Jon Batiste on New Album 'Hollywood Africans': 'I Want to Be a Torchbearer' Like Jean-Michel Basquiat

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Jon Batiste visits Build Series to discuss 'Hollywood Africans' at Build Studio on Sept. 14, 2018 in New York City.

Years before Jon Batiste started regularly commuting to New York's Ed Sullivan Theater as the bandleader on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, he was a student at Juilliard -- who found himself, frequently, learning off-the-clock in the quiet museum halls and low-ceilinged jazz clubs of the city.

He'd gaze at the frenzied strokes of Jean-Michel Basquiat or trip down the stairs of downtown jazz Mecca the Village Vanguard. He'll return on on Oct. 30 to mount a six-night residency, and he's eager to give the audience a "taste" of what he's working on -- which includes a new symphony he's eager to try out in the Vanguard's intimate confines -- as well as the songs of Hollywood Africans, his new album out Sept. 28, that gazes deeper into Basquiat's painting of the same name and the dialogue it sparks about the exploitive, racist practices woven into the fabric of American entertainment.

It's all too appropriate that Batiste is returning to familiar haunts and going back to his inspirational wells, now that he's written a body of work that stress how crucial it is to do just that: to not only trace roots, but untangle them and follow them through darker, murky passages in order to better understand what grows in the present. Hollywood Africans has Batiste dressing up old favorites in new chords, like Louis Armstrong's "What a Wonderful World," and "Don't Stop" -- which borrows its mournful tone from Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata," before flourishing into a motivational anthem that strikes a poignant chord in 2018. 

The interpretation and compositions are entirely his own (with help from folk legend T Bone Burnett, who co-produced the album), but Hollywood Africans is very much Batiste's tribute to those who came before him -- and those who'll come after. Below, he digs into the album, how Bono factored into its genesis, why he wants to be a "torchbearer" and more.

When did the writing process for Hollywood Africans begin? How long has this project been percolating?

It’s been a part of who I am. I was born into it. That’s the beauty of it. The process for this record didn’t actually start until 2013: I was at Bono’s house in Los Angeles, performing for him behind the curtain, which was the theme of the night: performers who he didn’t know were going to appear, they’d be unveiled and perform a song for him and then join him at a long table and party with him for the rest of the night. Pharrell Williams had performed right before me, and Herbie Hancock was sitting at the table right in front of me -- and T Bone was there.

That’s when T Bone and I first met. We talked about the history of American music and the roots all last night. I had obviously heard of his work, and he had heard of me at the time, and was asking me about the roots of the music that I was working on. We just really hit it off in a way that definitely lead to this project. Even though we didn’t get around to going to the studio to work on [Hollywood Africans] until 2015, we had worked on other stuff and kept the conversation going. Even when we went in the studio in 2015… we [weren’t] going in for the purpose of making an album. We were just continuing our ongoing dialogue and collaboration by that time. We really just wanted to work on something that was stripped down and back to the basics.

Really, the word that kept getting thrown around was “trance" -- almost like we’re conjuring the ancestors and the spirits in the room to create something that continues that lineage. We even read a poem he sent me by Zorah Neale Hurst about the spirit of the ancestors called High John the Conqueror. That was the initial jumping-off point to us going in the studio.... Us meeting in 2013 at Bono’s party was kind of the spark that led to this album, even though we didn’t know it would turn into this.

When you think about T Bone and his music, you don’t hear jazz and keys right away -- he’s a folk icon who’s worked across tons of genres with tons of musicians. For you, was it a benefit and a factor you considered when you sought him out as a collaborator?

I really thought about it for awhile, because once I decided to make it be an album -- even though we recorded in 2015, we did over 40 songs together. That was the first essence. When I decided it’d be an album, I went back and did two more sessions -- so five sessions over the course of five or six years made this album. I had a lot of time to think about it because I sat with the music and thought, “You know what? It makes sense because it’s all folk music.” It’s all part of our lineage, and tradition, and it’s all rooted from the same place.

He’s coming from it obviously on a different branch of the same tree -- but it’s the same tree. He’s a master at understanding that it’s bigger than the music. It’s about the history and the community that it creates. It’s almost like a super power. In the studio, we’re conjuring these spirits because they’re our superpowers. If we forget about ‘em, as a people, it’s part of the reason why we have so many of the problems that we have -- it’s because we forget our superpowers.

When I listen to your take on “What a Wonderful World,” it’s haunting and feels very relevant in this moment. How has your relationship with these songs changed with the current context?

It’s made me really understand the power of what we do as artists to heal people -- because now, people need healing more than ever. There’s never been a time where it’s been as divided since I’ve been on earth, and a lot of people are saying that. A lot of people are feeling the anxiety of the moment, the anxiety of just getting through every day without having some sort of deep depression or nervous breakdown or needing some sort of escape from it.

“What a Wonderful World” is a song that’s made to be a meditation. I literally ask the audience to close their eyes when they listen to it and join me as we go under this meditation on the lyrics and remembering how beautiful and amazing the planet is, this celestial ball floating in space that has been here for billions of years. This is just one moment in the long history of a beautiful planet, and the beautiful life that we have an opportunity to live on it. We gotta put it in perspective.

