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'Fresh Air' Favorites: Bandleader Jon Batiste

This week, we're listening back to some favorite Fresh Air interviews from the past decade. The bandleader for The Late Show with Stephen Colbert let loose at the piano during this 2018 interview.

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Other segments from the episode on January 1, 2020

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, January 1, 2010: In-studio performances with: The Carolina Chocolate Drops, Catherine Russell; and Jon Batiste.

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Happy New Year, and happy new decade. Today we continue our end of the decade series, featuring staff picks from the 2010s or whatever we call that decade. Today, some of our favorite studio concerts that we recorded over the last 10 years.

First up is the Carolina Chocolate Drops, a group that follows in the tradition of Black string bands from the 1920s and '30s. They all play a variety of instruments, including fiddle, guitar, banjo and bones. We recorded this interview in 2010 when the Chocolate Drops consisted of Don Flemons, Justin Robinson and Rhiannon Giddens. Only Giddens is still with the Chocolate Drops, and all three have gone on to have solo careers. We started the concert with them performing "Your Baby Ain't Sweet Like Mine."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

CAROLINA CHOCOLATE DROPS: (Singing) Everybody talking about the sweet nowadays. I got the one with the sweetest ways. Your baby may roll a jelly fine. Nobody's baby can roll it like mine. Your baby ain't sweet like mine. She bake a jelly roll all the time. And when I'm feeling lonesome and blue, my baby know just what to do. Yes, she does.

She even call me honey. She even let me spend my money. Never has a baby put me out though. She even buys me all my clothes. I don't want to brag; just want to put you in line, your baby ain't sweet like mine, no, no. Your baby ain't sweet like mine. Oh, play that horn. Oh, play like you just don't like it. Yeah mine, you look very good. Blow on that jug.

Your baby ain't sweet like mine. She bake a jelly roll all the time. And when I'm feeling lonesome and blue, my baby know just what to do, yes, sir. She even call me honey. She even let me spend the money. Never had a baby put me out of though. She even buys me all my clothes. I don't want to brag; just want to put you in line, your baby ain't sweet like mine, no, no. Your baby ain't sweet like mine, yeah, yeah. Your baby ain't sweet like mine.

CAROLINA CHOCOLATE DROPS: (Laughter) Fantastic. That's the Carolina Chocolate Drops. Who chose that song, and why?

DOM FLEMONS: Oh, that was a song that I chose. That was a piece that was originally recorded by a fellow named Papa Charlie Jackson, who was a six-string banjo player out of New Orleans. And I just really liked the number. And a lot of his numbers aren't performed anymore, so that was one that I've kept in my repertoire for quite a while.

GROSS: String bands are usually considered a white Southern tradition, and you're a band of African American musicians. And you've found a black string band tradition that you feel part of, but did you fall in love with this music before you knew that there was a black string band tradition?

RHIANNON GIDDENS: Yep.

FLEMONS: Absolutely.

GIDDENS: Yeah.

GROSS: And did you fall in love with about it?

GIDDENS: Well, I fell in love with the rhythm. I was a contra-dancer and a square-dancer, and I just - I was seduced by the banjo, the rhythm of the claw-hammer banjo. That just really pulled me in. And then - then I found out about the history, and then I went, oh, this is really deep. And then it just - I was done. I was done for then, you know? It was - that was it.

GROSS: So discovering this music and falling in love with it without knowing there was an African American tradition, did you feel like maybe you weren't supposed to like it, you know, maybe you would never fit in with it, maybe there wouldn't be a place for you, where people would think you were odd to to gravitate toward the music?

FLEMONS: Well, definitely the odd thing. That's a definite just because there - any black person who's involved in a folk music scene anywhere knows that they're - it's either they've been just the one of them or maybe someone else. And I think that's how I was in Phoenix. I was the only black person, but I was also the only person that was under, like, 40...

GROSS: (Laughter).

FLEMONS: ...In the scene in Phoenix that I was in. But I just kind of plowed on myself, and I know Justin had a really similar story.

JUSTIN ROBINSON: Yeah, I - oh, lord, I just forgot the question.

