Jon Batiste: Opening portals to new musical worlds

In April 2022, Lenny Kravitz was reading out the nominees for album of the year at the Grammy Awards.

Their wish came true.

Batiste took home the night’s biggest prize, beating high-profile releases by Taylor Swift, Lil Nas X and Eilish herself – with a record that had virtually no commercial impact.

“There’s a question over how much we judge things based on the art, versus how much it was commercially successful – and a mix of opinions to sweetens the pot,” he says.

“But if it’s just, ‘Oh, this music belongs over here, and that music belongs over there’, I’m not with that.

We stagnate. Music all starts to sound the same.”

This, it transpires, is his real obsession.

“That was a first in history,” he beams.

His father Maurice played bass for Jackie Wilson and Isaac Hayes, his uncle Harold worked as an arranger for Sam Cooke, and his cousin-twice-removed was avant-garde jazz clarinettist Alvin Batiste.

At the age of eight, he was playing drums with his relatives in the Batiste Brothers Band; and switched to piano aged 11 after his mother heard him picking out tunes from his favourite video games.

“She said, ‘you should study classical music’,” he recalls.

After high school, he won a place at New York’s prestigious Julliard School, an experience he describes as a “culture shock”.

“You come from the South in America and go into this very European classical, strict environment,” he explains.

He re-qualified enough times to attain a bachelor’s and master’s degree in classical piano.

“You acquire something that’s like a jewel. It’s a ruby. And, for me, I want to communicate with that. I want to take that [to] a space where it’s not just ivory towers.”

Even on the notoriously aggressive streets of New York, it proved to be infectious


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