UVA Arts, University of Virginia

Vol 18 Spring 24 Library
Movie Still from American Symphony

Jon Batiste & American Symphony

The sun was dancing into the living room at Carr’s Hill on a late October afternoon as Grammy and Academy Award-winning recording artist Jon Batiste took his seat at the piano for a very special installment of the Arts on the Hill series that few in attendance will ever forget.

Jon Batiste at Arts on the Hill
(Photo: Ézé Amos)

Batiste was joined by noted NPR film critic and UVA alumnus Bilal Qureshi for a conversation about his life, career, and the film American Symphony, which would screen to a sold-out crowd of over 1,000 at The Paramount Theater later that evening, as part of the 36th annual Virginia Film Festival. 

Over the course of the next hour, the nearly 100 people in attendance, a great majority of them students, would be treated to a wide-ranging conversation punctuated by bursts of music that seem always imminent from Batiste, as if it is the music itself that runs through him like a current while the rest of the world serves as a distraction. He is more than a performer - he is a kinetic force whose words and even synapses resonate with their own sort of rhythm and melody. 

A member of a prominent jazz family in New Orleans, Batiste’s musical journey began at the age of 11, he said, took stronger hold when he was 14, and has carried him into a career and life he never could have imagined. “Music was something that just kept choosing me,” he said. “I just followed the momentum of it.” From the beginning, he shared, Batiste has seen himself as a “disrupter from the inside,” born with a way of approaching art and creativity that didn’t fit into what he called the traditional “corridors of creativity.”

He said that his years at Juilliard were often difficult and that he fed his creative hunger not in the classrooms and practice rooms there, but with his band Stay Human playing above and below ground all over New York City, on trains and on streetcorners. “We would draw a crowd of 50 people somewhere on the Lower East Side, and we would bring them with us into a bodega, things like that,” Batiste said, his smile as bright and as constant as the endless series of notes ready to pour out at any time. 

He went on to share both with millions each weeknight as the bandleader for The Late Show with Stephen Colbert on CBS from 2015 to 2021. In 2020, he signed on as music director for the Pixar smash hit and Academy Award-winning film Soul, only to see his role on the project become integral to the very fabric of it by finding a way to infuse contemporary jazz into the heart of a story for kids that dealt with death, and existentialism. “To do something that seemed on its surface to be very much part of the norm,” he told the audience, “but to create something that is not that at all. That’s what I like to do. That is disrupting from the inside.”

The following year, Batiste did some more disrupting of the industry when he collected five Grammy Awards, including the coveted Album of the Year honors for his genre-spanning record We Are. He was ready to disrupt again when he decided it was time to compose his “American Symphony.” 

I really wanted to look at what a true American symphony would look and sound like if it were made in 2023 by a truly inclusive group of musicians, including people from New Orleans, indigenous people, and more...
Jon Batitse

“I really wanted to look at what a true American symphony would look and sound like if it were made in 2023 by a truly inclusive group of musicians, including people from New Orleans, indigenous people, and more,” Batiste said. “I wanted to see what would happen if we changed things up, if the viola section included synthesizers, and you create this wall of marching band music and symphonic music all together.” To capture the process, he enlisted Academy Award-nominated and six-time-Emmy-winning filmmaker Matthew Heineman, known for risking everything to put himself in the heart of his stories, from the war in Afghanistan (Retrograde) to the front lines of COVID-19 (The First Wave).

This time, outside disruptions would come into play in the form of the pandemic, which changed Batiste’s vision for traveling the world to capture these sounds and moments, and in the form of a challenging cancer diagnosis for his wife, the New York Times writer and bestselling author Suleika Jaouad. The film, now streaming on Netflix, is a powerful testament not only to the power of art but to the meaning of love as Batiste and Jaouad invite cameras into their home, doctor’s offices, and rehearsal studios for an unflinching and intimate look at a year full of incredible highs and devastating lows. 

“I love the theme of the symphony,” Batiste said, “because somehow, in a very prescient way, it captures the emotion of…” His words trail off, once again proving no match for his musical expression as he begins to play one of the major themes of his piece. 

Discussion with Jon Batiste and director Matthew Heineman (winner of the VAFF Directorial Achievement Award). Moderated by Tyler Coates (The Hollywood Reporter).
(Photo: Ézé Amos)

Following a Q and A session, Batiste put a bow on the magical afternoon by returning to his piano and playing The Star-Spangled Banner as only he would, adding New Orleans stride piano stylings along with rich chords and harmonies that take us to places we would not expect and making us experience the song and its meaning in a brand-new way. 

Or, put in different terms, disrupting from the inside. 

Jon Batiste takes a bow to a standing ovation on stage at The Paramount following the screening of American Symphony and a live performance at the 2023 Virginia Film Festival.
(Photo: Ézé Amos)
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