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In 'Soul,' Jon Batiste's Music Helps Bring Pixar's First Black Lead To Life

Dec 25, 2020
Originally published on December 29, 2020 10:40 am

Pixar's new animated film Soul is the story of Joe Gardner, a middle school school music teacher with big dreams about performing jazz onstage. "Music is all I think about, from the moment I wake up in the morning to the moment I fall asleep at night," he says. "I was born to play."

"Born to Play" is the name of one of the movie's many songs composed, arranged and performed by real-life musician, Jon Batiste. He was one of several of the animated film's musical consultants, who also included Herbie Hancock, Daveed Diggs and Questlove.

"I love Joe because he has this vision for his life and this thing that makes him feel alive," Batiste says from his home outside New York City.

Soul's main character, Joe Gardner, was voiced by actor Jamie Foxx. But it's Batiste's fingers playing the piano that were animated for the film. "Oh my goodness, my way of playing, my hands: they're an exact replica in the kind of 3D animation. You'll see if you watch the film and then see me playing, it's kind of crazy," says Batiste. "I was almost in tears, because you see your essence and you think: Wow, this is the first Black Pixar lead and we're putting jazz culture out there in this massive way."

Jon Batiste rehearses at The New School on Jan. 25, 2018, in New York City.
Dave Kotinsky / Getty Images for NARAS

Playwright Kemp Powers, who co-directed and co-wrote Soul, says it also helps that Batiste has, "long, lanky fingers that really lend themselves to a dynamic look" when animated.

Powers says Batiste acted as a jazz ambassador for the film.

"One of the first things he said to us was that he sees jazz as the newest form of music that there is because you're literally making it up in the moment," says Powers. He says Batiste pulled together the session musicians for a scene in the jazz club, matching up a real-life saxophonist who was a Black woman, a bass player who was an Asian woman, a drummer who was a younger Black man, with Batiste on the piano.

Powers says the film included a lot of Batiste's ideas about jazz. "When Joe is speaking to his class and he tells a story about the first time that he ever heard a jazz musician play, that's almost verbatim a story that that Jon told us."

In Soul, a middle-school band teacher makes one small misstep and ends up in The Great Before, a fantastical place where new souls get their personalities, quirks and interests before they go to Earth.
Pixar

In the film, Joe Gardner reminisces about seeing a jazz musician improvising. "The next thing I know he floats off the stage. That guy was lost in the music and he took the rest of us with him."

Batiste calls that "getting in the zone."

"It's just transcendent," he says. "It's almost as if everything that's happening is aligned with the greater force controlling the universe. And God is just pulling the puppet strings, and the audience is in the same space, on the same frequency. That's why we play. And I think that there's something about that that is the closest to utopia that we'll get to."

Jon Batiste performs during the National CARES Mentoring Movement's 2nd Annual for the Love of Our Children Gala at Cipriani 42nd Street on Jan. 30, 2017 in New York City.
Bennett Raglin / Getty Images for for National CARES Mentoring Movement

Batiste has been in the zone since before he was born. He comes from a long line of New Orleans musicians, including his father, Michael, a bassist who performed with Jackie Wilson and Isaac Hayes on the "Chitlin' Circuit" in the '60s and '70s. His dad also co-founded the Batiste Brothers Band: seven brothers who played R&B, soul, funk and New Orleans music. He says his father was his first mentor, as was Alvin Batiste, the late clarinetist, "who taught everyone from New Orleans music over the last 40 years." Add to that lineage "Uncle" Lionel Batiste from the Treme Brass Band, Milton Batiste from the Olympia Brass Band and his cousin Russell Batiste, Jr., who played with the Funky Meters.

YouTube

"Wow, I mean, there are at least 30 of the Batiste relatives that are cousins of mine or my uncles," he says. "It's a rich family tradition, I'll say."

Batiste actually grew up just outside New Orleans, in Kenner, La. As a youngster, he played drums with the family band. At 11, he began playing the piano and by 13, he was playing professionally, with his friend Troy "Trombone Shorty" Andrews. He remembers them playing with the Rebirth Brass Band and sneaking into clubs to perform. After high school, Batiste studied music at Juilliard. Shortly after he earned his undergraduate and master's degrees in piano at Juilliard, he performed on The Colbert Report. Then Stephen Colbert asked him to be the house band for The Late Show.

