Jon Batiste on Working on Soul and Social Advocacy Through the Art of Music
A born-and-bred Louisiana native sits at a piano in his home just outside New York City. Although prepared for an interview, his hands can’t resist the temptation of the keys between questions— he places his fingers atop the keyboard, closes his eyes, smiles, and begins to play.
Jon Batiste is nothing short of exceptional. With a contagious smile and remarkable energy, the infamous artist carries a unique enthusiasm for music rivaled by few. Growing up in a musical family in New Orleans, Batiste found his own passion while learning music from his father and uncles as a child. “I had a teacher that taught me everything I know about music in the period of thirteen to seventeen,” he says. “His name was Alvin Batiste, he was an avant-garde clarinetist and a member of my family.”
He also shares that his youth in Louisiana was highly influential in developing what would eventually become his trademark sound, largely due to the blending of French, African, and Spanish areas in New Orleans. “You’re subconsciously taught to appreciate culture, community— even before you can realize what it is.” He adds that the pace of life in Louisiana was slow enough to allow “time for reflectiveness,” creating “a very unique perspective in a young person.”
At only seventeen, Batiste left the slow-and-steady New Orleans music scene, moving to New York City to study at the Juilliard Conservatory. Shortly after his graduation in 2011, he toured for several years before becoming the band leader for The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. “The first show I was hanging out with Kendrick— ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’ Kendrick— backstage,” he laughs, recalling his fondest memories from the show. “The next week I got a call and the producers said, ‘I want you to play with Yo-Yo Ma tonight,’ and he came into the dressing room, playing the cello about a foot away from me rehearsing music we’re about to play in twenty minutes. It’s crazy that I’m used to it!”
Batiste’s on-camera time doesn’t stop there— he teamed up with Pixar as the muse for protagonist Joe Gardner in their 2020 release, Soul. For Batiste, the film was not just a project, but a monumental occasion as the inspiration for Pixar’s first black lead. He shares that he wasn’t aware that the first scene of the film, featuring band teacher Joe playing the piano for his middle school band, would be the first moment that the audience meets the character. “I cried seeing it for the first time,” he says, noting that the moment was “entirely improvised” and functions beautifully as an introduction to both Joe and Batiste’s passions.
In combination with the prominence of his role in Soul, social advocacy has entered his life somewhat naturally through his musical endeavors, as both are “under one umbrella of being a human.” He finds that music changes the way we emote, act, and react, due to its inherently communal nature. He shares that “things that come from the black culture diaspora— from the birth of America— is an experiment of cultures coming together, with indigenous and black people at the center of so much that it’s become undeniable.” In the music scene, however, he finds this to be especially prevalent. “Whether we like it or not, we as musicians cannot avoid black music, and proponents of music cannot avoid black culture. It’s in our DNA— it’s in the air we breathe.”
Batiste also shares that he has previously “been put in a box as a black artist,” which has limited the perspective of black ingenuity in the music industry at large. “I think some people have been afraid to recognize black genius,” he says. “If we continue looking at things through the prism of race, things can’t change and grow.” However, he feels hopeful that music, including that produced in Soul, can help us to grow as a society on a broader scheme. “Music has always been a glue,” he says. “If you get people together and make them feel the same emotions at the same time, it’s easier to have nuanced conversations.”
The production for Soul is unlike that of any other Disney-Pixar film in recent history, beginning with Batiste’s work on the soundtrack. He shares that he worked to produce a soundtrack that was unique to Soul’s own identity by careful articulation of each character, scene, and theme. “I wanted to define chord structures that were buried into the earth of New York, and mix it with a celestial, almost ethereal sound— everything else would come,” he says of his process scoring the film. “I wanted it to fit each character; once I had the themes, the next step was catering it to each character.” Batiste also shares that the film utilized excruciating detail in filming to accurately portray Joe’s playing, running 50 GoPros simultaneously to ensure that most of Batiste’s ideas about jazz were integrated into the final cut. “It was a process of two years and it came together so beautifully.”
Batiste’s work on Soul also draws upon his lived experience as a jazz musician grappling with identity and passion on a grander scheme. “The thing about passion,” he says, “is that we have a built-in passion-finding mechanism, which is our heart. The heart is there and it looks for things to get wrapped up in and grab a hold of. It gives us so many feelings and emotions and things that will motivate us, and that’s good if it’s
placed in the right thing; but the mind is there to logically process information. The mind lies a lot, and so does the heart. When they’re on different pages, the mind leads you astray— the mind is looking for things to keep you safe, so there’s a lot of fear in our minds. Our heart is looking for things to get wrapped up in, so it says ‘go go go,’ so it’s hard to get wrapped up in things that aren’t in alignment. So I wouldn’t say that our life’s purpose is our passion, but I’d say that our alignment is. But sometimes, we like to eat the candy and the dessert before we eat the vegetables, because doing the alignment is harder than following the passion.”
Batiste also finds that, although his life’s purpose is to find his “alignment,” his life purpose is not inherently correlated to his music. “I was born to use the talent that I have to make music, but not born to play music, in essence, as the only thing,” he says. “Everything is a means to shine a light on the divine nature of humanity and to love each other, and to point people to the creator of all things. In the film, when 22 gets mixed in with the Lost Souls, they say ‘when their passion becomes so much of their life that they lose touch with reality, that’s when you become a Lost Soul.’ That’s what I think— our talents are just a means for us to love each other and connect with God, and give us a window into what's after this, what’s to come that’s bigger and better. I think that’s why when we see a great piece of music or art, we get in the zone and get taken out of it for a minute.” He smiles, playing the piano and reiterating that each individual has the opportunity to share their gifts with humanity. “We all have that power.”
In his new album, “We Are,” releasing on March 19, Batiste plays with this idea of being our own greatest inspiration in following our passion. “Sometimes we look around for the answer, and that’s it— we are,” he says of the album’s title. “We’re looking for someone to save us, and that’s it— we are.” He laughs, playing an optimistic postlude on his piano while offering encouragement to seize the day. “Bite it,” he hollers. “Bite into it! Get the apple! Bite it!”
Jon Batiste’s album, “We Are,” releases on March 19 on all streaming platforms. You can find him on social media @jonbatiste, in the Disney-Pixar film Soul, on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, and on his website, jonbastiste.com.