In early June, Jon Batiste, the jazz pianist and bandleader for the Late Show With Stephen Colbert, posted an open invitation on Instagram for New Yorkers to join him at a music-led protest march. Scores of musicians, professionals and amateurs alike, showed up Union Square on June 6th and followed Batiste as he led a procession along 10th Avenue. Cued by Batiste, the members played a mix of jazz, spiritual and R&B pieces such as “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” “Down By The Riverside,” “Caravan,” and Aretha Franklin’s “Respect.”
“Jon was leading all the music,” said Grace Kelly, a 28-year-old professional saxophonist and composer who used to play with Batiste. “He picked such great songs.”
By her estimates, there were as many as 50 brass musicians, 10 of which were tuba players, and 30 drummers. Added to that were sax and harmonica players, guitarists and singers. Those who couldn't sing, clapped or jumped in and danced.
The event would be one of series that Batiste would organize during New York City's protests calling for racial justice after the death of George Floyd. On June 12th, he performed at a piano with other musicians in front of the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. At the opening, he was asked jokingly why he was starting on time.
"Because we don't got no more time left. We've got to do something," he responded. He then launched into his exuberant version of "The Star-Spangled Banner," all the while wearing a mask and gloves.
Shortly after that, he gave another performance with the young pianist Matthew Whitaker in front of the steps of Brooklyn Public Library, where the two delivered a soulful and poignant rendition of "Amazing Grace" that included Batiste singing and the crowd humming and clapping along at one point.
The concerts and the response to them underscored the long-held idea that music is a compelling form of activism. In New York City, it has been expressed through a lone trumpeter playing Bob Dylan's "Blowin In The Wind" outside of Gracie Mansion to Brooklyn protesters chanting the lyrics of Ludacris' "Move Bitch" before a blockade of NYPD officers and Tupac's "Changes" playing through speakers.
Gothamist recently discussed the role of music in protests with Batiste, who has long reflected on musical traditions and history. In a lengthy and wide-ranging Zoom interview, the Julliard-trained artist spoke about his family's activist roots in New Orleans, getting scores of amateur musicians to play in unison, and using his platform to amplify the Black Lives Matter message and register to vote.
How did you come up with this whole idea of "I want to bring musicians out into the street to be part of this protest movement"?
Subliminally speaking, I think from my grandfather, who was an activist. From the time I was younger, he would always do things to let us know about our history. He would show us pictures and he would read to us different speeches or different things that would give us an understanding of consciousness and understanding of what his generation and he, in particular, had to go through in order to have certain liberties and freedoms that we could easily have taken for granted or expected was just the way that things were, at an age before we knew any better.
Even back to when he was a teenager, he was protesting, and he was the president of the U.S. Postal Workers union, and also the Hotel Workers Union. And this is around the time of the Memphis sanitation strike that infamously was part of what led to the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. So this was something not only in Louisiana, but across the country that he was participating in, and it was a real fervor of people wanting their freedom and wanting to have the same rights as everyone else. So having that in my lineage and having someone who participated in that and passing it to me was something that, you know, I think that coupled with my musical upbringing.
How did you know that it wasn't going to sound like mishmash, but instead this real coherent band that you could kind of direct?
Well, these are things that you learn from experience, you know, having done this sort of march with [my band] Stay Human and also just leading a lot of these types of things over the years. Not anything, particularly like a march of, you know, 1,000 musicians, but just a similar sort of communal collaboration. I learned how to marshal troops, so to speak. And there's little tricks of the trade that I know.
What are some of the tricks that you use to get everybody on the same page?
Well, I like to give pep talks to a lot of the musicians and all of the people who are protesting along with us to kind of get everybody in the same spirit and in the same mindset because I do believe that everyone is in one accord operating from the same place from their heart and their mind. A lot of things take care of themselves because human beings have this ability to problem solve, and come up with ways to support each other, when everybody is marshaling behind the same cause. So I feel like part of my role, when we first get there is to just get everybody focused on why we're there. Which is why you see me with the bullhorn. And then some other tricks of the trade are musical things, just knowing how to balance out ensembles. Knowing that you have to put the tubers next to the drum sets, knowing that you have to put the folks who are kind of the core of the musical output in the center, so that they can set the tone musically and then that reverberates across different musicians joining in.