Besides leading his band Stay Human on the show, Batiste is also featured in comical video segments. The chemistry and admiration between Colbert and Batiste is frequently on display. "I'm proud to work with you," Colbert told him on the show in June, just after Batiste led a peaceful and musical Black Lives Matter march through the streets of New York City. Thousands of people followed him like a pied piper, protesting police brutality with music and dancing.

YouTube

"People reached out to me saying that really just gave me hope," Batiste says.

Batiste continued themes of Black empowerment in his new album "We Are," which comes out in March 2021. His new single from that album features his voice and those of his young nephews, and all 100 musicians of the Marching 100 from his alma mater, St. Augustine High School. Also the New Orleans Gospel Soul Children choir, and his grandfather, an elder at Union Bethel AME Church.

"My grandfather, David Gauthier is preaching on the record," says Batiste." He was the president of the Louisiana Postal Workers Union and led protest and organized around the sanitation strike with Martin Luther King, Jr. There's just so much in the track that I felt like even if people don't know the back story, they're going to feel the vibrations in it."

YouTube

Batiste has many more projects up his sleeve. He's up for two Grammy awards, and right now he's proud to present Soul, a film he says has many lessons about finding life's spark. He says one's purpose isn't to be famous or have money. "It's found in the things that make us all unique and [there's] never going to be another person like you in the world, ever," he says. "You're the only one. You're one of a kind. And that's beautiful."

Nina Gregory edited this story.

: 12/28/20

A previous version of this story misspelled Juilliard as Julliard.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Pixar's new animated film "Soul" begins streaming today on Disney+. It's the story of Joe Gardner, voiced by actor Jamie Foxx. He's a middle school music teacher who dreams of performing jazz on stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SOUL")

JAMIE FOXX: (As Joe Gardner) Music is all I think about from the moment I wake up in the morning to the moment I fall asleep at night. I was born to play.

GREENE: Much of the music in the film is by the very real-life jazz musician Jon Batiste. As NPR's Mandalit del Barco reports, he was also an inspiration for the animators.

JON BATISTE: Woo (ph). Hello.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: I reached Jon Batiste at his home outside New York City, where, as always, he was listening to music. He talked about Joe Gardner, the animated star of "Soul."

BATISTE: I love Joe because he has this vision for his life and this thing that makes him feel alive.

DEL BARCO: Like Joe, Batiste was born to play the piano. In fact, "Born To Play" is the name of one of the songs he wrote for "Soul."

(SOUNDBITE OF JON BATISTE'S "BORN TO PLAY")

DEL BARCO: Batiste not only put his own soul into creating the movie's music, but also, those are his fingers playing the piano as Joe Gardner.

BATISTE: Oh, my goodness. My way of playing, my hands - they're exact replica in the 3D kind of animation, the way that he kind of moves his body. You'll see. If you watch the film and then see me playing, it's kind of crazy. I was almost in tears because you see your essence, and you think, wow, this is the first Black Pixar lead. And we're putting jazz culture out there in this massive way in the essence of this main character.

KEMP POWERS: It also helps that Jon has these long, lanky fingers that really lend themselves to, like, a dynamic look when it's fully animated.

DEL BARCO: Playwright Kemp Powers co-directed and co-wrote "Soul." He says Batiste was a jazz ambassador for the film.

POWERS: One of the first things he said to us was that he sees jazz as literally the newest form of music there is because you're literally making it up in the moment.

DEL BARCO: Powers says Batiste pulled together the session musicians for a scene in the jazz club, and Powers says the film included a lot of Batiste's ideas about jazz.

POWERS: When Joe is speaking to his class and he tells a story about the first time he ever heard, like, a jazz musician play, that's almost verbatim a story that Jon told us.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SOUL")

FOXX: (As Joe Gardner) I see this guy, and he's playing these chords with force on it. And then with the minor - woo (ph). Then he adds the inner voices, and it's like he's singing. That's when the next thing I know, it's like he floats off the stage. That guy was lost in the music. He was in it, and he took the rest of us with him.