This is kind of what the whole record is really about: Let’s put it in perspective. We can talk about it, we can address it, we can fight it, we can protest, but we also need some place in the culture that’s healing, and I feel like the art has always been that. That’s what we gotta remember. It still has the power to heal, now and forever.

Does that get difficult? You’re human; you’re living this with the rest of us. There must’ve been moments where you were overcome or this was challenging to work through in the studio.

That’s where a lot of the music came from as well, especially the newer tracks. I’m talking about “Don’t Stop” and all the things I was going through when I wrote that -- the idea of me figuring out a way to first heal myself and write a song and a mantra or a meditation in a musical format that I use for myself that then becomes something I can share with the world because it worked for me.

We see you goofing off with Stephen Colbert on The Late Show, where the vibe is lighthearted and funny and fun. Hollywood Africans is not that. Does one pursuit inform the other? Is it a benefit to flex those muscles at the same time?

Absolutely. [These songs] are definitely a reaction to being in Hollywood, in the entertainment industry, being on TV and doing that thing -- it takes you away from the roots of what you’re actually about and who you are in a certain context. If you’re not careful, you can lose yourself in it. That’s something I’ve always been conscious of.

In particular with this project, it’s going back to the basics, of me just at the piano and singing, and the idea of where we come from being highlighted -- this is the lineage I’m a part of, what I represent. I think it’s important to state that and state it on my own terms. I’m not saying that who I am on The Late Show isn’t me as well; that’s me, but it’s all a part of who I am.

Our ancestors had to wear masks in order to be able to share their gift and use the superpower of the music. They healed so many people, but they went through so much hardship and oppression and marginalization that I don’t have to wear a mask. It’s okay for me to be unadulterated, myself, flat-out -- no mask, no nothing. That’s what I really love about this. I’m not on TV with this. This is for real. This is like me and you in a room together, you put this record on, and my essence is in your house, in your headphones. I’m with you.

Hollywood Africans is named for a work of art by Basquiat. When was the first time you interacted with this piece? Are any songs directly tied to that work of art?

That piece has a lot of information in it. It talks about the commodification of the art, how global it’s become, how basically, African-American entertainers have evolved the creative field to levels that were unimaginable -- that they were still required to put on a mask and hide their humanity to a certain degree, to allow the next generation to break that paradigm, but then still have to deal with different types of marginalization.

We’re in a moment right now -- especially where you look at the political situation of our current administration always sowing division, and then you look at what’s going on with sports and entertainment -- people are starting to wake up in a way that hasn’t happened. Basquiat’s work was an indictment of a certain marginalization, but he’s also saying… whatever's put in our path, we’ll overcome it. Because it’s a divine calling, to put this work out into the world. It’s not just about one group. It’s about everybody coming together through the power of these art forms -- folk, blues, jazz, rock and roll, creating communities all across the world. People are finally recognizing and waking up to the fact of where all that stuff comes from.

I just want to be a representative and a torchbearer in the same way that he was. I’ve also just been influenced by his work a lot. I’ve gotten to know his family, his sisters, and there’s some exciting stuff that they’ve shared with me about him and his work. It just made sense that this should be the title of the album.

How do you feel when you see his work up close in galleries and museums?

I’ve had the opportunity to see his work in person and every single time, it’s a visceral reaction to me. It sounds like something. It doesn’t make any sense. His work has colors in it that speak in a way that’s raw, and it’s a lot of things at once, a lot of extremes at once. It’s childlike and it’s also very complex.

He’s actually someone who when I was 19, I first discovered his work... whenever there was an exhibit or anything, I would try to check it out. I just felt like he and I had a lot of parallels in a weird way, almost as if he was my, in a way, he’s like my dark side. I rarely feel that with artists. I’m influenced by a lot of artists, but it’s rare that I feel that there’s some sort of parallel there, or a kindred soul, you know.

Is this your most personal effort yet?

Oh, yeah. T Bone and I have worked on some stuff, other things that are coming, and I have some other projects. This is the beginning of a new phase for me as an artist, which I’m excited about. T Bone was really encouraging in terms of going there.

What did T Bone bring out in you, or challenge, that other producers could not?

It was more that I was ready. A lot of the things that work for me in creative situations are having a relationship that exists before we even work on something. Us meeting back in 2013, and then having those conversations and connecting, just having dinner, just being people together without having a project or a label or anything like that in place to do a project -- we actually get down to working. There’s a trust and a shared experience there. That goes for my band and everybody that I’ve worked with and any major collaboration.

But also, me now doing the Late Show and doing the things I’ve been doing, I’d almost gotten away from the rawness of my artistry. It was really important for me to get back to that, to get back to what I was doing when I was a kid, being inspired by the heroes that came before but also just taking that stuff and reimagining it and doing my own thing with it and just being in the lab, trying to find that pure expression.

Those moments are special as an artist, when you get back to that place and you always want to have the right people around you. He was just the right person, and I was in the moment at the time in 2015. I was ready for something that was more stripped down and back to basics, almost as a reaction to the lights and the cameras and the action and the red carpets I’d been dealing with.