Jon Batiste’s five Grammy awards – stolen right from under the noses of everyone’s favorite pop superstars – signals a shift in many trends set by the Recording Academy across the ceremony’s 62-year history.
“Many people paved the way for me, musically and otherwise,” Batiste confessed to Vanity Fair on Sunday night. “It was a blur after the announcements to be honest. My phone kept ringing the entire week. On the flip side, my partner (Suleika Jaouad) was diagnosed with a serious illness so I could see it all with a great deal of perspective.”
With a humble attitude, powerful capacity for performances, and a new responsibility as the new flagbearer for modern Jazz and R&B, it’s well worth taking a look at Batiste’s amazing origins, his rise to fame, and his stunning live performance this weekend. Let’s dive in.
Louisiana’s New Orleans is one of the most culturally rich cities in the West – while music scholars often debate the subject, it’s widely accepted as the birthplace of jazz music – a strong cultural legacy that found its way into the Batiste bloodline.
Batiste himself was born here, and grew up listening to the sounds of his family members – Lionel Batiste of the Treme Brass Band, Milton Batiste of the Olympia Brass Band, and drummer Russell Batiste Jr.
Together with his family’s ‘Batiste Brothers Band’, Jon picked up percussion and drums at the age of 8, before he switched to piano three years later at his mother’s behest. The next few years were filled with classical piano lessons, interspersed with self-taught covers of videogame music – most notably Street Fighter Alpha, Final Fantasy 7, and Sonic the Hedgehog.
Though born in the jazz capital of the world, Jon didn’t take a shine to the genre until he was around fourteen years old – which was when he discovered the 1959 recording of Sonny Sitt Sits in with the Oscar Peterson Trio. Here’s the most popular track from that recording – I Can’t Give You Anything But Love:
Soon enough, Julliard was knocking on the young musician’s door. As one of America’s most prestigious music conservatories, Jon, barely out of his teens, noted how he walked through the corridors of a ‘serious’ school for ‘serious musicians’ – tooting away cheerily into a melodica, much to the administration’s chagrin. Here’s some footage of him rocking the keys way back in 2002 – at the age of sixteen.
By 2011, Jon had self-released multiple albums, and earned both a Bachelors and Masters of Music in jazz studies – all while featuring at music events across the world.
Way back in 2005, Jon joined forces with some of his Julliard mates – bringing together bassist Phil Kuehn, drummer Joe Saylor, saxophonist Eddie Barbash, and tuba player Ibanda Ruhumbika to form a band called Stay Human.
Stay Human’s early efforts reached out to the people of New York – aiming to ‘uplift humanity’ in an age of ‘plugging in and tuning out’. Taking to the streets with wild, exciting performances they called ‘Love Riots’, the band grew in notoriety and soon found itself invited across the States for special appearances – including one very fateful performance on The Colbert Report in 2014. Soon after, Stephen Colbert began to plan his move onwards to The Late Show – and he already knew who he wanted performing in front of his live studio audiences.
“He believes in exposing people to different assets of American music,” says Batiste of Colbert. “And as I was saying, the idea of de-categorizing American music. . . that concept resonates with him and that’s why he likes what we do, you know?”
What followed was a period of social, commercial, and creative success for Jon – routinely tagged as a ‘rebel bandleader’, and a ‘genius’ by media outlets. During this time, he belted out several excellent performances onstage and on camera – while simultaneously knocking out a Christmas-themed album and working on the Hollywood Africans album – his major label debut after signing to Verve Records.
He also made waves after contributing greatly to Pixar’s Soul – another achievement that landed Jon a Grammy this year. Speaking of…
Jon’s Grammy-winning album came through in the form of a six-day recording fever – put together in his dressing room sometime in late 2019.
The We Are album itself proved to be intense – even prophetic. Despite being written prior to the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, his songwriting wove stories that tied deeply into the narratives of the last two years – even weaving into Jon’s own experiences on the front lines of the Black Lives Matter protests. Here’s that very same footage – making it onto a video of the album’s soulful title track:
In his own words, Jon describes We Are as a “a representation of genreless music that’s “just about the story” and “a culmination of my life to this point” – strong words that echo his collaborative and creative choices ever since his days at Julliard.
The result of that legacy is a whopping five Grammys – Album of the Year, Best American Roots Performance, Best American Roots Song, Best Score Soundtrack for Visual Media, and Best Music Video.
“I just put my head down and work on the craft every day,” Jon stated after the ceremony. “It’s more than entertainment for me – it’s a spiritual practice.”
(Featured Image Credits: Recording Academy)