Jon Batiste at Cooper Union

 


Written for presentation at the Juilliard Black Alumni Association Inaugural Mixer

Lincoln Center, September 9, 2023


A few weeks ago I saw an announcement of a special performance by pianist Jon Batiste at The Cooper Union Great Hall. I jumped at the chance because I wanted to present him with a copy of my memoir titled Practicing for Love. I, too, am a Juilliard grad, and my father was one of the first African-American pianists to study at Juilliard. He and Leontyne Price were classmates. He then went on to direct the Fisk Jubilee Singers. Of course, all of that history was included in the book.

I stood in line for the performance, which was advertised as “A Musical Prescription,” and was co-sponsored by the Louis Armstrong Center for Music and Medicine at Mount Sinai Health System’s Assessment of Music Experiences in Navigating Depression (AMEND Lab) and Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute, the Hall’s education and social impact arm.

The event began half an hour late, and the packed house of mostly elderly white people was greeted by, of course, white folks: the president of Cooper Union, representatives from Mount Sinai and Carnegie Hall. They talked and talked, and then Jon Batiste was finally introduced. 

Now, Jon Batiste is one of the most celebrated men in the music business. He has won Grammys, Emmys, a Golden Globe, and the Oscar. For me, when I look at Jon Batiste, somehow the words “Yassa, boss” come to mind. He is always smiling and laughing. His costumes at the Grammys reminded me of Little Richard, and I’m sure the subconscious connection is intentional. He played just a couple of numbers on the gorgeous Steinway concert grand, and played “When You’re Happy and You Know It” (to which the audience clapped on cue without prompting), and “When the Saints Go Marchin’ In” on his keyboard flute the melodica. He even walked through the predominantly white audience while playing the melodica.

He then spent the bulk of the time talking about music and healing. His wife has been struggling with cancer, so talking about healing is very close to his heart. (And, by the way, not a word about the Spirituals, and how they made it possible for some of our ancestors to stay alive.)

 

After the performance, I had to figure out how to get backstage. You see, I grew up on the Fisk University campus. After celebrities would perform there, anyone who wanted to meet the artist was allowed backstage. There I met Nina Simone, Marian Anderson, Duke Ellington, Geoffrey Holder, Jessye Norman, among others.

Well here at the Cooper Union, all of the obvious backstage entrances were blocked by security guards (all of whom were black, interestingly). I knew there was no point in explaining to them why I wanted to get backstage, since they were certainly instructed not to let anyone backstage. I’ve done lots of performing in concert halls myself, so I know how to make my way in backstage areas. So I went around and through all of the sound stage equipment and kept walking until I found myself at Jon Batiste’s dressing room, the door of which was closed. There I saw all the white people who spoke at the beginning, setting the stage for their boy to come out and further their cause… of fundraising. I looked around and breathed a sigh of relief. 

Then... here comes a white woman I had not seen before. She was fat and mean-looking, walking straight toward me. At first I asked her if he had already left. She said No, then told me to “Walk this way.” I started following her, then realized that she was walking me to the exit. I then explained to her that I was the daughter of one of the first African-American male graduates of Juilliard who was a piano major, and said I wanted to present Jon with a copy of my memoir that contained the history. She kept walking and said, “I’ll be happy to give it to him.” I took my time signing the book. Then she ushered me out of the backstage door and blocked the door with her big white body.

I'm sure this white woman just focused on what she perceived as being her job, and that being to keep people away from Jon Batiste. It didn't occur to her that Jon Batiste, as an African-American man, would probably have been delighted to hear about this black man who studied at Juilliard in the 1930s, and probably would have been doubly delighted to meet the author of this book, and to make the acquaintance of another African-American pianist who is also a Juilliard grad.

But no. This white woman decided that this encounter would not happen. Though she said she'd be happy to give him the book, I have no way of knowing whether or not she actually handed it to him. She could have just thrown it in the garbage.

 

Jon Batiste comes across as such a sweet man. It's hard to imagine him being angry. But if this woman actually handed him the book, and if she told him that it was authored by the daughter of one of the first African-American graduates of the Juilliard School, and if he asked to meet me and she told him that she had escorted me out... I can imagine him being pretty pissed! I certainly hope he cussed her out. And I hope that she learned that she has no right to determine what is and isn't important to African Americans. She has no clue. And if she wants to find out what is or isn't important to an African American, then she needs to ask an African American.

 

In dealing with some of these white folks, I've learned... there's a coldness, and a cruelty, that I'll never understand. If the roles had been reversed, and I had been the one in charge of who was allowed backstage, I would have put my energy into being helpful if a woman introduced herself to me as the author of a memoir on her time at Juilliard, and being the daughter of one of the first black male graduates of Juilliard who was a piano major. I would have known that Jon Batiste would have been delighted to meet this person. But an institution like Cooper Union could not be trusted to put a person who is racially sensitive in this position. They hired a white pit bull.

 

Of course I was disappointed. I had even imagined Jon and me playing Chopin for each other on the lovely 9-foot Steinway. But luckily, after a restless night, the next morning in my Inbox I found the invitation to this event. And I decided then and there to tell y'all all about it.

 

So what I want to say to you is: Don't be discouraged by their cruelty. They can’t help themselves. And don't let it throw you off. And especially, don't be surprised by it. Some white folks will never forgive us for Barack Obama, even though he was one of the most brilliant US presidents in American history. Keep moving forward, and I am already so proud of you!



 

Copyright: Nina Kennedy, 2023


Comments

  1. Worth the effort. He'll see things your way sooner or later. Elligancat@gmail.com

    ReplyDelete

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