In 'Soul,' Jon Batiste's Music Helps Bring Pixar's First Black Lead To Life Batiste is one of several real-life musicians who consulted on the new Pixar film, about a middle-school band teacher who ends up in a fantastical realm called The Great Before.
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In 'Soul,' Jon Batiste's Music Helps Bring Pixar's First Black Lead To Life

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In 'Soul,' Jon Batiste's Music Helps Bring Pixar's First Black Lead To Life

In 'Soul,' Jon Batiste's Music Helps Bring Pixar's First Black Lead To Life

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Pixar's new animated film "Soul" begins streaming today on Disney+. It's the story of Joe Gardner, voiced by actor Jamie Foxx. He's a middle school music teacher who dreams of performing jazz on stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SOUL")

JAMIE FOXX: (As Joe Gardner) Music is all I think about from the moment I wake up in the morning to the moment I fall asleep at night. I was born to play.

GREENE: Much of the music in the film is by the very real-life jazz musician Jon Batiste. As NPR's Mandalit del Barco reports, he was also an inspiration for the animators.

JON BATISTE: Woo (ph). Hello.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: I reached Jon Batiste at his home outside New York City, where, as always, he was listening to music. He talked about Joe Gardner, the animated star of "Soul."

BATISTE: I love Joe because he has this vision for his life and this thing that makes him feel alive.

DEL BARCO: Like Joe, Batiste was born to play the piano. In fact, "Born To Play" is the name of one of the songs he wrote for "Soul."

(SOUNDBITE OF JON BATISTE'S "BORN TO PLAY")

DEL BARCO: Batiste not only put his own soul into creating the movie's music, but also, those are his fingers playing the piano as Joe Gardner.

BATISTE: Oh, my goodness. My way of playing, my hands - they're exact replica in the 3D kind of animation, the way that he kind of moves his body. You'll see. If you watch the film and then see me playing, it's kind of crazy. I was almost in tears because you see your essence, and you think, wow, this is the first Black Pixar lead. And we're putting jazz culture out there in this massive way in the essence of this main character.

KEMP POWERS: It also helps that Jon has these long, lanky fingers that really lend themselves to, like, a dynamic look when it's fully animated.

DEL BARCO: Playwright Kemp Powers co-directed and co-wrote "Soul." He says Batiste was a jazz ambassador for the film.

POWERS: One of the first things he said to us was that he sees jazz as literally the newest form of music there is because you're literally making it up in the moment.

DEL BARCO: Powers says Batiste pulled together the session musicians for a scene in the jazz club, and Powers says the film included a lot of Batiste's ideas about jazz.

POWERS: When Joe is speaking to his class and he tells a story about the first time he ever heard, like, a jazz musician play, that's almost verbatim a story that Jon told us.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SOUL")

FOXX: (As Joe Gardner) I see this guy, and he's playing these chords with force on it. And then with the minor - woo (ph). Then he adds the inner voices, and it's like he's singing. That's when the next thing I know, it's like he floats off the stage. That guy was lost in the music. He was in it, and he took the rest of us with him.

BATISTE: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah (laughter). That's called getting in the zone. It's just transcendent. It's almost as if everything that's happening is aligned with the greater force that is controlling the universe and God is just pulling the puppet strings. And the audience is just in tune, and everybody is in the same space on the same frequency. That's why we play. And I think there's something about that that is the closest to Utopia that we'll get to.

DEL BARCO: Batiste has been in the zone since before he was born. He comes from a long line of New Orleans musicians, including his father Michael, a bassist who performed with Jackie Wilson and Isaac Hayes in the '60s and '70s. His dad also co-founded the Batiste Brothers Band.

BATISTE: Seven brothers - that was the family band. They played R&B, soul, funk, New Orleans music. But then my first mentor in jazz was the great Alvin Batiste, the late clarinetist who taught everyone from New Orleans music over the last 40 years. And then Lionel Batiste and Milton Batiste, the Olympia Brass Band, which is, like, second line marching band music, and, you know, my cousin Russell Batiste, who played with the Funky Meters - wow. I mean, there there are at least 30 of the Batiste relatives that are cousins of mine, my uncles, second cousins. It's a rich family tradition, I'll say.

DEL BARCO: Batiste actually grew up just outside New Orleans in Kenner, La. As a youngster, he played drums with the family band. At 11, he began playing the piano, and by 13, he was playing professionally with his friend Troy Andrews, Trombone Shorty.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEL BARCO: After high school, Batiste studied music at Juilliard. Shortly after he graduated, he performed on "The Colbert Report." Then Stephen Colbert asked him to be the house band for "The Late Show."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE LATE SHOW WITH STEPHEN COLBERT")

STEPHEN COLBERT: Jon.

BATISTE: Hello. What's happening?

DEL BARCO: Besides leading his band Stay Human on the show, the 34-year-old Batiste is also featured in comical video segments. The chemistry and admiration between Colbert and Batiste is on frequent display.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE LATE SHOW WITH STEPHEN COLBERT")

COLBERT: I'm proud to work with you.

BATISTE: Oh, man, likewise.

DEL BARCO: That's a clip from the show in June, just after Batiste led a peaceful and musical Black Lives Matter march through the streets of New York City. Thousands of people followed him like a Pied Piper to protest police brutality.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BATISTE: Black lives matter.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Black lives matter.

BATISTE: People reached out to me, saying, that really just gave me hope to go through the next few months because seeing you out there and using your voice and your music to really give voice to all the things that we're feeling - we needed somebody to be out there doing that.

DEL BARCO: Batiste continues themes of Black empowerment in his new album "We Are," which comes out in March. The first single features his voice, those of his young nephews and all 100 musicians of the Marching 100 from his alma mater, St. Augustine High School...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE ARE")

BATISTE: (Singing) We are never alone.

DEL BARCO: ...Also the New Orleans Gospel Soul Children's Choir and his grandfather, an elder at the Union Bethel AME Church.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE ARE")

DAVID GAUTIER: This is in our soul. We need that inner peace.

BATISTE: My grandfather David Gautier is preaching on the record. He was the president of the Louisiana Postal Workers Union and led protests and organized around the sanitation strike with Martin Luther King Jr. There's just so much in the track that I felt like even if people don't know the backstory, they're going to feel the vibrations in it.

DEL BARCO: Batiste has a lot more projects up his sleeve. He's up for two Grammys, and right now he's proud to present "Soul." The film, he says, has many lessons about finding your spark.

BATISTE: You know, purpose isn't about being famous or having money or being this celebrated person. It's found in the things that make us all unique, and there's never going to be another person like you in the world ever. You're the only one. You're one of a kind, and that's beautiful.

DEL BARCO: That's Jon Batiste, who - spoiler alert - can also be heard singing during the end credits of "Soul." Mandalit del Barco, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IT'S ALL RIGHT")

BATISTE: (Singing) 'Cause you've got soul.

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