I always have to be at the front to guide the crowd because it's a big crowd and it gathers more people. And if we don't know where we're going, that can be disastrous.
Can you talk about the song choices?
Oh, yes. There's always been music tied to movements. And I find that it's really been the soundtrack to all of the great movements of our time. So I wanted to choose songs from across the spectrum of movements in support of black liberty and black solidarity. So "Lift Every Voice And Sing" and "Don't Let Nobody Turn Me Around." But then also going into 60s and 70s and 80s black music, popular music, R&B soul, like The Gap Band's "Outstanding" and "Empire State of Mind" by Alicia Keys and Jay-Z. And [Whitney Houston's] "I Want To Dance With Somebody." There was a great moment where we played that song and the rain started coming down. Everybody was singing in unison. Some of the original music were these humanist chants that I've written, you know, like, "I feel good, I feel free, I feel fine just being me. I feel good today."
We also played songs by the great Duke Ellington.
Is there any one song in your mind that has kind of typified this movement in particular?
I think that "Lift Every Voice and Sing" is probably the one because there's been so much tied to it. There's been so much that has been created around it. It's, it's a really powerful song that I think still has a lot of work to do.
After the procession, you did concerts. Can you talk about why you decided to transition to, "Let me just sit and play in front of a piano at the Barclays Center"?
Well, because I think that when you're talking about a processional, there's something that happens when people are moving that is almost forceful. It calls attention to what's going on the streets: there's talking, there's horns blaring, there's people shouting and chanting. And there's all types of different expression that calls attention to an issue. And our issue, I think, was also something that we needed to have a bit of reflection about as well. And I think a concert or recital is really what we presented.
Music transforms you, as you meditate on the performance, and as you show appreciation in between the songs. As the songs are going, there's this transformation that's happening within. If you go to a Beethoven recital, or any sort of musical recital of any kind of music, there's something that happens. I was just talking to a friend of mine who had the pleasure of seeing Yo-Yo Ma play all of the Bach cello suites in a cathedral. Yo-Yo is a friend of mine, we've played together, and he's one of the most amazing cellists in the world. The experience of hearing him play that in a cathedral is transformational.
What do you have planned next?
Wow, I mean, there's so much that needs to be done. It's always about what service can we give to the people in our community and then across the nation, as somebody with a platform that speaks to a lot of people in their living rooms. And I think going to different places across the country is something I really want to explore. There's so many options of how we can do that. We've been talking to different organizations and collaborating with different voter organizations to push people to go to the polls, and talking about how we can collaborate going into different places around the election and beyond. Just trying to figure out how we can continue to spread a message in a time where division seems to be the order of the day, a message of unification and humanity, through concerts, different forms of communal activities, through education. There's an endless amount of things that we can do. So now it's really just again about narrowing it down to focus on the moment and not getting beyond the moment, and just letting the spirit speak to me to to push in the right direction.
Did music change the tenor of the protests, which, in the beginning, seemed so painful and angry?
For me, adding music to the movement is something that gives people hope. It gives you a perspective to be able to step outside all of what's happening and see that an even bigger picture—that we're all human, we're all in this together and if it all falls down, then it's not good for anyone. It [becomes] hard to hate or to feel inadequate or to feel that you're not capable of pushing past a moment or surviving past a moment without resorting to violence. It's hard to feel all those things when you're singing and dancing and chanting with the people standing next to you arm-in-arm. You know, not in the corona time but just in general, arm-in-arm symbolically speaking. It's hard to feel those negative emotions, which I feel lowers your vibration and ultimately doesn't lead to constructive solutions.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.