Aspen Ideas ends on high note with Jon Batiste leading jam session with music school students

June 20, 2019 - Aspen, Colorado, USA: The Aspen Institute 2019 Ideas Festival Spotlight Health: Campus and Spotlight Health opener\rPhoto by Ian Wagreich
Ian Wagreich | Ian Wagreich

A week that started Sunday with former House Speaker Paul Ryan remarking that America is “extremely polarized” ended Saturday with musician Jon Batiste and CBS newsman John Dickerson sitting down for a jam session.

Another Aspen Ideas Festival is in the books — seven days, or 10 counting the event’s health component. Over those days attendees got a glimpse into the mind-sets of some the globe’s most intelligent, creative and innovative people.

That was the case Saturday at the Greenwald Pavilion. There, Batiste, band leader for “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” treated the audience to an inside look at his creative process, as well as the challenges that come with fusing different musical styles for a live performance. In this instance, Batiste was accompanied by a collection of 20 students from the Aspen Music Festival & School, who, while Batiste sat at the piano, gave a maiden performance of Batiste’s “American Symphony.”

In her introduction to Batiste, Aspen Institute executive director Kitty Boone noted the recently arrived students “had not a lot of time” to rehearse the piece, to which Batiste replied, “None.”

The group acquitted themselves quite nicely, though, weaving together bits and pieces of American influences — blues, jazz, Appalachia — as well as music of the African diaspora.

“You really have to figure out how to make everybody play nice in the sandbox,” the classically trained Batiste said of the composition. “But that’s really what America is. … I wanted that struggle of negotiating things to be inherently part of the piece and ensemble.”

Dickerson interjected, “Because this is just not for you about music.”

“No,” Batiste said, almost incredulously. “When should it ever be just about music? I mean, music is great, but I feel like music and any art best reflects life. And that’s what the greatest artists do. It’s not about notes. I mean, everybody can figure how to play to a certain degree of notes, or figure out how to create something, but if it doesn’t have a resonance, it’s like, I don’t think there’s any point to it besides it can be a hobby.”

Batiste, 32, is a New Orleanian with a bachelor’s and master’s degree from the Juilliard School. A frequent guest of Aspen Ideas, he praised the musical, and enduring, genius of such 20th century musicians Louis Armstrong and Big Mama Thornton.

“You have to learn to edit yourself, but in real time,” he said. “So when you’re playing jazz, the thing that makes someone great, when you hear a great improviser, it’s not how fast they play, how much they play, or even if they’re always playing the correct note. It’s more about, does it feel right. And that’s based on your taste, and only you can gauge when it feels right. Sometimes that might feel right to you, but the audience might feel another way.”

Batiste and Dickerson, a correspondent for “60 Minutes,” capped off the night with a blues jam.

“When you’re in the presence of Jon Batiste, sometimes you do career-ending things,” Dickerson said.

The journalist, however, held his own on guitar, while Batiste made the difficult look easy, as most of the top of their field do — all to the audience’s delight.

The next high-profile, local event on tap for The Aspen Institute is the Aspen Security Forum, scheduled July 17 to 20.