July 13, 2024

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Jon Batiste found Jazz through an unlikely source: Video, Photos

The Oscar winner and Stephen Colbert’s bandleader started by transcribing ‘Mega Man’ and ‘Street Fighter’ themes by ear. Jon Batiste, 34, is the music director and bandleader on TV’s “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert.” He recently won an Oscar for co-composing the score for the Pixar-animated film “Soul.” His latest album is “We Are” (Verve). He spoke with Marc Myers.

A few days after my family took possession of a German shepherd at a local corner store, the dog was killed by a car after running into the street. I was 9. We hadn’t even named it yet.

Seeing that happen was formative in terms of developing my empathy. I was crushed. My connection with dogs was over. For the longest time, I didn’t want that bond to happen again.

I grew up in several homes around New Orleans. My family’s house was in Kenner. We had a huge magnolia tree in the front yard. It provided shade and left all these beautiful petals on the lawn. Their smell was sweet and intoxicating. I’d climb the tree to see how high I could jump from a limb without hurting myself.

I also spent time in the Hollygrove home of my grandmother on my mother’s side. And in the summers, I stayed over at the house of my father’s father, Jean, in Bunche Village. He owned a hardware store.

Jon Batiste at age 5.

At his house, I played videogames with my cousins, Jamal and Travis. Before long, we were transcribing the music on the soundtracks. We started with “Mega Man” and “Street Fighter.”

The latter game was really interesting. Each character was from a different part of the world and had a different theme song influenced by the culture of that country.

At the time, I didn’t have the musical vocabulary to know what I was doing. Everyone I knew played by ear, so we’d listen to a game’s music and go into the next room and play the songs on instruments. That’s how we started a junior family band—the Batiste Kids. I was 10 and played piano and sang. Travis was on bass, and Jamal was on drums. Our repertoire was largely videogame music.

Many of my relatives were famous New Orleans musicians, including Lionel Batiste in the Treme Brass Band, Milton in the Olympia Brass Band, and Harold, who had composed and arranged for Sam Cooke, Sonny & Cher and Dr. John.

My father, Michael, was a contractor. He wasn’t strict. Then again, I wasn’t someone who needed a lot of disciplining. I had a rich internal world and was always in it.

Dad was my first musical mentor. He’d turn me on to records and we’d critique the music together.

When my older sister, Kaleana, and I were little, my mother, Katherine, fed us activities. She did a lot of reading and found programs to enroll us in. They’d range from art to sports. Kaleana and I were precocious. I was a quiet kid who was always thinking and observing.

Jon Batiste in 2021.

My sister was like a second mother, making sure I had my homework assignments or questioning who I was hanging out with. She looked out for me.

By the time I was 12, I was playing piano professionally at night. But in school, instead of aiming to be a musician, I looked to do other things. I was a point guard on our state-championship basketball team and on an Amateur Athletic Union team.

I was playing with elite athletes on their way to the NBA. For two years, I kept pace. But by the time I was 16, the guys who were going to make it were already 6-foot-5.

In high school, the work was kind of easy for me. I had a great memory, so when I paid attention I didn’t have to think about the work until I was back in the class again.

I graduated a year early, when I was 17, and was accepted at New York’s Juilliard School in 2004. Juilliard was a struggle in terms of what I was bringing to the table versus what they were used to. From my perspective, I was at Juilliard so I could go out on the road and develop in the real world.

Jon Batiste with his pet, a blind hound-Labrador mix named Loulou, in March.

My band, Stay Human, and I started playing clubs in the city. After we recorded and released “Live in New York: At the Rubin Museum of Art” in 2006, I realized that music was what I truly wanted to do.

Today, my partner, Suleika, and I have been renovating a 19th-century brownstone in Brooklyn. So we’ve spent much of the pandemic north of New York in a house built in 1834.

Recently, we acquired a blind hound-Labrador mix named Loulou. Watching her navigate the house based solely on smell and memory is fascinating. When she wants to be close to you, she makes these sounds. I’m starting to pick up on them and I respond. My dog bond is back.

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