(LAUGHTER)

FLEMONS: Weird - being a weird black person.

ROBINSON: Oh. Oh, yeah. Yeah, that's it, being a weird black person.

GIDDENS: We're all really familiar with being a weird black person.

ROBINSON: Yeah. I mean, guess for me, it was sort of - I didn't have the same thing with the age thing because there were certainly lots of people - when I started playing in Chapel Hill, there were certainly lots of people around my age doing it. But I certainly was the only black person at the time doing it. But that was not going to stop me. I mean, I think it's characteristic of all of us is that we were sort of misfits, you might want - you might say - in our own right when we grew up. So doing something just because it wasn't cool or because you weren't supposed to, we're certainly not any stranger to that.

GIDDENS: Yeah, I was sort of used to it because I was - after I graduated from college, I really got into, like, Scottish music. So I was always getting, you know, so, you know, how come you're playing this kind of music, you know? And so I was just kind of used to that. So it didn't really - I just kind of just kept on going just like Justin was saying.

GROSS: How come you were playing that kind of music?

GIDDENS: Oh, I just liked it.

GROSS: Mmm hmm. Mmm hmm.

GIDDENS: Yeah. I mean, there's really nothing more to it than that.

GROSS: Well, you were already used to not being cool, too, because, I mean, you sang opera before doing...

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: That's a pretty quick way to not be cool, yeah,

GIDDENS: Yeah, it's true. That's true.

GROSS: Part of the tricky aspect of string band music is that part of its roots are in minstrel shows, part of its roots are in blackface. And so it gets really kind of complicated when you go back to the early history of that music. So I wonder how - what it was - what it's been like for you to negotiate that aspect of the music and to deal with separating the music itself from some of the stereotypes that were foisted on the musicians who played.

FLEMONS: I think something that we have that as a new generation of player in the old-time music is that we are educated, and we're approaching the music at a emotional distance that just has not been there in earlier generations.

Before, you'd look back at those aspects of history, and people just would say, don't touch that. That's the worst stuff in the world, and that's what's ruining the world. And now in this generation, we're able to actually start piecing those things apart just because, you know, we want to take the benefits and also try to make what's right or see what actually happened or what was misappropriated or what was good because the thing about a lot of the black string band music is not much of the music was put down on recording. And that's a very essential part of understanding black music is hearing it. And, you know, delving into it, you find some things that are off-putting. But at the same time, you got to think in the context of the past instead of thinking in the context of the present.

GIDDENS: And that's been - I think that's been something in the African American community that's been - it's not something that we've done very much of, is looking back, you know? It's really been a forward push for lots of different reasons. And as Dom was saying, I think we are one of the first generations who - I mean, there's still a lot of stuff that's, you know, needs to be fixed. And there's a lot of people that are still, you know, in bad situations. But I think as a whole, we're one of the first generations in the African American community that has been able to look back without personally being as touched by it.

You know, like our parents, they went through the civil rights movement. They - you know, they went through all of these things. And they're really personally wrapped up into a lot of this stuff, whereas we're of a generation where we can - we're getting it through - filtered through our parents and our grandparents and that we can step back and go, OK, so what can we glean from this, and what can we take from some of this really painful stuff that, you know, we might want to just kick under the rug? What can we take from it that it's the good stuff, you know?

A lot of our early African American history, you know, there's a lot of bad stuff in there. But, you know, there's a lot of good stuff, too. I mean, the minstrel shows and the stereotyping and that's all clearly very bad, but there's a lot of great music and dance. And there's a lot of black musicians and dancers who persevered through the stereotype and who were able to, you know, show their skill and their entertaining, and they were able to do that. And so what - we can take the good stuff from that now, I think, along with knowing that there was bad stuff.

GROSS: Now, Dom, among the instruments you play are four-string banjo, bones and jug. Do you actually use, like, animal bones? Or are they...

FLEMONS: Yeah. In one hand, I do have cow bones. And in my other hand, I carry wood bones. But that's just a - that's a sound thing.

GROSS: Get out the cow bones for us.

FLEMONS: All right. Cow bones are set. (Playing cow bones).

GROSS: Are cows like - do cows have the best bones for percussion?

