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'I'm just getting started': Musician Jon Batiste on the next phase of his musical journey
Judy Woodruff: Call him a man of many sounds.
Thirty-five-year-old Jon Batiste received the most nominations of any artists at the recent Grammys, 11 in all, in a wide variety of categories, and he came away with the most wins, five, including the biggest, album of the year, for his recording titled "We Are."
Jeffrey Brown spoke to Batiste recently about what led to that success and a new venture premiering soon for our arts and culture series, Canvas.
Jeffrey Brown: Jon Batiste is a musician who loves tradition, also loves busting traditional categories.
Jon Batiste, Musician: Categories, for one, are very limiting and really put people in these silos that limit collaboration. It limits artists who are really irrepressible.
Jeffrey Brown: Irrepressible is the word for Batiste.
Try watching the music video "Freedom," shot in his native New Orleans, without a smile or getting up to dance around the room. He had the audience at the Grammys on its feet just ahead of taking home the biggest award of the night, album of the year…
Person: Jon Batiste!
Jeffrey Brown: … becoming the first Black artist in 14 years to win.
Jon Batiste: To have reached that moment, it felt almost like we got through The Matrix.
Jeffrey Brown: Yes, but in your own way.
Jon Batiste: Yes, by being authentic, by being true to the art, and focusing on the craft, and making decisions that were truly authentic to everyone who was involved in this album.
Jeffrey Brown: Batiste comes from a musical New Orleans family and is steeped in the great jazz traditions of his city.
He also studied and played Bach and other classical music as a child, and has undergraduate and master's degrees from the prestigious Juilliard Conservatory.
Stephen Colbert, Host, "The Late Show With Stephen Colbert": Give it up for Jon Batiste.
Jeffrey Brown: Since 2015, he's reached national audiences nightly as band leader on "The Late Show With Stephen Colbert" with his group, Stay Human.
A consummate, confident and thrilling performer now, he says it wasn't always that way.
Jon Batiste: I think about my early experiences, maybe 8 or 9 years old, first on stage, and I was very shy. I didn't really have the performer's gene when I first started out.
Jeffrey Brown: Its hard to imagine sitting here now.
Jon Batiste: I mean, the years of developing the craft of a performer are just like the same as developing the craft on my instrument. You really sit and you watch tapes. You watch YouTube. You watch all kinds of stuff of the past, of people who are around today.
And then you go out and you put yourself in a position to execute on all these things that you have learned. And, over time, you figure out your voice.
Jeffrey Brown: As notable as the number of Grammy nominations and wins was the range of categories, including jazz, American roots music for his single "Cry," and the soundtrack for the film "Soul."
The goal, he says:
Jon Batiste: To expand the perception of what is popular, what is in the popular space, to expand the art, to expand the perception of a Black artist, to expand the perception of someone who exists and has all of these influences and is not categorizable.
And goal at the end of the day is to add value to people's lives by the creations.
Jeffrey Brown: That also means taking music into the streets. He is known for impromptu love riots, joyous marches through everyday life. He joined the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests after the killing of George Floyd and celebrated that movement with his song "We Are."
He calls what he does social music.
Jon Batiste: This idea of music was before it was just entertainment or a commodity, this music that comes from rituals and spiritual practice and all these different ways of having music as a part of community.
Jeffrey Brown: You connect to that.
Jon Batiste: I connect to that deeply. For whatever reason, I just am drawn to that kind of expression of music and try to recreate that feeling and that intention.
Jeffrey Brown: I'm curious, because were coming from a news program, right?
Jon Batiste: Yes.
Jeffrey Brown: Every night, we are reporting on divisions in America. I listen to your wonderful song "We Are."
Jon Batiste: Yes.
Jeffrey Brown: A lot of people don't see much we in America today.
Jon Batiste: In schools, hospitals, community centers across the country, there's a lot of we.
What you all do is a great service because people need the news. They need to know what is happening. But I also feel that, in this global understanding of our world and in this age of media, we have lost touch with the community, and we have lost touch with our localized thinking, our understanding of each other from a human-to-human perspective.
And what I see is there's a lot of good that goes unnoticed and there's a lot that can be more. So it's both. There can be a lot more good.
Jeffrey Brown: Has your own sense of what you can do to foster community changed?
Jon Batiste: Oh, I'm just getting started.
Jeffrey Brown: Some of his new direction was on display at a recent rehearsal for "American Symphony," a large-scale work he composed for an upcoming Carnegie Hall premiere.
Bringing together different kinds of musicians and traditions, Batiste sees this as an ode to democracy itself. But even as he reaches new heights professionally, Batiste recently revealed personal struggles. His wife, author Suleika Jaouad, is battling cancer for a second time. Batiste has said he learned of the Grammy nominations even as she was receiving chemotherapy for leukemia.
Jon Batiste: I have always thought about the highs in life as an opportunity to really take stock in all the blessings you have.
And I have thought of the challenges in life as an opportunity to really reflect on and be grateful for what is most important. That's what they're there for. And to have highs and lows all at once is actually an incredible source of lending perspective.
Every time it feels new, whenever you face a challenge or whenever you have success. And I think that it's important to have those thoughts as anchors.
Jeffrey Brown: A deep commitment to his art and the life around him, serious in approach, and, did I mention, irrepressible as a performer.
Even at an interview, Batiste couldn't resist sitting down at the piano and inviting his interviewer to join in.
Jeffrey Brown: Next up for Jon Batiste, he will make his acting debut in a musical film version of "The Color Purple" and plenty more music on stage, on nightly TV, in the street, everywhere.
Thank you. That was great.
Jon Batiste: You killed that.
Jon Batiste: It was great. It was fire.
Jeffrey Brown: You killed that.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in New York.
Judy Woodruff: How about that? Jeffrey Brown and Jon Batiste at the keys.