Behind the scenes of musician Jon Batiste and writer Suleika Jaouad's lives The same day musician Jon Batiste got 11 Grammy nominations, his partner, writer Suleika Jaouad, began chemotherapy. The new documentary American Symphony recounts their journey.

Jon Batiste and Suleika Jaouad share journey of 'two extremes' in American Symphony

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The new documentary, "American Symphony," begins with a time of public triumph for musician Jon Batiste. He was the bandleader for a hit late-night show. He wrote his first symphony, which premiered at New York's Carnegie Hall, and he was nominated for 11 Grammys. But privately, it was a very different story. His longtime, partner, writer Suleika Jaouad, saw her cancer return after nearly 10 years in remission.


SULEIKA JAOUAD: My first day of chemo, his 11 Grammy nominations were announced.

MARTIN: The film, in select theaters now and available on Netflix tomorrow, tells the story of the roller-coaster year in the life of the creative duo. They married just before Jaouad received a risky bone marrow transplant. As she was at home recuperating, he won five Grammys. This month, Batiste received another six Grammy nominations for his latest album.

JON BATISTE: The song that's up for song of the year is a song that I wrote for Suleika while she was in the hospital. It started out as a lullaby.


BATISTE: (Singing) Butterfly all alone.

So now for us to be able to have an opportunity to go to the Grammys together this year for the song "Butterfly" from "World Music Radio" that was written for Suleika about this time, there's so much connection. (Laughter) It's unbelievable.


BATISTE: (Singing) Butterfly flying home.

MARTIN: My colleague, Leila Fadel, spoke earlier with the couple.

JAOUAD: I think it's easy to fall into binary thinking, into thinking...


JAOUAD: ...That we're either happy or sad or sick or well. But the reality is that most of us exist somewhere in the messy middle.

FADEL: Was it hard to be so vulnerable and share that with the world?

JAOUAD: It was hard. Nothing about the experience of being very sick makes you want to share. It makes you want to retreat and cocoon and hide. I really wanted to show what it means to be in the trenches of treatment while also moving forward with your life and without knowing how that story was going to end. We didn't know if this documentary was going to have a tragic ending or a happy one or one in between.

FADEL: There is a moment in the documentary that's so symbolic of that where, Jon, you're just coming back from where you've gotten five Grammys, this incredible performance.


BATISTE: (Singing) I want you to tell it like it is.

FADEL: And then you lay with Suleika in her hospital bed. Can you talk about that moment?

BATISTE: Those two days, which happened in sequence in the film and were literally one day at the Grammys, the next day in the hospital - that moment helped me to be in the present more so than any other moment that I can recall in my entire life because it required that in order to move through all of the stimulus and all the demands of each of those moments - to be at the Grammys and to really show up, but also feeling torn because I want to be with Suleika.

FADEL: I think for so many people, there's a tendency to want to numb in moments that are so hard.

JAOUAD: It's very tempting to just shut your brain down and to disengage with whatever is happening. But I know from experience that we can't stow the most painful parts of our lives or our past. They always have a way of not only coming back up to the surface, but often coming back up with 10 times the strength they had. And so I've learned that as uncomfortable as it might be, as frightening as it might be to engage with whatever is most difficult is the most efficient way of moving through it and finding out what's on the other side of it.

FADEL: Jon, there's a moment in the documentary - later in the documentary - you're in a hall, and you dedicate the last song of your set to Suleika. You take a long time to collect yourself before playing. And this was while Suleika was in the hospital for treatment. What was going through your head in that moment?

BATISTE: I love that Matt kept the - over a minute worth of silent meditation in that part of the film. It...


BATISTE: ...Really shows what the process of being a vessel, being a channel, really is. It's the sound of the keys in the higher register pulling against whatever forces may be trying to cause any harm. They're being completely cast asunder and dashed. And the way that my mind saw it, it almost was a battle of angels. And it was very much a vision that I was having while playing and before playing. That performance was a prayer, and that moment was a deep prayer of healing.

FADEL: You reflected a lot as you put this symphony together. And there's a time where you're talking about the way that people want to see you - as a pop artist.


BATISTE: People often think there's one or two ideas of what a Black creative should be doing. The levels of our achievements are diminished. They're not seen as a part of the canon.

FADEL: Tell me more about pushing against that - this box where Black creatives are put in.

BATISTE: Creativity - it's declaring the essence of who I am and the lineage that is all that I stand on.


BATISTE: There are forces that don't want that to happen, particularly when you think about the harm of our understanding of race and our heritage in this country, in the United States of America, and us not really coming to terms with all of the history of our country. And in general, it stops us from reaching our highest potential as artists and as a human race. So when I write a symphony, I'm not just pushing against something, I'm first proclaiming and reaching for quality and excellence.

FADEL: That's musician Jon Batiste and award-winning writer Suleika Jaouad. Thank you both so much.

JAOUAD: Thank you.

BATISTE: Thank you.


UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL GROUP: (Singing) Dark day to dusk, the night it comes for us.

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