FLEMONS: Well, they have big bones. And those are - that makes for the best - like, you know, you can't use the little ribs that you see in, you know, your, you know, the smaller pork ribs in the barbecue shack or anything. You have to have the big Texas Longhorn, like, bones.

And I haven't made any myself. I've been fortunate that people have given me different bones. And it's a pretty intense process. But I've heard different ways to do it. One fellow told me that you can put it next to an anthill and then throw it on the roof for a week.

GROSS: Oh, gosh. The anthill is so - to eat off the meat?

FLEMONS: Yeah. Yeah, because that's what - I mean, you got to remember when you got these, you got these gigantic bones that have all the meat and the fat on it. And you got to get all that off. And the two ways I've found is that, put it next to an anthill. And the other one is boil it in water for a couple of days. And I heard that that's an awful thing to have in a house.

And once you get the meat and stuff off it, then you have to - you either bake them in an oven and, like I said before, throw them on the roof or, you know, just dry them out. And once they're dry, you cut the bone down because at first, they're gigantic. You cut those bones down, and you sand them. And then you can put a lacquer on it or, you know, a lacquer or, you know, whatever you want to do after that to make them look nice.

GROSS: I'd like to ask you to perform another song, and the song is "Trouble In Your Mind." So before you play it for us, tell us why you chose it and what you love about the song.

FLEMONS: Well, this is one that Justin was playing that I reminded him one day at a jam that he played it. And it's a piece from an album called "Music From The Lost Provinces" put out by Old Hat Records. And it's just a nice breakdown, and we just started doing it.

GROSS: OK. Let's hear it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TROUBLE IN YOUR MIND")

CAROLINA CHOCOLATE DROPS: (Singing) I wished I had a nickel. I wished I had a dime. I wish I had me a pretty girl. You know I'd call her mine. Don't get in trouble in your mind. Don't get in trouble in your mind. Don't get in trouble in your mind. Don't get in trouble in your mind.

If you see that gal of mine, you tell her if you can, well, before she goes to make my bread to wash her nasty hands. Don't get in trouble in your mind. Don't get in trouble in your mind. Don't get in trouble in your mind. Don't get in trouble in your mind.

GROSS: That was the Carolina Chocolate Drops doing "Trouble In Your Mind" recorded in 2010 on FRESH AIR. If you enjoyed that, we also have solo performances and interviews with Dom Flemons and Rhiannon Giddens which you can find on our new FRESH AIR archive site. That's at freshairarchive.org.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Today we're listening back to some of our favorite live concerts from the past decade. Next, we have a performance by a singer who I consider one of the best jazz and blues singers around, Catherine Russell. A lot of the material she does dates back to the 1930s and '40s. Her father, Luis Russell, was a pianist, composer and arranger and worked as Louis Armstrong's music director in the mid-'40s. Her mother, Carline Ray, performed with the all-woman's band The International Sweethearts of Rhythm.

Catherine Russell came to our studio in 2012, when she released her album "Strictly Romancin'." She was accompanied by guitarist Matt Munisteri. They started with the song "Under The Spell Of The Blues," which was an early hit for Ella Fitzgerald when she was with the Chick Webb orchestra.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

CATHERINE RUSSELL: (Singing) I turn my head to the sky when you pass by, but I want to cry because my heart is under the spell of the blues. For I go around acting gay, say it's OK, pretending each day. But I'm alone and under the spell of the blues. Since we're apart, the dawn brings only heartache to me. You're gone. I'm like a lost ship at sea. In my misery, I'd say that I'm satisfied. No use to hide what goes on inside. It's true. My heart is under the spell of the blues. Since we're apart, the dawn brings only heartache to me. You're gone. I'm like a lost ship at sea. In my misery, I'd say that I'm satisfied. No use to hide what goes on inside. It's true. My heart is under the spell of the blues.

GROSS: That's fabulous. Thank you so much for performing that. That's Catherine Russell singing in our studio, accompanied by Matt Munisteri on guitar. Thank you so much. That's so - I love your voice so much. I love a lot of early jazz and pop. And one of the things I love about your work is that you love that music and you bring it to life in such a beautiful and committed way (laughter).

