In the space of a year, jazz musician Jon Batiste has gone from being primarily known as the leader of the in-house band on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert to a household name. However, Batiste’s 2022 Grammy sweep and ever-growing buzz didn’t come about by happenstance. Born to a large web of accomplished musicians and a fiercely hard worker since his teen years, Batiste’s seemingly newfound stardom has been a long time coming.
Batiste’s ancestors have been a staple of the New Orleans music scene for decades, with each generation of the family producing several notable musicians, including Lionel Batiste of the Treme Bass Band, Milton Batiste of the Olympia Brass Band, and Harold Battiste, a composer who lent his talents to Sam Cooke, Sonny and Cher, and many other major 20th century musicians. It comes as no surprise, then, that Batiste, who was also brought up in America’s jazz capital, began to pursue music when he was only eight years old, as the drummer in his family band, the Batiste Brothers Band. This sparked a consistent participation in music, with Batiste putting out his debut album, Times in New Orleans in 2005, when he was a teenager. Around the same time, he began attending the prestigious Juilliard School in New York City, where he earned both his Bachelor of Music and Master of Music, specializing in jazz.
In the years since his 2011 graduation, Batiste has steadily put out releases and topped himself with creative live shows, including impassioned performances at racial justice rallies and spontaneous piano recitals on the streets of New York. Many of these performances occurred with his band, Stay Human, which Batiste started with several peers at Juilliard. Like Batiste, the group is comprised of talented and creative individuals eager to promote down-to-earth humanity in what they feel is an increasingly isolated, tech-obsessed world. Always looking to ground their work in the real world, they recorded their 2011 debut album, MY N.Y. inside New York City subways cars. A few years later, in 2015, they joined The Late Show with Stephen Colbert as the in-house band. Batiste served as the leader of the group and quickly became a beloved part of the show, so fans were disappointed to hear about his recent departure from the show. However, this news was ultimately happy, as his reason for departing is so that he can, as Colbert recently said on the show, “continue sharing his art with the world.” His decision to leave follows this year’s Grammy Awards, where Batiste was the night’s most-nominated artist, with eleven nominations between his eighth studio album, WE ARE, and his contributions to the soundtrack of Disney’s hit movie, Soul. He took home five awards, including the most coveted award, Album of the Year, for WE ARE.
The album that has won him widespread adoration from critics and audiences around the globe, WE ARE is a thirteen-track outpouring of love, joy, and calls for social justice, in both sound and theme. There are heavier moments on the album, but largely it is a record as radiant as the man behind it. With smooth cohesion, he ties modern rap and hip-hop to traditional gospel, soul, funk, and of course, jazz, emphasizing various genres where appropriate and, at times, when least expected. It contains an eclectic cast of featured artists, from the humble St. Augustine High School Marching Band (Batiste’s alma mater) who help Batiste open the album with a bang on opener “WE ARE” to the very legend who influenced much of the album’s sound, one of America’s most celebrated blues musicians and Civil Rights activists (and Roots N Blues alum!), Mavis Staples. In “MAVIS,” she speaks to both Batiste and the listener through the low-quality intimacy of what sounds like a voicemail or phone call recording and summarizes the attitude behind much of her own work, as well as Batiste’s record: “I’ll tell you / Freedom to me / Is the ability for men and women / All created equal / To speak, think and do / Or not do / What you want.”
Just as Staples once called for justice in her music and backed up her words with action, by marching with Martin Luther King Jr. and participating in Civil Rights rallies, Batiste is becoming an artistic leader in the Civil Rights Movement’s modern counterpart, Black Lives Matter. In 2020, following George Floyd’s murder, Batiste organized “WE ARE – A Peaceful Protest March With Music” in Manhattan, during which he led thousands through the streets of the city, calling for justice. It’s no coincidence that his march and his newest album share a name. The peaceful and loving but deeply passionate approach he takes to activism is mirrored in the lyrics and sounds of his songs.
It is not an exaggeration to think that Batiste very well could become not only one of our time’s great musicians, but great activists, too. Like Staples and even Dr. King, Batiste’s power lies in the promotion of peace—not peace through compromise, nor submission to authority, but through the empathetic recognition of each other’s humanity, which can and will help us forge new paths forward.
For what’s bound to be one of RNB 2022’s most moving (and danceable!) sets, purchase your passes to see Batiste’s set on Saturday, October 8th, at Stephens Lake Park in Columbia, Missouri: https://www.frontgatetickets.com/festivals/roots-n-blues-festival/