This year, the Oscar’s shifted one of its norms. Normally, no more than two people can be nominated for the Academy award for best score, each contributing about 60%. But when Pixar submitted Soul’s score nomination, they featured 3 artists: Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross and Jon Batiste. Batiste, the team’s only black collaborator is a Juilliard-educated jazz pianist , perhaps best know as the bandleader on The Tonight Show. For Soul, the story of a black music teacher who aspires to change lives with jazz, Batiste’s contribution was pivotal. But it was also smaller, complicating the nature of his nomination and the role of blackness in Soul itself. Preceded by a storied legacy in jazz, Batiste’s nomination speaks to his progress, while calling attention to that of the industry. This is Jon Batiste’s Road to the Oscars.
New Orleans’ music royalty, Batiste’s family has a legacy in music extending long before Jon’s birth. His father Michael is a professional bass player and his second cousin Alvin is an acclaimed saxophonist and music teacher. As early as eight, Batiste played percussion and drums in his family band The Batiste Brothers Band, before switching to piano at age 11. “Piano is the conductor and composer’s instrument;” Batiste told Forbes, “It’s one of those instruments that from my mother’s perspective would be a good foundation.“ Batiste attended the same high school as last week’s subject Terrence Blanchard and developed his craft with teachers like Roger Dickerson. After high school, Batiste attended Juilliard, receiving an undergraduate and master’s education in piano. This time helped Batiste develop his musical identity.
Batiste’s music is all about connection–a concept that has informed his sound and his career. At Julliard, Batiste put this principle to action with concepts like ‘social music’ and later ‘love riots,’. ‘Social Music,’ is about transcending categories—musical and otherwise–to break down social barriers. “(Music today) goes from genre to genre, style of music to style of music, era to era. And people don’t even think about it….(that’s) freedom,” Batiste told WBUR. This genre-less approach means categorizing music through experience, not taste. “Social music is music for people to listen to and dance to, cry, laugh…. It’s music to be shared.” Batiste also encourages this through ‘love riots,’ live events where Batiste and friends play music around New York.. “The first one ever occurred on Allen street in the east village we decided to go on a street and do it for two people that were hanging out on a stoop…thirty minutes into it we were playing and…300 people chanting ‘one more song,’” Batiste told Yahoo! News. Social connection has also opened up avenues in Batiste’s career. Batiste got his Tonight Show gig after a unique interaction with the show’s host, Stephen Colbert. The two met when Batiste was a guest on Colbert’s show. “We knew there was an energy,” Batiste described it as “fun, weird, awkward in a good way…I felt and energy and he did too.” So Colbert offered him the job.
Batiste’s passionate approach to music and life made him an ideal collaborator on Soul. A film about the power of music, Soul perfectly suits Batiste’s ethos. One of the most pivotal moments in the film, when protagonist Joe talks about the meaning of jazz, was heavily inspired by Batiste. “When Joe is speaking to his class and he tells a story about the first time that he ever heard a jazz musician play, that’s almost verbatim a story that Jon told us,” Soul co-writer/co-director Kemp Powers explained in NPR. The abstract early filmmaking process also inspired Jon’s contributions. “The movie never had a script that us as composers had from beginning to end….I scored the idea of the scene before there was actually a scene,” Batiste told Time. Along with the score, Batiste’s actual piano playing was literally incorporated into Soul. Playing piano while animators grafted his movements onto Joe’s, Batiste left an indelible mark on the film.
But it’s the size of that mark that makes Batiste’s nomination so complex, especially for a movie like Soul. Technically Batiste’s contributions did not clear ‘two artists/60%’ rule the Oscars’ insist on. Batiste worked largely on the jazz portion of the score, while composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross took the non-jazz elements. “There are the other planes where the film takes place, and that was us, primarily,” Reznor told Variety. This dynamic speaks to the larger controversy around Soul’s relationship to blackness. Though the film boasts Pixar’s first black lead, Soul has drawn criticism for the latter portion of the film, when the visibly black protagonist becomes a ‘creature’, a common media trope. The film’s choppy messaging likely speaks to the fact that Joe was not originally written as black, and black collaborators were brought on after to smooth the transition (Kemp Powers is Pixar’s first black writer/director). Batiste’s nomination illustrates the complexity of that decision. The team was right to adjust personnel to suit the story’s shifting needs. But if Black creatives were already ingratiated into the system–pitching and spearheading projects from the beginning–there would be no need to make adjustments.