BATISTE: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah (laughter). That's called getting in the zone. It's just transcendent. It's almost as if everything that's happening is aligned with the greater force that is controlling the universe and God is just pulling the puppet strings. And the audience is just in tune, and everybody is in the same space on the same frequency. That's why we play. And I think there's something about that that is the closest to Utopia that we'll get to.

DEL BARCO: Batiste has been in the zone since before he was born. He comes from a long line of New Orleans musicians, including his father Michael, a bassist who performed with Jackie Wilson and Isaac Hayes in the '60s and '70s. His dad also co-founded the Batiste Brothers Band.

BATISTE: Seven brothers - that was the family band. They played R&B, soul, funk, New Orleans music. But then my first mentor in jazz was the great Alvin Batiste, the late clarinetist who taught everyone from New Orleans music over the last 40 years. And then Lionel Batiste and Milton Batiste, the Olympia Brass Band, which is, like, second line marching band music, and, you know, my cousin Russell Batiste, who played with the Funky Meters - wow. I mean, there there are at least 30 of the Batiste relatives that are cousins of mine, my uncles, second cousins. It's a rich family tradition, I'll say.

DEL BARCO: Batiste actually grew up just outside New Orleans in Kenner, La. As a youngster, he played drums with the family band. At 11, he began playing the piano, and by 13, he was playing professionally with his friend Troy Andrews, Trombone Shorty.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEL BARCO: After high school, Batiste studied music at Juilliard. Shortly after he graduated, he performed on "The Colbert Report." Then Stephen Colbert asked him to be the house band for "The Late Show."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE LATE SHOW WITH STEPHEN COLBERT")

STEPHEN COLBERT: Jon.

BATISTE: Hello. What's happening?

DEL BARCO: Besides leading his band Stay Human on the show, the 34-year-old Batiste is also featured in comical video segments. The chemistry and admiration between Colbert and Batiste is on frequent display.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE LATE SHOW WITH STEPHEN COLBERT")

COLBERT: I'm proud to work with you.

BATISTE: Oh, man, likewise.

DEL BARCO: That's a clip from the show in June, just after Batiste led a peaceful and musical Black Lives Matter march through the streets of New York City. Thousands of people followed him like a Pied Piper to protest police brutality.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BATISTE: Black lives matter.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Black lives matter.

BATISTE: People reached out to me, saying, that really just gave me hope to go through the next few months because seeing you out there and using your voice and your music to really give voice to all the things that we're feeling - we needed somebody to be out there doing that.

DEL BARCO: Batiste continues themes of Black empowerment in his new album "We Are," which comes out in March. The first single features his voice, those of his young nephews and all 100 musicians of the Marching 100 from his alma mater, St. Augustine High School...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE ARE")

BATISTE: (Singing) We are never alone.

DEL BARCO: ...Also the New Orleans Gospel Soul Children's Choir and his grandfather, an elder at the Union Bethel AME Church.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE ARE")

DAVID GAUTIER: This is in our soul. We need that inner peace.

BATISTE: My grandfather David Gautier is preaching on the record. He was the president of the Louisiana Postal Workers Union and led protests and organized around the sanitation strike with Martin Luther King Jr. There's just so much in the track that I felt like even if people don't know the backstory, they're going to feel the vibrations in it.

DEL BARCO: Batiste has a lot more projects up his sleeve. He's up for two Grammys, and right now he's proud to present "Soul." The film, he says, has many lessons about finding your spark.

BATISTE: You know, purpose isn't about being famous or having money or being this celebrated person. It's found in the things that make us all unique, and there's never going to be another person like you in the world ever. You're the only one. You're one of a kind, and that's beautiful.

DEL BARCO: That's Jon Batiste, who - spoiler alert - can also be heard singing during the end credits of "Soul." Mandalit del Barco, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IT'S ALL RIGHT")

BATISTE: (Singing) 'Cause you've got soul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.