RUSSELL: Thank you very much (laughter).

GROSS: And you know the language of it. I mean, I think a lot of singers don't have the right rhythm when they sing old songs because they grew up with rock, and they just don't feel a jazz rhythm. But you grew up with jazz.

RUSSELL: I grew up with jazz, but I grew up with rock, too.

GROSS: Yeah.

RUSSELL: I grew up with blues. I grew up with classical. My mother had an old radio in the kitchen when I was growing up, and we used to listen to William B. Williams' "Make Believe Ballroom."

GROSS: On WNEW in New York. Yes.

RUSSELL: On WNEW, yeah - AM. Every morning, I was listening to Ella, the Mills Brothers, Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme, Judy Garland, whatever - Peggy Lee. Everything that was popular of the day, which - and before that. So that was late '50s, early '60s now. So that really kind of formed my appreciation of phrasing, of how the people sang these tunes in those days. So I always, you know, was in the mirror with a toothbrush when I was a little girl, trying to sing these songs and everything (laughter).

GROSS: Now, I grew up with that radio station, too, because my parents listened to it, and I hated it then.

RUSSELL: Aw.

GROSS: I hated it because I wanted to hear rock 'n' roll.

RUSSELL: Yeah.

GROSS: But you grew up with parents who were jazz performers.

RUSSELL: Yes.

GROSS: You know, your father, the late Luis Russell, was Louis Armstrong's music director for a while. Your mother sang with the International Sweethearts of Rhythm during World War II...

RUSSELL: Yes.

GROSS: ...Which was an all-woman jazz band. And so did the fact that they loved the music bring the music alive for you?

RUSSELL: Yes. My dad's music was some of the first music I ever heard in the house growing up, and my mother was so happy that I kind of took to it, you know, when I was very little because I liked to dance, and I loved swing. And so, yes, I would say that their appreciation of traditional and different types of jazz kind of formed my young ears for that.

GROSS: Were they determined to get you to love the music? Did they play you things and hope that you would love it?

RUSSELL: No. They - you know, Mom played a lot of different things. So she's happy that I did, but she also let me listen to things that she didn't particularly like. I grew up on "American Bandstand." So if there were groups on there - she never told me, oh, turn that stuff off; I hate it. Never. She always let me listen to my Led Zeppelin records loud.

GROSS: (Laughter).

RUSSELL: She let me, you know - so she, you know, got me a little stereo. And I had it - you know, the kind that you pick up. And I had that in my room when I was growing up, and she never said, turn that down. I hate it. This is terrible. She always let me listen to everything I wanted to listen to.

GROSS: Well, I'm going to ask you to perform another song, and this song is called "Wake Up And Live." And I love this song. I was not familiar with it until you sang it. Tell us why you chose it.

RUSSELL: This is another song that I actually heard when I was growing up. I remember this - it's written by Mack Gordon and Harry Revel. And I hope I'm pronouncing that correctly. I remember that from the radio as well. So I think that William B. Williams played that one also. And on the Chick Webb - that's also from this Chick Webb collection. It's a vocal trio on that collection. And I remember that recording very faintly when I was little. And Cab Calloway also recorded it, so I loved his version, too. And it just reminds me that I have to really do something with my life. You know, I like to sleep late and everything, so this is a good song for me.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: And I should mention that Mack Gordon, the lyricist for this song, also wrote the lyrics for "Chattanooga Choo Choo," "I Had The Craziest Dream," "The More I See You" and "There Will Never Be Another You."

RUSSELL: Yeah.

GROSS: And Harry Revel wrote "There's A Lull In My Life," which is a great song.

RUSSELL: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: Yeah.

RUSSELL: Beautiful.

GROSS: So let's hear it.

RUSSELL: Let's do it.

