Jazz is built for protests. Jon Batiste is taking it to the streets.
By Alan Sherstuhl
Jon Batiste, the jazz pianist and “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” bandlead- er, has spent the last three weekends marching in the streets of New York, lead- ing musicians and protesters through hymns and songs like “We Shall Overcome” and “Down by the Riverside.” Those without a horn or drum sing and, at Batiste’s exhorta- tion, say their names: George Floyd. Breonna Taylor. And many others.
On June 12, however, Batiste opened his protest concert, part of a series called “We Are,” seated at an upright piano in front of Barclays Center in Brooklyn, wear- ing a mask and bright-blue protective gloves. Unaccompanied, surrounded by hundreds of silent protesters, he dug deep into a song that he says demands reinven- tion: “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
“We all know that Francis Scott Key owned slaves,” Batiste said of the song’s lyr- icist in a Zoom interview last week. In Batiste’s hands, the national anthem seethes, mourns and aspires, drawing on the rollick- ing stride piano of Fats Waller and the vol- canic eruptions of Art Tatum.
“The way that Jimi Hendrix took the song, the way that Marvin Gaye or Whitney took it — that tradition is what I am think- ing of when I play it,” Batiste, 33, added. “The diaspora that they infused into it is a response to the toxic ideologies that are embedded in the song and thus in the cul- ture.”
The history of jazz is in many ways a history of protest, of celebrating blackness and insisting on individual freedom. Com- poser and bass player William Parker, who has taken free jazz from community cen- ters to Town Hall, traces this spirit to works like Duke Ellington’s 1943 “Black, Brown and Beige” to later suites by Max Roach and Sonny Rollins, and the free jazz and loft jazz movements of the 1960s and ’70s. Then came the ’80s, when “everybody went to sleep thinking that we had accomplished something, but all we really got were the leftovers,” Parker said in a Zoom interview. Artists like Parker, of course, have per- formed and recorded revolution-minded “fire music” through the 1980s and up to the present, and the last decade has seen a resurgence in political jazz music, espe- cially from the downtown, avant-garde and Brooklyn scenes.
It’s certainly rare, though, to see a jazz musician with a household name and a national platform like Batiste inviting thousands into the streets. And the pianist has the support of Colbert, who has carved out time on his broadcast to discuss his mu- sical director’s activism.
“In the present darkness that consti- tutes 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,”
Colbert said in an email. “I believe long after no one knows who I am, the name Jon Batiste will be spoken with admiration. I’m grateful to know him.”
A genre-crossing virtuoso and crowd- pleaser, Batiste is particularly suited for a moment of protest in the streets: He’s from New Orleans, where the city’s famed Sec- ond Line marches have built a tradition of “catharsis and release,” he said, in which music lifts anguish or outrage toward a collective joy. He grew up surrounded by musical relatives and draws special inspira- tion from his grandfather, the president of a New Orleans postal workers union, who marched and organized for his workers.
“Jon is walking in that lineage, and not just musically,” said Brian Blade, a drummer and composer with his own strong New Orleans connection. “It’s in the essence of our feet on the ground, moving forward, gathering a movement through ex- ample.”
Batiste and his organizers are weigh- ing the logistics of taking the “We Are” protests to cities across the United States in the coming months, focusing on a practical goal: voter registration and the exposure of voter suppression.
“There are three candidates that we’re dealing with,” Batiste said. “Donald Trump, Joe Biden and the candidate of apathy. Apathy’s insidious. It comes from having a weight on our collective shoulders for cen- turies that has made us feel that we don’t matter, that we’re not seen and that our vote doesn’t count.”
Like many of the city’s jazz players, Caroline Davis, a saxophonist and com- poser, has protested at several Brooklyn and Manhattan rallies in recent weeks. “It’s inspiring to be with people who are in this for the long haul,” she said, after marching with Batiste on June 6, the first time she’s gotten to play music with colleagues in per- son since March.
Davis co-teaches a course in jazz and gender at the New School and feels a responsibility to honor jazz’s history of protest. “I feel that, as Nina Simone said, it’s the artist’s job to reference the time in which we live,” she said.
Parker has dedicated his career to nur- turing that activist spirit. He has marched dozens of times since 2016 with the Artists for a Free World marching band, a loose collective organized by Arts for Art, the nonprofit organization that hosts the an- nual Vision Festival and is presenting Zoom concerts and salons.
“I’ve been talking for the last, oh, 40 years or so about how every once in a while a window opens up and things can hap- pen,” Parker, 68, said. “But we have to have numbers, we have to be persistent, and we have to really lay it out in the consciousness of people.”
Last week, on Bandcamp he released the searing and mournful “Baldwin,” a track from a coming 10-disc box set of new material dedicated to “those who want to eliminate hate, racism, sexism, greed and lies.”
“Music is a wake-up call,” Parker said. “After the protest, you listen to it and it helps keep you awake. Because the prob- lem is not to wake up — it’s not to go back to sleep.”
Batiste believes it’s his responsibil- ity to use his platform to keep the crowds awake. That platform is also expanding. Batiste’s fingers will power the music in “Soul,” the first Pixar feature to center on a Black lead, slated for a Nov. 20 release.
He has maintained the kind of proudly unpredictable career common to 21st-century jazz musicians. In 2019 he released a pair of in-the-tradition Verve albums recorded at the Village Vanguard. Since then he’s debuted a funk-favoring band of all-women collaborators on NPR’s Tiny Desk Concerts and improvised on an independent release, “Meditations,” with guitarist Cory Wong.
Despite his personal success, he re- mains focused on the inequality he’s com- mitted to fighting. “Four hundred and one years of people and their voices being com- pletely marginalized has led to systemic racism and sexism that has been perpetu- ated even in our triumphs,” he said. “The idea that we can have triumphs and also perpetuate toxic ideologies is a nuance that we have yet to explore in the public dia- logue. But now there’s a chance for a real collective consciousness shifting.”