an instrument can walk into a neighborhood and through music, lift spirits, unite hundreds of people, energize a young person to become a world influencer, and bring forth necessary, truth-seeking revolution.

This is the power of music, according to Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, educator, television personality, and activist Jon Batiste. If the act of kneeling can kaleidoscope into a controversial gesture, a courageous protest against racism and civil rights injustices, or a means by which a person’s life is wrongfully ended, then slinging the strap of an electric keyboard on a shoulder and singing an anthem to “the chosen ones” who will lift humanity to its highest potential is justice’s best recourse.

Batiste, musical director for The Late Show with Stephen Colbert and bandleader of the national television show and of his band, Stay Human, led peaceful demonstrations with community arts organization Sing For Hope and other performers on June 6 and 12. Marching on streets with hundreds of people in New York City and Brooklyn, New York, the public celebrations of black lives coincided with the release of Batiste’s new song and upcoming album, We Are. On May 29, just one month prior, Batiste with Minneapolis-born guitarist Cory Wong had released Meditations, an album recorded in 2019 that he said, in an interview on June 18, fit the immediate needs of a world in pain. Solace, reparation, healing, and gentleness can be heard in the albums’ six tracks, a studio recording made straight through without stopping and allowing the duo unlimited space for improvisation.

Batiste spoke about his perspectives on systemic change and how classical and jazz organizations and presenters might operate after the pandemic.

Protest music’s power to unify people, heal souls, and stir emotions has been a cornerstone of civil rights history. Is the delivery or participation different in 2020?

What’s different now is that it’s much more widespread in the support of changing the systemic oppression that’s been going on for 400 years. There’s people in all 50 states and in different countries across the globe who are joining in. People joining in and really standing up for the same thing. Which is a very, very special thing to witness for someone, like my grandfather, who was an activist and the president of the New Orleans Postal Workers Union. He was fighting the battle for better working conditions for postal workers throughout New Orleans and marching, rallying, and protesting in the civil-rights movement. Now, he’s 83 and he’s looking at the world, and this is different in how unified the protesters across the world are behind the cause of justice and the cause of standing up for black lives.

It’s special in that way, but music has always been something that has had all of the different purposes of our life and our community and our healing and our unspoken pain — and the transmission of messages and the raising awareness of a condition of a people. It’s always been in the music; we’re just being reintroduced to it in a different cultural context.

Now, it’s more important than ever for us to be reintroduced to what our ancestors used music for, because it’s been forgotten. It’s become defined by special circles like this publication and different parts of the world who have cultivated an understanding of music. The world at large sees music as entertainment. It’s never been that, at its root. It is that in one element of it, but the entire spectrum of music is far, far deeper and wide-ranging.

The last time we spoke, you wanted to be a light bearer. What do you want to be now?

It’s always the same. Because the light is the truth. The truth is always in the most-pure form of music. When you listen to Mahalia Jackson sing, the truth is there in a way that represents not only the time that she was living in but it carries all of those who had come before her and it also speaks to the future. When you are listening Mahalia Jackson, you can hear elements of her sound in Beyoncé and Whitney Houston. That’s what I aspire to. Light the way to the truth of humanity. We’re really in a time where the construct of race, as Toni Morrison put it, has become so pervasive and destructive that it’s given us a generational trauma and a collective mental illness that has reaped so much havoc. Now more than ever we need to be in touch with the truth.

Talk about composing the song, “We Are,” and about the meaning of the phrase “the chosen ones” in the lyrics. You’ve said it’s about fighting against society’s actual pandemic — also known as apathy.

We were writing the song “We Are” last summer and finished the song then and finished recording it in November. I went to New Orleans with the help of my alma mater, the St. Augustine High School Marching 100. That school is very important; it was a great cornerstone in the community for black men. In 1951, the school was created specifically to educate black men to go on to take elite status jobs like CEOs or doctors, lawyers, entrepreneurs, and artists in a society that wasn’t trying to breed those types of men in the South. The marching band rivals college-level marching bands. The school, educationally, has a really high success rate. Having them on the song was very important to me. To have the representation of my lineage but also to speak to what the album speaks to, which is a reintroduction to who we are as black Americans and as Americans.

In the popular idioms, we don’t see a lot of the elements I was creating in this song and in the album. We finished much earlier than all the current events. It was all about things that would help people to see the light in these times. It’s a recapturing of not only my lineage — my grandfather’s on this record, my nephew’s on the record, my high-school band, gospel soul children are singing on the record — but blending all of the tapestry of folk, blues, march music, jazz, soul, funk, and reclaiming that in the popular idiom. It’s something that can light the way for people.

