Jon Batiste: “Music is life to me”

John Dickerson interviews Jon Batiste

When musician Jon Batiste was asked to reimagine The Battle Hymn of The Republic for the launch of a new podcast from The Atlantic Magazine, he had a sense of what he wanted to preserve about the original song – and what he wanted to add to it.

"You think about that kind of march tempo," said Batiste in an interview with Face the Nation moderator John Dickerson that will air Sunday. "I wanted to keep that because I think that's so poignant…the idea of it being a song during war time and a song where you are marching and singing, or you're in a group of people, and it's a victory song."

"But thinking about different marches, you've got the New Orleans second-line march with the bamboula rhythm," Batiste added. "So, I took the concept of the march intentionally but filtered it through a few other experiences."

Jon Batiste's joy

"The 'Battle Hymn' is a song about ending slavery," Dickerson followed up. "As an African-American reinterpreting this, was that always in the background? In the front ground? How did it affect you?"

"It's in the foreground as in everything in American culture," said Batiste. "Race. You have to face race. If you don't face race, you're not going to fix the problems. If you don't face what we've been through, in terms of race relations, then you're missing the point. The point is for us to figure out how to exist together. And, if you ignore that or say that it's not there, then you'll never actually reach the goal of coexisting."

"And me personally, I've experienced the power of two different types of cultures or two different worldviews coming together and not agreeing or coexisting," Batiste continued. "So, I wanted to definitely put that in the foreground of the arrangement of the 'Battle Hymn.' And you hear that. Those elements blending together. And I think it's beautiful."

Batiste is perhaps best known as the bandleader of Stay Human, the in-house band for The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. He was asked to rework The Battle Hymn of the Republic to accompany the Atlantic magazine's launch of a new podcast, Atlantic Radio.

In our interview with him, Batiste discussed at length how music has shaped his life and given purpose to his work. "Music is life to me," he said at one point. "I'm at my best...when I most authentically come through the instrument. Thelonious Monk says, 'The genius is the one who's most like himself.'"

"There's nothing new under the sun," Batiste explained later. "So, if you think about music in that way, you're just combining these elements of your life experience, your experience and the experience of others. Chopin. You know? Taking his experiences. And the thing that makes it unique is no one has ever lived your life, my life. We have our own unique perspective on the elements of music that were here since the beginning."

For more of our interview with Batiste, tune into Face the Nation this Sunday. Click here to check your local listings for airtimes.