Jazz Is Built for Protests. Jon Batiste Is Taking It to the Streets.

By Alan Scherstuhl

The pianist and “Late Show” bandleader has been bringing musical wake-up calls to events across New York.

Jon Batiste performing on the steps of the Brooklyn Library at a Juneteenth event.
Jon Batiste performing on the steps of the Brooklyn Library at a Juneteenth event.Credit...Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times

Jon Batiste, the jazz pianist and “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” bandleader, has spent the last three weekends marching in the streets of New York, leading 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 Mr. Batiste’s exhortation, say their names: George Floyd. Breonna Taylor. And many others.

On June 12, however, Mr. Batiste opened his protest concert, part of a series called “We Are,” seated at an upright piano in front of the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, wearing a mask and bright-blue protective gloves. Unaccompanied, surrounded by hundreds of silent protesters, he dug deep into a song that he says demands reinvention: “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

“We all know that Francis Scott Key owned slaves,” Mr. Batiste said of the song’s lyricist in a Zoom interview last week. In Mr. Batiste’s hands, the national anthem seethes, mourns and aspires, drawing on the rollicking stride piano of Fats Waller and the volcanic 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 thinking of when I play it,” Mr. 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 culture.”

Image“Now there’s a chance for a real collective consciousness shifting,” Mr. Batiste said.
“Now there’s a chance for a real collective consciousness shifting,” Mr. Batiste said.Credit...Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times

The history of jazz is in many ways a history of protest, of celebrating blackness and insisting on individual freedom. The composer and bass player William Parker, who has taken free jazz from community centers 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,” Mr. Parker said in a Zoom interview. Artists like Mr. Parker, of course, have performed 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, especially 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 Mr. Batiste inviting thousands into the streets. And the pianist has the support of Mr. Colbert, who has carved out time on his broadcast to discuss his musical director’s activism.

“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,” Mr. 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, Mr. Batiste is particularly suited for a moment of protest in the streets: He’s from New Orleans, where the city’s famed Second 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 inspiration from his grandfather, the president of a New Orleans postal workers union, who marched and organized for his workers.

Mr. Batiste said that when he performs his “Star-Spangled Banner,” he’s thinking about versions by Jimi Hendrix, Marvin Gaye and Whitney Houston.Credit...Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times

“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 example.”

A spirit of collective humanity has always powered Mr. Batiste’s art. His “Late Show” band, Stay Human, is a diverse ensemble known for marching right into the crowd during performances. The protests take their name from “We Are,” his new single, a pop gospel showcase written and recorded last year that features the marching band from St. Augustine High School in New Orleans. He recorded “The Star Spangled Banner,” with all that thunder, on the 2013 album “Social Music.” And at the marches the music is indisputably social.

“It was such a powerful day,” the saxophonist Grace Kelly, a frequent Batiste collaborator, said of Mr. Batiste’s June 6 march from Union Square to Washington Square Park, which organizers say drew 5,000 people. “There were over 10 tubas, 30-plus trumpets, and maybe 50 saxophones. It was louder than we could speak. Louder than we could sing.”

Mr. Batiste and his organizers are weighing 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,” Mr. 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 centuries 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 composer, 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 Mr. Batiste on June 6, the first time she’s gotten to play music with colleagues in person since March.

Ms. 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.

Mr. Parker has dedicated his career to nurturing 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 annual Vision Festival and is currently 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 happen,” Mr. 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 an upcoming 10-disc box set of new material dedicated to “those who want to eliminate hate, racism, sexism, greed and lies.”

Mr. Batiste has the support of his late-night colleague Stephen Colbert, who has discussed the protests on his show.Credit...Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times

He’s not alone in sharing fresh music keyed to the cause: The drummer Johnathan Blake and the vibes player Joel Ross both released pre-Covid commissioned concerts from the Jazz Gallery on YouTube. The sets, titled “My Life Matters” and “Being a Young Black Man,” come with requests for donations to Black Lives Matter and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. And the poet Camae Ayewa shouts: “Enough! Enough! Enough!” over the free-jazz squall of “Irreversible Live in Berlin” on a pair of blistering live sets from the protest-minded quintet Irreversible Entanglements.

“Music is a wake-up call,” Mr. Parker said. “After the protest, you listen to it and it helps keep you awake. Because the problem is not to wake up — it’s not to go back to sleep.”

Mr. Batiste believes it’s his responsibility to use his platform to keep the crowds awake. That platform is also expanding. Mr. 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 the guitarist Cory Wong.

Despite his personal success, he remains focused on the inequality he’s committed to fighting. “Four hundred and one years of people and their voices being completely marginalized has led to systemic racism and sexism that has been perpetuated 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 dialogue. But now there’s a chance for a real collective consciousness shifting.”