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    The Human Touch

    His 2022 Grammy Album of the Year award for We Are—one of five wins at the Las Vegas ceremony that made him the most celebrated artist at this year’s event—cemented Jon Batiste’s rise to the top of the musical world.


    Adding those prizes to the Oscar and Golden Globe he won for helping score the 2020 Pixar movie, Soul, has brought widespread critical acclaim to the musician perhaps best known to many, up to this point, as the bandleader of Stay Human on CBS’s The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.


    With an American Jazz Museum Lifetime Achievement Award on his mantel while still only in his mid-30s, the artist described by the New York Times as “a gleeful genre-melder” with “generous virtuosity and dedication to equal-opportunity uplift” has achieved so much in a relatively short time. How?


    “The time that you have in the day is such a precious gift,” he offers in a pre-Grammys interview. “All that you really can depend on is the present moment, and I try to make the most of the present moment, and that amounts to accomplishing things that my 7-year-old self couldn’t have dreamed of.”


    He returns to this idea of focus later in the conversation as he reflects on what guides his decisions and choices. “We are all coming from a righteous lineage and our ancestors paved the way for us to be able to walk in who we’re called to be,” he says. “So, I’m always trying to be aligned. That’s always my work, every day: waking up, trying to figure out how do I align and integrate all of this so that I can walk into authenticity.”


    Don’t be fake, he says. “Everybody’s got a different set of equipment that they come into this thing with. And I just don’t want to ever walk into a room and not be what I’m called to be… always the same, wherever I am.”


    Never alone
    Batiste may be New York-based these days, but there’s still a lot of his New Orleans-area childhood in him. He speaks of how formative were his years at the city’s famous St. Augustine High School, the only all-male, African American, private Catholic high school in the country. He followed in the footsteps of other family members in attending the school perhaps best known for its Marching 100, the “Best Band in the Land.”
    “Our ancestors paved the way for us to be able to walk in who we’re called to be.”


    Batiste’s time there was “instrumental in becoming the man that I am,” he says. He was thrilled to be able to feature the Marching 100 on the title track of his Grammy-winning album. Members can also be seen strutting their stuff in their hometown in the “Freedom” single video that scored Batiste another of his Grammy wins.


    Recording with their famous alum was the band’s first credit on a major label and “to put them on the map in that way, to present them to the world like that, it made me cry in the studio,” says Batiste. “I’m getting emotional just thinking about it.”


    Batiste believes in paying tribute to those who have helped us get to where we are—indeed, it’s a tenet that prompted the title of his award-winning album. “We are never alone,” he explains. “We have so many ancestors who have paved the way for us, that we’re standing on the shoulders of. We are doing things that were made possible by the sacrifices of those who came before us.” He describes We Are as “a homage to the ancestors who paved the way for the superpower of American music and American culture.”


    Many of those people are largely unknown, like his grandfather David Gauthier, “one of the first people to make changes on a community level” as leader of the postal workers union in Louisiana back in the ’60s, whose activism drew the support of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Gauthier can be heard speaking on the We Are title track.


    For Batiste, it’s not just important to look back gratefully but to look forward generously and give to those coming up behind. He’s well known for taking his music to schools, community centers, and other venues away from the main stage of his tours, to encourage up-and-coming musicians.


    “Mentorship is the cycle of life,” he says. “You know, we come here and we learn how to talk, how to walk, and all these things from watching our parents and our loved ones, people that will take care of us, and then eventually we develop our sense of the world, our own personality emerges. Who we are is really something that then becomes transferable.”


    Get deeper
    Over the past dozen years or so, young people who have been part of Batiste’s community programs have gone on to study at elite colleges, appeared on Broadway, and signed deals with major labels, which has been very satisfying for him. “So, I plan on doing this, God willing, till I’m 100… we’ll see what comes with that.”


    Those workshops and clinics spring from Batiste’s conviction that there is more to music than just entertainment, valuable as that is. Music is part of the fabric of everyday life, he says, something that can be used to bring people together, to inspire people to action. That was why he took his music to the streets in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder in 2020.


    “Social music is really an important aspect of our society that I am deeply, deeply engaged with and very suited to represent,” he says. “And when times like that happen in our nation and in our world, I just feel compelled—it’s not even a thought, it’s a calling. I’m not thinking about what can I do? It just becomes inevitable for me to act.”


    While Batiste emphasizes the importance of honoring the past, he’s not saying we should get stuck there. Remembering those who came before and appreciating how they gave you something to build on for the future “doesn’t mean that you have to do it in that way,” he says. “In fact, you should probably try to disrupt that because if you’re in a different time, you don’t need the same tools the generation before you needed to create. You have to address the time that you’re in, but there’s something to knowing how you got there.”
    “Social music is really an important aspect of our society.”


    Despite what he soaked up at St. Augustine High and later at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (where Trombone Shorty was a fellow student), Batiste felt the need to further his musical education by enrolling at New York’s prestigious Juilliard School. “As an artist, you always want to find a way to get deeper and deeper. The more you get into the art and craft, the more you find that there is to discover.” He also wanted “to see just what’s out there in that great big world, what is there for somebody that is as engaged as I am in this craft of music?” And he found New York City to be “a gateway to the world.”


    Stay Human is more than just the name of his Late Show and concert band. It’s also “something we try to give people as a philosophy,” he says. “Human beings, I believe, are created in a divine image and art is creation.” Stay Human’s music aims to break through “all of these things that can separate us from the basic human fundamental exchange of community.” Live music is about bringing people together and giving them a sense of community: “You see this across time, from the beginning of African drum circles, rumba sessions in Cuba, the sacred dances of the indigenous Americans. That’s what Stay Human really represents, all of that.”


    From an interview with Louis Carr

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