The death of his German Shepherd when he was nine years old is one of the formative memories of Jon Batiste—the music director of The Late Show With Stephen Colbert—who won five Grammys this year. The dog was run over by a car before they could even name it. He said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal that the incident played a significant role in developing his empathy. “I was crushed,” he said. “My connection with dogs was over. For a long time, I did not want that bond to happen again.” But empathy is a funny emotion that way, difficult to contain, almost untameable.
Batiste soon got his back in a near-idyllic childhood in New Orleans, where many of his relatives were musical heavyweights, including free-jazz saxophonist Alvin Batiste and the drummer of the Meters, Russell Batiste. His childhood was as aromatic as the magnolia petals on his front lawn. He remembers playing video games with his cousins and forming a junior family band at age 10 called ‘The Batiste Kids’.
Since then, he has come a long way. Today, he is the music director of The Atlantic and the creative director of the National Jazz Museum in Harlem. His score for Pixar’s Soul (2020) won him an Oscar and a Golden Globe. Still, his latest album, We Are, which won the Grammy this year for the best album, is not about who he is, but his journey of becoming that person.
Much of his childhood makes its way into the album, particularly in the song ‘Boy hood’, with P.J. Morton and Trombone Shorty. “Home is where the heart stay/ Where the Pelicans and the Saints play,” he sings. “When pop pop wouldn’t give me ends/ Grandma was a ATM/ Buying bubble gum and M&Ms.” Although Batiste is mainly known as a jazz musician (he studied at the prestigious Juilliard School in New York), the album blends genres, from the piano ballads of ‘Movement 11’ to the political overtones of ‘Cry’ to the funk soul of ‘Tell the Truth’.
“’Tell the Truth’ is so powerful in the sense of it being a mandate from my parents—my dad in particular—when I left New Orleans for New York,” he has said about the song. “It is the mandate that I would give to everybody in a position of power. The things that we march about, we just want transparency. Everybody wants to know what’s what and not be manipulated.”
More than anything, We Are is the story of an artist coming into his own, slaking the thirst of his soul with a musical repertoire that is more for himself than for anyone else. This penchant for positivity suffuses the title track, ‘We Are’, as well. “Joy, he won’t let it go/ Joy that he doesn’t know/ What he doesn’t know/ We are the golden ones/ We are the chosen ones,” he sings in the track.
It is a rousing anthem for humanity in a time of turmoil and uncertainty. As Colbert told The New York Times, “In the present darkness that constitutes so much of the national conversation, Jon, by his example and his spirit, gives me hope I might do my job and maintain my own humanity.”
Recently, Batiste even got his dog bond back when he and his partner, Suleika Jaouad, bought a blind hound Labrador mix called Loulou, symbolising not a return of his empathy, but a culmination of everything that empathy has done for his music.