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Need to know ~ People

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Jon Batiste

Jon Batiste in Brooklyn, June 2020

Photo: Rhododendrites, CC BY-SA 4.0

Why current?


Countless aspects of daily life changed during the coronavirus pandemic.  Most painful have been the loss of life, the suffering of our loved ones, and the loneliness of our friends and neighbors.  But the atmosphere of our lives has changed, too – the color, vibrancy, and tone.  We haven’t been able to gather in groups.  The lights have been off in many shops and restaurants.  Theaters, concert halls, performance venues large and small have been shuttered.  Many would say that in the face of our more immediate struggles to keep people alive and healthy and, ultimately, to get everyone vaccinated, these should be the least of our concerns right now.  But others would argue that the lack of music and song, of artistic expression, of inspiration through the arts, is its own unique tragedy.

Jon Batiste, jazz musician extraordinaire, didn’t seem to care for all the silence out there.  As part of the “NY Pops Up” initiative, he took his music to the people – on the streets.  NY Pops Up promotes the spontaneous performances by musicians, dancers, theater groups, and more, throughout New York City.  Its goal is to reclaim some of that atmosphere that this art-loving city lost during a year of shut-downs.  Batiste, the 34-year-old musical director and band leader for The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, gave a surprise performance in February – the first in the NY Pops Up series –  at the Javits Center in Manhattan, where people were getting vaccinated.  He and his band performed for the tireless health care workers at the center, as well as for the people getting vaccine shots put into their arms.  Batiste and his band then moved to the streets of Brooklyn, where they surprised people with the joyful, raucous sounds of their music, winding down streets, stopping on corners, and drawing small groups of appreciative passers-by. 

All the musicians wore masks and made sure people stayed responsible and safe.

This was not the first time Batiste gave a concert while on the move.  Already during the Black Lives Matter protests of June 2020, he was out in traffic, marching and leading fellow protesters in song.

“The music speaks for itself.  It’s not to be talked about.  It’s to be listened to.”

-Jon Batiste

More about Jon Batiste

– Born Jonathan Michael Batiste on November 11, 1986, in Metairie, Louisiana.

– Batiste’s family tree is populated by many gifted musicians, going back generations.  He remembers being captivated by his father’s singing and bass playing at a very young age.

– His interest in music was noticed early on and cultivated.  He was already performing with his family in the Batiste Brothers Band at age eight.  At first he played drums, but when he was 11, Batiste’s mother suggested he begin studying piano.  She believed that the piano was a foundational instrument and a good place to learn the basics of music.

– Batiste took his piano lessons seriously and was committed to the classical training he received.  At the same time, he pursued other musical interests, like transcribing (writing out and reinterpreting) songs from video games!

– Passion for jazz did not grip Batiste right away.  Even though it was all around him growing up, he didn’t fall in love with it until he was about 14, during his musical training at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts.

– Batiste attended St. Augustine High School in New Orleans.  After graduating in 2004, he went to New York City at the age of 17 to study at the famed Juilliard School, where he earned both his bachelor’s and his master’s degrees in music.

– While at Juilliard, Batiste recorded an album called, “Live in New York: At the Rubin Museum of Art.”  He also formed a band called Stay Human with some of his classmates.  They would roam the streets, playing music.  Sometimes, they’d even play in the subway.  They called their moving concerts, “love riots.”  Occasionally, they were stopped by police, but the joy of bringing spontaneous music to people was never dampened.

– In 2018, Batiste recorded, “Hollywood Africans,” which received rave reviews and earned him a Grammy nomination.

– Batiste and Stay Human became the house band for The Late Show with Stephen Colbert in 2015.

– After the police killings of Breonna Taylor (March 13, 2020) and George Floyd (May 25, 2020), Jon Batiste joined social justice protests in New York.  He brought music to the demonstrations, leading those around him in song and remembering the people who had died at the hands of police by chanting their names.  On June 12, Batiste gave a protest concert in Brooklyn.  He sang the national anthem of the United States, “The Star-Spangled Banner,” a song he says is overdue for an overhaul, both musically (it’s notoriously hard to sing) and in terms of its content.  Batiste told The New York Times, “We all know that Francis Scott Key [who wrote the lyrics to the national anthem] owned slaves.”

– Besides making music with Stay Human and appearing on The Late Show, Batiste gives a great deal of his energy advising and supporting young musicians.  He is also commited to the movement for social justice in the U.S., using his music to reflect people’s feelings of frustration, anger, and grief, as racism raises its ugly head again and again.  He uses music to encourage and enliven those who are suffering within an unjust system.

– Before the 2020 elections, Batiste told The New York Times, “There are three candidates that we’re dealing with.  Donald Trump, Joe Biden, and the candidate of apathy….  It comes from having a weight on our collective shoulders for centuries that has made us feel that we don’t matter, that we’re not seen and that our vote doesn’t count.”

– Besides performing on The Late Show, Batiste also works as Musical Director at The Atlantic, and as Artistic Director at Harlem’s National Jazz Museum.

– Batiste has become known as “the crowned prince of jazz.”

Sources: Jacobs, Julia,  The New York Times, “New York’s Pop-Up Concerts Kick Off With Jazz at a Vaccination Site,” https://www.nytimes.com/pop-up-concerts-jon-batiste.html, February 21, 2021; PBS.org, “Finding Your Roots: Jon Batiste,” https://www.pbs.org/jon-batiste; Weingarten, Christopher R., Rolling Stone, “Meet Jon Batiste, Stephen Colbert’s Crowd-Thrilling Bandleader,” https://www.rollingstone.com/jon-batiste/, August 5, 2015; Scherstuhl, Alan, The New York Times, “Jazz Is Built for Protests. Jon Batiste Is Taking It to the Streets,” https://www.nytimes.com/jon-batiste-jazz-protests.html,  June 24, 2020; Goldsmith, Margie, Forbes, “Jon Batiste: So Much More Than Stephen Colbert’s Music Director,” https://www.forbes.com/jon-batiste, September 9, 2019.