GROSS: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

RUSSELL: (Singing) Wake up and live, don't mind the rainy patter, and you will find it's mind over matter. Dark clouds will break up if you just wake up and live. Yeah, wake up and live, show the stuff you're made of. Just follow through. What are you afraid of? You'll try it, won't you? Why don't you wake up and live? Come out of your shell. Hey, fella, find your place in the sun. Come out of your shell. Say, fella, just be a go-getting son of a gun. Wake up and live, if lady luck is yawning. Up on your toes, a better day is dawning. Don't let up, get up and give. Just give yourself a shake-up just to wake up and live. Come out of your shell. Hey, fella, find your place in the sun. Come out of your shell. Say, fella, just be a go-getting son of a gun. Yeah, wake up and live if lady luck is yawning. Up on your toes, a better day is dawning. Don't let up, get up and give. Just give yourself a shake-up just to wake up and live.

GROSS: Yeah, that was great. (Laughter) Thank you both so much. That's Catherine Russell singing with Matt Munisteri featured on guitar. So let's talk about your first regular gig in New York. I should mention, you were a backup singer before you became a soloist.

RUSSELL: For many years, yeah. Yeah.

GROSS: But one of one of your first regular jobs - maybe your first regular job - was at Catch a Rising Star, a comedy club in New York, where you sang when the checks were being given out...

RUSSELL: Yes.

GROSS: ...When it was really noisy and when there was, like, a famous comedian testing out a new routine. Nobody - none of the other comics would want to follow them.

RUSSELL: Wanted to follow him, yes.

GROSS: So you would kind of sing right in between to break it up a bit.

RUSSELL: Yeah.

GROSS: So it wasn't necessarily going to be your crowd because they're a crowd who came to see comedy, not music. What songs won over for that crowd?

RUSSELL: It was a 15-minute slot for everybody. So comedians, singers - there were a few of us that sang. And so I chose soul and blues. So I would sing three songs, and the first song would be a kind of an up-tempo soul tune. The second one would be blues or some kind of a ballad, like, you know, Aretha Franklin. And then the third one would be an up-tempo tune, and they would - so I wouldn't finish the tune. So the band would kind of keep playing, and I'd say, goodnight, everybody, you know, and leave the stage.

And so really, after whatever comedian was on, the singer - they'd announced the singer, and the people would go, uh - you could hear it. (laughter) You could heart it in the crowd. So not only weren't they my audience, but, you know, it would take a tune or two to kind of have them say, oh, all right, she can sing, you know, it's OK. And then they would go back to tallying up their checks, you know (laughter).

GROSS: Catherine Russell and Matt Munisteri, recorded in 2012. Russell released a new album in 2019 called "Alone Together" on which Munisteri also plays guitar and serves as music director. Coming up, we feature our performance and interview with pianist Jon Batiste, the bandleader for "The Late Show With Stephen Colbert." But before we get to that, let's get in one more song from Russell and Munisteri's FRESH AIR performance. This is "Everything's Been Done Before." Louis Armstrong recorded this when Catherine Russell's father, Luis Russell, was Armstrong's music director.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

RUSSELL: (Singing) Everything's been done before. To share a kiss, a moment's bliss and hear you whisper you love me, sweetheart, it's thrills as old as the hills, but it's new to me. Oh, everything's been done before. The birds that sing the song of spring always singing above me, yet with you, their singing is something that's new to me. Life is strange. We hate to change from what is tried and true. Although, I know I'm only doing what the others do, yet it all seems new. Oh, everything's been done before. To fall in love with stars above began with Adam and Eve, but when I'm with you, I just want to do what's been done before.

GROSS: That's Catherine Russell and Matt Munisteri.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. This week we're looking back on the decade that just ended and listening back to some of our favorite interviews of the past 10 years. Today we're featuring some of our favorite performances. Our final one today is with pianist Jon Batiste, the music director at "The Late Show With Stephen Colbert," where he leads his band Stay Human.

Batiste grew up in Kenner, La., just outside of New Orleans, and is part of one of the foremost music families in that region. He started playing with the family band when he was 8. He played drums back then. When he was 17, he moved to New York to attend Juilliard.

We recorded this interview in 2018, when Batiste released his album "Hollywood Africans." We started with a track from it, an original called "Kenner Boogie."