With the coronavirus pandemic and worldwide protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd and other black men by police officers, classical music and jazz organizations and educational systems are shattered, but determined to survive. If this offers unique opportunity for reconstruction, what would you like to see in the reformation? What would you have orchestras, opera companies, and music presenters prioritize?

Great questions. As you know, these organizations that we know and love were born season by season. That model for a long time wasn’t working, so this time is a reckoning. Speaking of the phrase, “we are the chosen ones,” this is what I believe we’re ordained to do: to change the course of history in the realm of culture, politics, in how we relate to each other on a spiritual level. There’s a spiritual awakening, of elevation of our spiritual consciousness that’s possible to happen right now. There’s understanding of how all of these things are intertwined. They are part of the same quilt.

The idea of changing the course of history as we talk about the devastation and the generational trauma of the last 400 years in this country, if we think about the next 400 years, now is the time to restructure everything that has been broken in every sector. COVID-19 has given us a world in reset. It shut everything down. I think about MLK at the Mason Temple in Memphis the day before he was assassinated, talking about “I’ve been to the mountaintop.” That was a reimagining of what Moses at the mountaintop was speaking about. We could go there. We’re the chosen ones who could actually change it because we have this window where everybody cares and everything is shut down.

What I’d do is to set the intention of a classical organization: What is it you’re really trying to do? What is it you’re actually wanting to do in the community that you serve? How would you do that with as few resources as possible? The beautiful thing with music is that, as we’ve seen with these protests and rallies, we can just go into a community and bring an instrument and it’s an immediate communal bond. It’s an immediate reaction that people have that connection. We may not need to have the same approach as I’ve seen, which is a separatist, elitist approach to music. Connecting with people based on an intention of what you want to do to serve them and making the level of access much easier is one of the first steps I’d take.

What’s happening with the 2020 Disney/Pixar film Soul, and with the symphonic work American Symphony, set to be performed at Carnegie Hall in 2021?

The Pixar film will be coming out in November. I was thrilled to have made some music that’s in the film and the lead character, which is the first black Pixar lead, is voiced by Jamie [Foxx] and his body mannerisms — he plays a pianist — are based on my movements. My playing is his playing.

It’s special, because when we talk about reintroducing ourselves to who we are as Americans and reclaiming our cultural heritage, jazz is such an important part of that. To have a jazz representation in such a major film that’s going to reach so many young people was an incredible opportunity. On the score, I called on one of my mentors, the great Roy Haynes, who at 93 is playing drums at the same level as he’s been playing for the last 60 years, someone who’s been on the bandstand with Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane, Louis Armstrong, Lionel Hampton. To be able to play and translate his musical sound and approach vibrationally to touch someone who’s 5 years old and never heard jazz before, oh my goodness. To be the arbiter of that, to construct a band of so many of the legends that are still around, and some of my colleagues and members of Stay Human … the film, I can’t wait for that to come out to the world.

Carnegie Hall, that goes back to how do you approach classical music and this kind of devastation that we’re seeing in our industry. Being someone who went to Juilliard for undergrad and masters and being in that community of Lincoln Center, and seeing how it operates and being a part of putting together different concepts — I really do think we’ve needed to restructure for a long time. I’m looking at this Carnegie symphony and residency as a chance for me to think so far outside of the box that frankly, the box is eliminated. That process is going on [in] different conversations with all different mediums. I love speaking with the dancers, actors, multimedia collaborators [who are] inside the unit I’m working in and outside of it. We have to think as far outside of the box, and again, about intention and how we want to serve the community. That will then give us the answer to the infrastructure problems that we’re facing.

Please talk about one or more of the six tracks on your latest album, Meditations, released with Cory Wong. Is there one song you believe carries the most compelling, need-it-now urgency?

If there is one song, it would be the Relationships track, because, of everything in the world right now, focusing on how we develop our relationships with God, with each other, with ourselves, is key to us having any forward progress. That’s one of the reasons we put the album out. It was recorded as I was recording We Are. Cory is a big part of the album that’s slated for the Fall, and he’s playing on We Are. He and I have created a bond, a musical relationship that can speak to so many different facets of music. We bring a lot of musical skills to the table and there’s an incredible synergy.

The music was something we wanted to share with people at the right time. Even though we had recorded the music months before, this felt like the right time in our world. That’s really what it’s all about. As you said, as an artist, you’re serving the community and the world and filling a void that your art has a calling to fill. You can’t just put music out because you want to put music out. I really believe it has to be something that connects to people in the moment when they need it most.

Why are relationships what you believe must be the focus to move forward as a society? Why not prayer, another title of a song on the album?

