A maxim – a common mantra in election times – says that “he who does not know his past is doomed to repeat it”. It is a sentence that does not deserve the one who can find in its roots the basis of everything, like the gold mine on which it rests. Jon Batiste. A cultural richness that connects generations, sounds, colors and heritage.
Last Sunday, in the 64th Grammy Awards in Las Vegas, the seemingly unknown 35-year-old musician took home the big awards of the night: album of the year (for ‘We Are’); best music video (“Freedom”); best American roots performance (“Cry”) and best song in the same category, as well as best soundtrack, for his work for the film “Soul, the jazz fantasy of Disney”.
He’s not really a stranger, but he’s a ‘weird’ from a music industry that manufactures identities. Rare and precious. Hence perhaps his outfits during the musical ceremony, in which symbolism is found in every detail: his harlequin tuxedo on the red carpet (designed by Dolce & Gabbana) or his long black cape during his performance at the piano, who seems to emulate one of the most original icons in the history of African-American music: Shout Jay Hawkins.
Suddenly, Batiste gets rid of his cape, leaves the black grand piano and suddenly becomes the singer who takes over the stage. And then it reminds us James Brown, Sam Cooke, The Temptations or Reverend Al Green, all in one. The lights come on amid bubblegum colors, while their bassist dances like Funkadelic. And seconds later, the lights go out except for one spot that points to Batiste, on another piano, in a short display of Legacies from Thelonius Monk. It all ends with a batucada of dancers reminiscent of Brown, Motown, Prince, Africa. The song is Freedom and, be careful: in this whole journey only five minutes have passed.
Jon Batiste at the 2022 Grammys presentation.
The United States of Television recognizes Batiste in particular for being the leader of the musical group of the program The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, but his notoriety is more appreciated among legendary musicians: he recorded with Stevie Wonder, Lenny Kravitz, Quincy Jones, Roy Hargrove, Mavis Staples and managed to work with Prince, as well as recording on the pop scene with the British Ed Sheeran.
She is even more popular in her region: New Orleans. Batiste was born in Metairie, Louisiana, on the banks of the Mississippi River. He grew up among the roots of the district of Tremé, which is one of the symbols of the regional culture, because to be from Tremé is to be linked to the brass bands, to the wind bands of New Orleans: the heritage of a sound that resounds in the streets and it has no comparison in the whole world, it can only be identified with this city. Indeed, several members of the Batiste family (Lionel Batiste and Milton Batiste) were part of his century-old bands.
This element is present in Freedom’s winning video, which was shot on the streets of Tremé and other New Orleans landmarks.
For his contribution to local jazz, Jon Batiste has received several awards, including recognition as the Grand Marshal of the Carnival of Endymion, one of the many extravaganzas around Mardi Gras.
In addition, living in New York, he received another unique inheritance, in 2012: he took on the role of creative director of the National Jazz Museum in Harlem and created the program “Jazz is: Now!”
anything that sounds
Just as the winds of New Orleans are in his music, so are almost all genres related to black American culture: soul, rhythm & blues, funk, jazz, blues… Thus, throughout from his album, it sounds in the background the Wurlitzer Electric Piano, so typical of gospel music and that Ray Charles included in his famous hit What’d I Say and accompanied Aretha Franklin in I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You) , from 1967, the year of the one who enchanted the instrument in the hands of Marvin Gaye in I Heard It Through the Gravepine.
Precisely, in another We Are song, entitled Sing, Batiste evokes a sound familiar to Gaye and his What’s Going On.
But there’s also Batiste’s deep connection to current pop, alongside producer Tom Arndt, and a similar ear to Bruno Mars and Mark Ronson.
This versatility allows him to play and improvise between sounds for Colbert’s talk show. A dynamic similar to that maintained by the musician Questlove, his equivalent on Jimmy Fallon’s Late Night show.
His activism has its roots in the very history of the United States: his grandfather David Gauthier was the president of the Louisiana Postal Workers Union and one of the protagonists of the 1968 strike involving Martin Luther King Jr., only a few days before being assassinated.
This influence was most evident when, in 2020, Batiste led protests in New York over the death of George Floyd and, as part of the Black Lives Matter movement, recorded precisely We Are, the song behind the album that today has it at the center of attention and is, moreover, a redemption of the so-called concept albums: albums that can be understood as a unique piece and not just as a collection of new songs. His other albums are: Hollywood Africans (2018), Chronology of a Dream (concert in 2019) and his first album, Times in New Orleans (2005).
Of course it is also Soulthe soundtrack Batiste worked on alongside Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross: a story that revolves around a jazz teacher whose redemption lies precisely in turning to his roots to find happiness.
His music is autobiographical: a revisionism of childhood in black America, of what he saw in family reunions, in community life, in first love and among friends. This intention is not new: it is a path followed by, among other artists, Lenny Kravitz with Black and White America (2011). It was precisely Kravitz who awarded Batiste the prize for the best album of the year.
“Music is a true form of connection with a higher power at its peak (…) it’s a form of community that brings people together and gives them a common purpose,” Batiste told Forbes magazine, which was chosen in 2016 as one of the 30 people under 30 with cultural influence in the United States.
The multi-instrumentalist lives immersed in deep happiness and seems not to fear the disgust of this idea. When, to open his concert on National Public Radio’s Jazz Night in America, he had his ensemble Jon Batiste & Friends improvise, a league of horns, piano, drums and double bass on the nursery rhyme If you’re happy and you clap your hands – which can be seen on YouTube – makes it clear to your audience that everyone is here to have fun.
In an environment where so many stars cast the suspicion of being products made in a label office, Batiste’s authenticity and explosive creativity through the avenues of jazz are inspiring and refreshing. A photo that went viral of Lady Gaga at the ceremony, delighted to speak to her then, tearfully acknowledging that the best thing about the Grammys was being among the biggest talents in music today, is not not free.
Editor at THE TIME