(SOUNDBITE OF JON BATISTE'S "KENNER BOOGIE")

GROSS: Jon Batiste, welcome to FRESH AIR. I really love your playing. And I'm so grateful to you for being at the piano. So I have to - this is a really corny, dumb question to ask a pianist, I know. But how do you do it? How do - like, on "Kenner Boogie" that we just heard, how do you coordinate the left and right hands? They're doing such different things. And what they're doing is so complex.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Can you break down what each hand is doing?

JON BATISTE: Absolutely.

GROSS: And can you include some of those really, like, rumbly left-hand chords you've got going on there?

BATISTE: You got to.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Thank you.

BATISTE: I think the great thing about piano is that you can create this rhythmic momentum. And it propels you. It's like a drum, but you also have tones. So what I'm doing in my left hand is really creating the rhythm section effect of having a bass and a drum and maybe even a bari sax down there tooting and rooting (playing piano). And so I'll get this going (playing piano). Or I'm doing something like (playing piano) - you know, like, something you might hear Fats Domino or Little Richard doing and then just really keeping that going down there.

So while I got that happening, in my right hand, I'm screaming; I'm wailing. I'm trying to figure out a way to make you feel what it is that I feel. And I can do that in many different ways. I can slide (playing piano). I can cry (playing piano). And I can even do a little bit of dancing (playing piano). Let me do the dance one more time (playing piano, laughter).

GROSS: And some of the left-hand playing that you have going on in that track is really kind of rumbly. Can you do some of the chords that you've included in that composition?

BATISTE: Well, sometimes the emotion overwhelms you, and you have to growl. And this is something that I've kind of developed in my left hand that I really love. When I get that feeling, it's like a growl of a lion, this (playing piano). So I'll be playing, you know. (Playing piano).

GROSS: That's what I was talking about (laughter).

BATISTE: So you know, you put them all together, and you know, it's like a gumbo. You put everything in the pot, and in the moment, you just fly. You know, after you make your 100th vat of gumbo, you get a feel for where to place these things. And it's not really contrived. It just is a spirit in a moment that you follow.

GROSS: So you grew up in Louisiana near New Orleans in Kenner. What were some of the most common rhythms? And you started as a drummer in your family's band. So what were some of the rhythms that you were taught to play as a drummer that helped guide you in your formative years as a pianist, things that you transferred to piano?

BATISTE: Well, there's an African rhythm that is at the base of much of New Orleans music, and that's the bamboula rhythm. And before I even understood that I was being taught this rhythm or that I was internalizing this rhythm, rather, I was. And it goes like this. It's (clapping bamboula rhythm). You hear, (singing) oh, little Liza, little Liza Jane - oh, little Liza, little Liza Jane. Or - (singing) oh, when the saints go marching in, oh, when the saints go marching in.

It's in so much of our repertoire. And me being the youngest drummer in my family at the time, there were four other drummers (laughter) - my cousins. And not only was I learning the bamboula but I was learning it from them, so I had four variations of it. So by the time I started really playing and getting to the piano, I had such a rhythmic approach to it that it's still with me today.

GROSS: So do you want to translate that rhythm to something that you do at the piano?

BATISTE: Well, there's a piece on the album, "Nocturne No. 1," that has that rhythm.

GROSS: Yeah, I love that piece.

BATISTE: Yes. It's really something that kind of takes that rhythm but also my classical music training and love for the form and development of those sort of theme and variation and kind of matches them up and creates what I like to call a gold mine (playing piano). So that's the rhythm in this (playing piano).

GROSS: I hear so much Monk in your playing - again, not imitating him but having kind of absorbed him and made it your own. Things I hear you doing that remind me of Monk is your use of dissonance, your use of kind of punctuation, your use of space - of letting things ring out and not filling it - and the kind of angularity of Monk. So can you play something of your own that incorporates the kinds of things we've been talking about?

BATISTE: Oh, absolutely. There's a piece that I recorded twice, and it's titled "Red Beans," and it's a blues. And when you hear the melody, it has that rhyme and also that space and dissonance that's characteristic of monk. But I never copy. I try to absorb, which is what I hope I've done with this piece. (Playing piano).

GROSS: Oh, that's great. Do you still listen to a lot of Monk?

