Jon Batiste Learns to Breathe in Monumental “American Symphony”

There’s a scene some 40 minutes into Netflix’s stirring documentary on musician/composer Jon Batiste when his adult self is back on the piano bench with his long ago teacher from Juilliard School of Music, working on Beethoven’s “Appassionata” sonata. Batiste starts in and his teacher brings him up short within seconds, even grabbing his hand off the piano as he sternly implores, “You have to breathe; you are not breathing!”

The teacher demonstrates, Batiste tries again, the teacher stops him again and says, “If you don’t breathe, it’s like a computer, it doesn’t express anything. You want life. Breathe!”

In some ways, the whole plot of “American Symphony” can be seen as Batiste working very, very hard, both out of virtuous striving for excellence and an absolute, desperate quest for emotional survival, to learn how to breathe. (The “wanting life” part has always seemed well in hand.)

Batiste is plainly one of those human beings who makes it easy to think he was designed and churned out by some cosmic force to do exactly what he is doing, for the benefit of all.

Breathe into the challenge of pulling together a monumental, genre-bending symphony project, years in the making and set to debut in Carnegie Hall. (“My ambition for composing this symphony is massive. I’m trying to expand the canon of symphonic music, break through long gate-kept spaces…”)

Breathe into his ever rising fame on the strength of 11 Grammy nominations in 2022 for two different albums. (“Think I’m gonna crack?” he asks a FaceTiming buddy. “What do you see in me as the potential crack? If I keep on rising up higher, am I gonna crack?”)

And breathe, most importantly, into the fact that on the very day of his Grammy nominations announcement, his longtime companion and now wife, the writer and musician Suleika Jaouad, resumed chemotherapy for her leukemia, after 10 years in remission following a bone marrow transplant. Soon, she would be facing a second, more perilous transplant. (When his therapist asks Batiste on a Zoom call how his “faith” is holding up, he responds, “God giveth, and God taketh away. I’m just coming into the realization of what genuine acceptance is.” )



Filmmaker Matthew Heineman is presented with a dark goldmine in the unexpected addition of Jaouad’s illness to his documentary soon after production had started in 2021. The project already had plentiful dramatic appeal with Batiste’s audacious effort to bring together musicians from the classical, jazz, folk, avant garde, Native American and other musical genres to create a symphony that would reflect the America of today, “with space for all of us to be different and quirky and strange and beautiful together.”

But there’s zero doubt that Jaouad’s illness adds a whole other layer of emotion and dramatic impact as we watch the couple whipsawed between concern for her very life and his own journey to care for her while also continuing to pursue the creativity that had long fueled both their lives.

“We both see survival as a creative act,” Jaouad says in one of her many commentaries on their partnership, which has its roots in their first meeting as self-described “awkward teenagers” at a summer jazz camp. (She plays double bass.)

In a profound way, Batiste gives that maxim a quarter-turn in his music-besotted life, inasmuch as creativity seems to be the key to his emotional and spiritual survival. In other words, it’s not about surviving in order to create, but creating in order to survive.

We see and experience it in most every moment of the film that is not devoted to Jaouad’s perilous health, deep and bracing as that is. (Today, she is, from all reports, in good health.) Batiste is plainly one of those human beings who makes it easy to think he was designed and churned out by some cosmic force to do exactly what he is doing, for the benefit of all.

And that “doing” means serving as both entertainer and teacher, inspirer and consoler, soloist and maestro. Sure, he hires himself an actual conductor to manage that highly specialized skill set, but Batiste the composer is a sight to behold as he prowls the stage in rehearsals, punching the air in front of his huge percussion section, gesticulating and growling, “Bop bop! Uh uh!” Urging them on, telling them at one point he wants something “uniquely you; that is our reference point going forward.”

Later, he beams with joy in front of the orchestra: “Yeah! Wild west. Abandon. You’re a cowboy. You ain’t afraid. Yeah!”

A beautiful scene as he’s dinking notes at his piano while his trombonist listens intently goes like this:

Trombonist: “Ooh, that’s nice.” (Picks up trombone and begins to play in response. Batiste listens while staring into space.)
Batiste: “What IS that?” (Resumes playing, stops again.) “That’s important man, that thing. Where it feels familiar, at home.”
Trombonist: “Yes. When it feels like something but it’s not something.”
Batiste: “Yeah.” (Laughs.)
Trombonist: “That’s when you know it’s good.”
Batiste: “Yeah!”
Trombonist: “When you feel like you’ve heard it before.”
Batiste: “Right, right!!” (Laughing.)
Trombonist: “But it’s actually new.”
Batiste: “Yeah!”
Trombonist: “That’s the best.”
Batiste: “Ohhhhh…”

From a certain framework, that may sound like a big blast of helium, but in truth, they are onto something of great importance. Batiste knows it as his trombonist gives it words and Batiste bathes in his own near wordless joy of it all.