When you’re talking about prayer you’re talking about connecting to God, or the lord of your life, or the thing that guides you. That’s a relationship, ultimately. Right now, we have a lot of things blocking our flow. We’re not connected to God, society, to each other, and we see the differences that have emerged. Everyone is protesting on the streets in the middle of a pandemic, risking their lives because they don’t feel seen and heard. We have 100 million people who have not voted in the last presidential election. They feel there’s a general apathy and discontent with the state of our relationships with our politicians, government, ourselves.

The music I’ve been making is a way to light a way to the truth of who we are and reintroduce us to the depth of who we are. Our ancestors knew so much; sometimes we forget that in such a commodified capitalistic society, where the intention is to make money. There are greater intentions we’ve harbored in our ideal state over the last centuries. We’ve had great and wise people who have shown us that our intention and our humanity are higher than we sometimes exhibit. All these relationships have really faltered and gotten to our lower vibration frequencies in the current era. That song, Relationships, I will pray people meditate on and find a way to reconnect those relationships.

As a black man with visibility, what expectations are being placed on you by outside forces and what expectations are you listening to from within?

The pressure is not new. Being black is something I’ve been my entire life. In a lot of ways, I’ve been instructed in the struggle of blackness by my parents, grandparents, siblings, my friends and family, all of whom have different perspectives. Being black is not a monolith. There is a range of different perspectives that I’ve studied through the lives of those around me. I do feel the pressure but it’s not a new pressure, it’s something I’ve always experienced, being someone in the public eye who left my family in Louisiana as a teenager and has lived in New York on my own for the last 15 years. Experiencing what that’s like as a black man from the South, not only being in such a cosmopolitan city but becoming a person with a platform and having to represent a lot of the music, culturally, and the greatest of our ideas. I’ve always felt the pressure to be the best I can possibly be. And also to be better than everyone around me, because that’s always been part of the lineage of black Americans. To excel, you have to be 10 times better.

I’ve inhabited that space in my own way. I quite enjoy it.

You don’t resent it?

Good question. I resent it in moments and there’s not a black-and-white — no pun intended — emotional state. At the same time, I resent it and feel it’s not fair, I’ve accepted that this is my birthright. The things that need to change are my birthright. I’ve inherited this, it’s a part of who I am. This is what my life is. Ultimately what I have is an optimism that the things that are within my power and that I’m called to change, I can change. That’s what leads me to the different musical, intellectual, physical explorations in this body. We have a power that’s greater than anything that can be killed or destroyed. You can kill a body but you can’t kill an idea; you can’t kill something that’s preordained and you can’t take someone’s destiny away.

In what ways would you like to step forward more, what are you not doing enough of, or are you tapped?

I always look at my family. At my grandparents and thinking about what they went through to make it possible for me to do what I’m doing now. That always makes me want to do more because there were so many sacrifices. They knowingly endured because they knew it would benefit those who come after them in their lineage. We stand on their shoulders.

My grandmother was a maid at one time in Georgia, and then they went to Portland to find work. Then had to come back to Louisiana and moved around and had a really tough experience compared to me, now, being on a television show and having all of this opportunity. The thing I’m being called to now is leadership in the social realm and having impact. All these years I’ve been a community organizer, bringing people together through social music. Now I want to point that at something as a leader and use my voice in the public in a way that I haven’t before. It’s a notion I can’t hold down; it’s pulling me into that space.

You removed your mask to call for justice through that megaphone during the demonstrations you led. The pandemic puts an onus on your being in public, social spaces. Do you have anxiety about making your voice heard without becoming ill?

It’s doubly tough to protest in a pandemic. It’s like we’re learning how as we go. How to protest amidst a pandemic of the likes of the Spanish flu, that we haven’t seen in a century? So it’s a lot to process. We’re trying to make it be as safe as possible. In the second protest, we had people passing out care kits with masks and sanitizer. It’s a new frontier.

People of privilege in this time may be most prone to understand an outside force coming in, shutting you down, even killing you, a tragedy that people of color have experienced for hundreds of years. It’s a dangerous time, but is it also an opportune time for true listening?

I like to think about things in terms of the axis that they operate on. We can be on one side and not realize that on the other side, it’s happening at the same time. There’s a lot of evil and darkness happening but we don’t see how prescient and prophetic this time is. Everything our ancestors were saying would happen on the mountaintop and that King spoke about and Mahalia, when she sang — all the things we’re blessed to hear in her voice — this is what they were pointing at. I believe this moment is a key moment.

Lou Fancher is a San Francisco Bay Area writer. Her work has been published by WIRED.com, Diablo Magazine, Oakland Tribune, Contra Costa Times, InDance, East Bay Express, Oakland Magazine, SF Weekly, and others.  She is a children's book author, designer and illustrator, with over 50 books in print. Also a choreographer, ballet master and teacher, she coaches professional ballet and contemporary dance companies in the U. S. and Canada.  Visit her website online at www.johnsonandfancher.com.

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