The first African-American composer to win an Academy Award for Best Original Score was Herbie Hancock, who contributed music to the late Bertrand Tavernier’s classic jazz film Round Midnight (memorably starring Dexter Gordon) in 1986. The second is Jon Batiste, who—along with seemingly unlikely collaborators Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross of Nine Inch Nails—grabbed an Oscar on Sunday for the score of Soul, which also won Best Animated Feature. Not coincidentally, the 2020 film is the first by animation giant Pixar to feature an African-American protagonist. That protagonist is a jazz musician, and several notable jazz artists, including NEA Jazz Masters Hancock and Terri Lyne Carrington, were consultants for the production.
“This moment is the culmination of a series of miracles,” Batiste said in his acceptance speech at the Sunday ceremony. Surely one of those many miracles is that of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences not just noticing jazz in 2021 but actually giving it a spotlight, as represented by a real-life jazz musician (who, of course, also just happens to be the internationally recognized leader of a network talk-show band).
That musician offered a refreshing spin on the “thank you, God” acceptance-speech tradition. “You know what’s deep is God gave us 12 notes,” he said. “It’s the same 12 notes Duke Ellington had, Bach had, Nina Simone … Every contribution with music that comes from the divine into the instruments into the film, into the minds and hearts and souls of every person who hears it, the stories that happen when you listen to it and watch it and the stories you share, the moments you create, the memories you make, man, it’s just so incredibly special … I’m just thankful to God for those 12 notes.”
In addition to God, Batiste thanked his parents for taking him into New Orleans clubs when he was 10 and for providing with him piano lessons. His first piano teacher, Shirley Herstein, got thanks too, followed by a typically infectious laugh and the exclamation “What a vibe!”
Batiste wasn’t the only Oscar recipient to thank a teacher. When the time came for Soul to receive its Best Animated Feature award—the 11th win in this category for Pixar in the last two decades—the film’s director Pete Docter also had kind words for educators, and for jazz.
“This film started as a love letter to jazz but we had no idea how much jazz would teach us about life,” he said. “We don’t get to control what happens but we can, like a jazz musician, turn whatever happens into something of value and beauty. Our main character, Joe, is a music teacher and we want to thank music teachers and art teachers everywhere—you make the world a better place. My wish for all of us tonight is that we can follow the example of jazz musicians: Wherever we are, whatever we have, we turn it into something beautiful.”
Unfortunately, another jazz-related film with several Oscar nominations didn’t make out as well as anticipated. George C. Wolfe’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, based on the August Wilson play and featuring music by Branford Marsalis, won only two awards (for Makeup and Hairstyling and Costume Design), and the late Chadwick Boseman, who was widely expected to win Best Actor for his portrayal of trumpeter Levee Green, lost out to Anthony Hopkins in The Father.