Their creative process has yielded up a treasure after protracted effort (four years’ gestation for Batiste). But as it appears, it feels not so much a discovery of something new as it is a profound reconnection, a contentedness and comfort with something that has always been there, waiting to be found, plucked from the void and freed for expression at last.

A kind of coming home, indeed.

I suspect the main theme of Batiste’s symphony they were riffing off of will illustrate the point in this mere 37 seconds:


Many other such moments of seemingly magical, inspiring action (and inaction, a note on that below) take place over the course of the film’s 103 minutes. What weaves throughout are two threads: a great love affair intensified to almost unbearable degrees by a dread illness, and the seemingly indefatigable energy and zest for life that seems to drive Batiste’s every waking hour.

Which of course begets the question: Surely the man experiences a down day and foul mood once in a blue moon?

Surely he does, and he lets the camera show it in a FaceTime conversation with his therapist when he literally can’t bear to lift his head out from under his pillows, and others where he rails about being pigeonholed by stuffed shirts in the classical music world who dismiss his efforts to break down barriers by branding him a mere “pop singer.” 

In another scene, he is flopped on a bed, groaning that he has been sleepless for three nights, then lets on, “In recent years, I’ve struggled with anxiety and panic attacks.”

But resilience be thy name if you’re Jon Batiste, fresh off a triumphant one-and-done symphony performance at Carnegie Hall and this well-received documentary. It also helps that he seems genuinely loved and gives as much in return to both intimates and fans who, as fans do the world over, feel tremendous affection and loyalty for their beloved artists, through times thick and thin.

Regarding the reference above about “inaction” in the film, one closing note from a concert performance leading up to the later symphony. Batiste is on the road while his beloved is ailing at home. “I want to dedicate this last one to Suleika,” he intones.

He then stares hard at nothing off to the side of the stage, and stays that way, silent, the audience the same.

After 45 seconds, he places his left hand on the keyboard, his right hand following 10 seconds later.

Still not a sound from him or his rapt audience, his eyes downcast, gathering himself, them giving him all the time and support they can to help him climb this mental mountain.

At 75 seconds of the kind of deep silence common to small meditation circles but a seeming eternity in a packed concert hall at the end of the night, his hands finally descend on the keys, and we are off on an at-first meditative, moody jazz piece. Soon, it gathers intensity and then bursts into an anguished sequence of rapid arpeggios, Batiste’s whole body slumped over the keyboard, fingers flying, eyes tightly closed. Then the camera suddenly cuts away and we find ourselves back in Jouaud’s hospital room, with Bach filling the air.

It’s a lovely moment of recognition and nuance from the audience, honoring the solemnity of the moment, the suffering before them, no one yelling, “We love you!” from the balcony.

Just breathing and silence, for a man who spends most all his life filling it with beautiful sound.



Unfortunately, no recording or video of the entire “American Symphony” concert or its parts is available for public consumption, aside from the excerpts in the film. Until that is rectified, the plentiful You Tube videos of Batiste at “work” can’t do much better than this….


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2 comments to Jon Batiste Learns to Breathe in Monumental “American Symphony”

  • Robert Spencer  says:

    Coincidentally, yesterday my wife and I decided to put Jean Batiste’s “American Symphony” on our “on-deck” must see list of films or documentaries. Today, considering my past bouts with cancer, I guess it’s time to let it “bat”. For several years now I have appreciated his talent as a composer, instrumentalist, band leader, and singer. Moreover, his ability to mix six musical genres (jazz, classical, blues, gospel, rock ‘n roll, and cultural folk) into a whole is stunning. Comparisons with other giants in the industry have been inevitable. For instance, on a personal level, I have a composer friend who directed/produced a documentary on Aretha Franklin compared his talent to that of Quincy Jones. When Batiste’s teacher kept interrupting his playing and demanded, “If you don’t breathe, it’s like a computer, it doesn’t express anything. You want life. Breathe!” I interpret his teacher’s advice as a way to tell Batiste to just stop and really think about what the music is all about. It’s a spiritually contemplative approach. Some guy named Mozart put it well when he wrote, “Die musik ist nicht in den noten, sondern in der stille dazwischen.” Translated: The music is not in the notes, but in the silence in between.”

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Fun synchronicity there, Robert, especially since we somehow both managed to miss this since its September debut—a veritable eternity in TV streaming time! I really appreciated the director and Batiste including the segment with his stern old teacher, who was from Europe, I think, though I couldn’t quite place the accent. It showed Batiste in a vulnerable moment, still learning, still benefiting from instruction & correction, and humble enough to seek it.

      And yes, that Mozart quote shows up in a thousand different ways & places, a wonderful metaphor for all the arts, really—and life itself…

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