Jon Batiste on the healing power of music and love
When this year's Grammy nominations were announced, Jon Batiste heard his name 11 times – the most of any artist this year. Eight nominations were for his album "We Are," and three for his work on the soundtrack of the movie "Soul."
Correspondent Jim Axelrod said, "They just kept calling your name."
"I was really floored every single time," Batiste said.
"We Are" demonstrates this extraordinary range, from his funky New Orleans roots, heard on the track "Freedom," that dare you not to dance:
… to the classical-jazz hybrid "Movement 11."
Axelrod asked, "You said, 'God gave us 12 notes.' What did you do with those 12 notes on these two albums that is responsible for such acclaim?"
"I've always thought that you have a sound, and sound represents something," Batiste said. "The music is always speaking to you. If you're listening, it's telling you what to do. Not, 'What did I do with it?' It's, 'What did it tell me to do?'"
Best-known for his day job, the bandleader on "The Late Show with Stephen Colbert," Batiste is no one's wingman now. This is his moment. "What a year!" said Axelrod.
"Yes indeed! Amen!"
But if you're thinking things couldn't be any better for Batiste, don't. "One thing that I've learned from this time is, it can all go away," he said. "Things can change very quickly. From one day to the next, your world can be turned upside-down."
Eight days before the nominations, on the eve of his 35th birthday, the love of his life, author Suleika Jaouad, got sucker-punched.
"Sunday Morning" first met Jaouad last year as she was launching her bestseller "Between Two Kingdoms," a wise and moving meditation on healing from the leukemia that interrupted her life in her 20s.
In February 2021 Axelrod asked Jaouad, "Are you healed?"
"To say that I'm healed, would be to imply that there's an endpoint," she replied.
How prophetic that turned out to be.
Asked today how she is, Jaouad said, "A lot has changed in a year. Not only was my leukemia back, but it was far more aggressive than it had been a decade ago."
The biggest day of Batiste's professional life last fall was Jaouad's first day of chemo in her second battle with cancer.
"We're sitting in this chemo suite together," she said, "and these phone calls of congratulation are coming in. And we're having to hold these two realities."
Their world was shaking, but Batiste and Jaouad were determined to find their balance.
"It's holding the absolutely, you know, gutting, heartbreaking, painful things and the beautiful, soulful things in the same palm of one hand," said Jaouad. "And it's hard to do that, but you have to do that, because otherwise the grief takes over."
Which brings us to this past February, and their idea of how to best meet their harrowing reality.
"We are married," Jaouad laughed. "We've been secret married until this moment. We had this tiny, beautiful, little ceremony. We didn't have wedding bands; we used bread ties."
WEB EXCLUSIVE: Jon Batiste and Suleika Jaouad on their secret wedding
Together for eight years, the night before her bone marrow transplant struck them as the perfect time to make it official.
Batiste said, "OK, this has happened, but this isn't gonna interrupt the plan that we have. This is just a bump in the road."
"And something like getting married can be an act of optimism, an act of declaration, an act of, 'We have a future,'" said Axelrod.
"Yes. It's an act of defiance. The darkness will try to overtake you, but just turn on the light. Focus on the light. Hold onto the light."
WEB EXCLUSIVE: Suleika Jaouad on the importance of a bone marrow registry
But married or not, Omicron meant Batiste couldn't stay with Jaouad after the transplant. She was alone, with only her fear to keep her company.
She said, "The quiet moments of, kind of hollow suffering in the hospital where you suddenly sit with yourself and you sit with what's happening to you – "
"Utter isolation. And I expressed something to that effect to Jon. And next thing I know, I see him hunched over his computer. And half an hour later, he starts playing this lullaby. And every single day after that, he wrote me a new lullaby. And it felt like he was right there sleeping by my bedside."
Batiste said, "They had a healing property to the music."
"That you wrote just for her, to provide support and strength?" asked Axelrod.
"Yes, absolutely. And to fill the room with these healing properties. For me, that's my way. Everybody will have their way, you know, but seek that. Meditate on that. Focus on those things. Find those things."
They are now both finding those things – confronting the worst by relying on their best.
"Finding some form of creative expression to express what feels impossible to express, to express the unendurable, has been so important," said Jaouad.
Her focus is on the serious (painting self-portraits depicting her treatment), and the whimsical (bedazzling the walker she now uses at the age of 33). "So now, instead of looking at this walker and feeling a sense of dread, it kinda makes me happy," she said.
As for Batiste, next month at Carnegie Hall he debuts "American Symphony," his work reflecting the tension between America's ideals and its realities – our bright day, and dark, dark night.
"The night, it evokes a chant-like quality," he said, followed by the day, "that sense of triumph, triumph over adversity."
A theme that captures the full sweep of Jon Batiste's and Suleika Jaouad's lives right now, that rotation between triumph and adversity.
"And that's what you're living right now," said Axelrod, "the brightness of this professional, all of these achievements, and the darkness of the struggle?"
"Yeah," said Batiste. "That's life, man. That's it. Strap in!"
UPDATE: Jon Batiste won the most Grammy Awards Sunday night, bringing home five trophies, including album of the year, for "We Are" (topping fellow nominees Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga, Justine Bieber, Doja Cat, Billie Eilish, H.E.R., Lil Nas X, Olivia Rodrigo, Taylor Swift and Kanye West). He also won for best American roots performance and best American roots song (for "Cry"); best music video (for "Freedom"); and best score soundtrack for visual media (for the Pixar film "Soul").
READ AN EXCERPT: "Between Two Kingdoms" by Suleika Jaouad
You can stream Jon Batiste's album "We Are" by clicking on the embed below (Free Spotify registration required to hear the tracks in full):
For more info:
- "We Are" by Jon Batiste (Verve Records)
- "American Symphony" by Jon Batiste, premiering May 7 at Carnegie Hall, New York
- Follow Jon Batiste on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and YouTube
- "Between Two Kingdoms: A Memoir of a Life Interrupted" by Suleika Jaouad (Random House), in Hardcover, Trade Paperback, eBook and Audio formats, available via Amazon and Indiebound
- Suleika Jaouad's "Life, Interrupted" columns in The New York Times
- Follow Suleika Jaouad on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram
Story produced by Jay Kernis. Editor: Mike Levine.
Watch the 64th Annual Grammy Awards live on CBS and Paramount+ Sunday, April 3 beginning at 8 p.m. ET./5 p.m. PT.
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