Jon Batiste is on top of the world

Jon Batiste is one of the most prolific and versatile musicians of any generation. He has spent his career bringing music back to where it started — with the people.

He was born in New Orleans into the legendary Batiste family, and he went on to study at the world-renowned Juilliard School in New York. That’s where he established his band Stay Human, which became famous for their musical virtuosity and signature street performances that they called “love riots.” Nowadays, they’re the house band for The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.

Batiste’s skills as a pianist, composer and bandleader have made him one of the country’s most sought-after collaborators and performers, with appearances at the Grammys, the Kennedy Center Honors, the U.S. Open and the NBA All-Star Game.

In 2021, he won an Academy Award for best original score for his work on the Pixar film Soul, and his latest album We Are received overwhelming critical acclaim. This year, he’s nominated for 11 Grammy Awards — including album of the year — the most of any other artist.

In other words, Jon Batiste is on top of the world.

He joined us to talk more about the making of We Are and the achievements it has brought him.

Congratulations on your 11 Grammy nominations. You spoke with JAZZ.FM91 just under a year ago when We Are was released, and you were waiting to see what happened. Well, look what happened.

It’s really great. So honoured.

In the title track, that’s your high-school marching band, right?

Yes, that’s the St. Augustine High School Marching 100. They’re an incredible school out of New Orleans. In fact, there was a great piece that just aired on 60 Minutes on CBS. They’re an institution where I come from. So many of my friends and family went through this marching band, including myself. I wanted to be the first to put them on wax, so that’s what we did.

The second track Tell the Truth is some greasy, Al Green-style funk, and you’ve got James Gadson on the drums.

Yes, yes. James Gadson is one of the great drummers, obviously, but I want to just say that when we recorded that song, it was such a great hand. So many wonderful stories. This album features so many incredible elders of the music, and the stories they shared while making this album are invaluable. It’s like an oral tradition. The album was a ceremony. Making this album felt like a ritual of some sort.

There are so many New Orleans families who are musical royalty. The Marsalis family, the Neville family, the Andrews family, the Batiste family. Where does this come from? What is it about New Orleans that breeds these beautiful musical families? Something in the gumbo, maybe.

It’s something in the gumbo, man. I love that I grew up in this special town and special environment. I don’t know what I did in a past life to have the blessing to be born into such an incredible lineage and tradition. It was such a great thing. I started to realize once I toured and went to other places of the world. You see that it’s not like that anywhere. Who knows. It is the gumbo. It really is the combination of the food, the architecture, the proximity to the water, even. There’s something spiritual about it. There’s just a lot of factors that when you add them all together, it creates inspiration. If we knew how to bottle that up, we’d be billionaires.

Let’s talk about Cry. This is a deep tune. It captures how a lot of us have been happening for the last couple of years. And by the way, thank you for bringing back the bridge and the guitar solo in this song.

You know, I love a bridge, man. I love the bridge. The guitar solo, I’d love to give a shoutout to the great Robert Randolph. He played the sacred pedal steel. It’s an incredible tradition of blues and gospel guitar playing, and he’s one of the greats.

I Need You is nominated for the Grammy for best traditional R&B performance. This is the complete opposite of Cry, and to me it feels like a modern-day juke joint.

That’s right where I was thinking, right in that space of combining the feeling of the juke joint and the Chitlin’ Circuit in the southeast, with a contemporary pop aesthetic. I don’t hear those two things combined, and I was really happy that we were able to find that balance without one messing with or diluting the other.

Another thing I find absolutely refreshing about your album is the element of surprise. That leads me to Whatchutalkinbout. I have no idea what this is. It’s kind of like punk video game soul music.

Whatchutalkinbout is like punk, jazz, video game music. I don’t know what to call the genre. I don’t believe in genre, to be exact. It’s something that I really felt was an honest expression of many of the influences that I grew up absorbing. I grew up playing video games and hearing those soundtracks to the point where I was learning about composition and different approaches to writing music, subconsciously. It’s a beautiful thing now to see it manifest in a song.

I keep coming back to Boy Hood, and it’s the one that brings a tear to my eye every time I hear it. PJ Morton sings the line, “I’m far from home but I always represent.” There’s pride in New Orleans music that I don’t hear coming out of other cities. 

Oh my goodness. I’m glad to represent anything that is of home and of the greatness of home. This song is an ode to growing up in an incredible family, an incredible culture and the incredible musical collaborators who are my friends. PJ Morton, Trombone Shorty, we grew up together. PJ and I went to St. Augustine High School. Trombone Shorty and I started our first band together in middle school. These songs and the stories are all real. There’s nothing inauthentic about what I’m saying. It’s not imaginary. It’s a beautiful life that I’ve been blessed to live.

You’ve also done some pretty incredible acting with Spike Lee on the HBO series Tremé. I’m going to give you an idea here: The James Booker story, starring Jon Batiste. What do you think?

Oh my goodness.

You could nail that.

Man, wow — wow. That’s a great idea. You know, I really, really love James Booker. The folks who know James Booker know he’s a genius, but he’s so unsung. He’s one of the greatest pianist, vocalists and song stylists that you’ve ever heard. He was from New Orleans and he died untimely, and he kind of became an obscure figure outside of New Orleans and outside of music connoisseurs like ourselves. I think his story would be compelling. That’s a great, great idea. I just think it has to be done really, really well.

Before I let you go, I want to talk about Freedom, which is nominated for record of the year and best video at the Grammys. To my ears, this song is not only a social revolution but also a sexual revolution.

Freedom is both, man. Good ears. You’re really hearing that. It’s just about that ultimate freedom. The holistic human experience includes all of that. That’s what we really want to be free to be — a human being. We want to be free to be who we are. Who we are made to be, who we choose to be, these are things that we all deal with in our lives. Freedom, when you hear it, I just want you to have [a few minutes] of that feeling. I enjoy when I see people dancing and singing together to this song in the times that we’re in. We’ve been through some really dark times, and divided times, where people feel like they’re being stripped of their humanity and marginalized. I really wanted to make something for these times that brought people back to that childlike freedom, that openness that we had when we were kids.

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