BATISTE: I have a few people who I listen to regularly. I always come back to them, I'll say. I don't listen to Monk regularly, but I always come back to his music. Bach is another one - James Brown, Nina Simone. Oh, my goodness...

GROSS: OK. Let's do a little contrast here - some Bach and how that's influenced you.

BATISTE: Oh, my goodness. Well (laughter) - there's so much there. I think that Bach is really a - the mysticism of music, spirituality of music, the depth of how he's able to be so systematic and logical, symmetrical at times - super symmetrical to the point of it almost being a musical game of sorts yet it harboring such a depth of human feeling, the range of human emotions and asking questions about the afterlife. I mean, "The St. Matthew's Passion" (ph) - I was listening to that maybe yesterday, a couple days ago. It's about three hours long. And just listening to that makes you realize what's possible. He's arguably the best at a thing that anyone's ever been in the history of doing a thing.

GROSS: (Laughter) Can you play an example of Bach that you think exemplifies both, like, the spiritual but also the kind of game-like aspect of it in its structure?

BATISTE: Oh, my. You know, there's something in the inventions which, I mean, he's just chilling at home. And he's like, it's tough out there in the streets, y'all. So, kids, I'm going to write you these inventions. And he writes these pieces that are among the most standard of the repertoire. If you are a classical pianist, you have to know these inventions. It was some of the first things I learned. And you research and find out he wrote these for his kids.

But there are two voices which I really enjoy. You know, there's (playing piano). That's the left hand. And the right hand's (playing piano). And it's moving all of a sudden. But it's just two voices. You see - the simplicity of how he makes something that is just two melodies playing in conversation, asking questions, responding, sometimes they're talking at the same time. Other times, it's call and response. Sometimes it's in harmony. Sometimes there's dissonance. Just - that's life. That's our journey exemplified in a simple piece that he wrote for his kids. That's amazing.

GROSS: What I sometimes do on the show when I'm talking to a musician who's doing a kind of musical autobiography is to ask them to redeem a song, to take a song that we wouldn't expect them to like that they do or a song that we think of as square, too corny, too sentimental, a song beyond redemption, but that you love. So is there a song like that that comes to mind that you would like to redeem for us?

BATISTE: Well, I love "Happy And You Know It." I really like that song.

GROSS: Just the children's song...

BATISTE: I like what it represents.

GROSS: ...That you're talking about?

BATISTE: Yes.

GROSS: You're happy and you know it, clap your hands.

BATISTE: If you're happy and know it, clap those hands (laughter).

GROSS: (Laughter) And why do you love this?

BATISTE: Yes. It's something that I like about these kind of melodies, these kind of nursery rhymes, these children's melodies that are just so coherent. And they have a - like (playing piano). It's that question-and-answer thing that I just love in music that we were talking about earlier with Thelonious Monk. Of course, Monk is much more complex, but (laughter) it's - at the root of it, it's the same thing, which is why I think children can respond to it in such an intuitive way. This kind of (playing piano). And then (playing piano). And that's it. Oh, I get it. Now, if you put a bassline on it and some different harmonies on it, you can get a vibe like a (playing piano). Get some church on it.

GROSS: (Laughter).

BATISTE: Just bring out some of the emotions of it. And then, when you play (playing piano).

GROSS: (Laughter).

BATISTE: You know, it's just a - I don't know. I like it. It's cool.

GROSS: Oh, I like it now. (Laughter) I like what you did with it (laughter).

BATISTE: (Laughter) Like, (singing) if you're happy and you know it, clap your hands. If you're happy and you know it, clap your hands. Oh, if you're happy and you know it, and you really want to show it, go on and show it. If you're happy and you know it, clap your hands. Yes (playing piano).

GROSS: Jon Batiste, you have been so wonderful. I am so grateful to you. Thank you so much. You've been so generous with your music with us and (laughter) in general. Thank you.

BATISTE: Thank you so much. It's a pleasure to be here. And till next time.

GROSS: Jon Batiste, recorded in 2018. Today we featured a few of our favorite concerts we've done over the past decade. If you want to hear more FRESH AIR concerts from the last decade or previous decades it's easy at our new FRESH AIR archive site. You can find it at freshairarchive.org.

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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