I visited Havana in 2011 before people were allowed to go. It was part of a cultural exchange to teach young musicians, and to be honest, I learned as much as I taught. I was in my mid 20s and had just started my band, Stay Human. I was really interested in the idea of social music, which is taking all of the indigenous musical forms and putting them together in a new, 21st-century context. It was incredibly impactful for me as an artist and person to see the divide between the haves and have-nots and learn how artists as young as 10 years old would play piano and dance ballet and paint. Havana is truly unique, and the richness of its culture reminded me of where I am from—New Orleans.
WATCH: How did growing up in New Orleans shape Jon Batiste?
Some of my most memorable trips have been a combination of flying along with a road trip. Once I flew into Marfa, Texas, and drove to California. It was just me and my lady and it was an incredible, spontaneous journey. Marfa is a really artistic place, and it has this installation of a Prada store. So we pulled the car over in the middle of this long highway—no cars coming from either direction—and danced in the middle of the street and took photos in front of the art installation. It wasn’t a theme park or fancy restaurant we booked months in advance. It was a road trip of moments where we didn’t know what we were going to do, but we found joy in doing something completely mundane.
I was in Montreux, Switzerland, hanging out with one of my mentors, the great music legend Quincy Jones. He was doing the Montreux Jazz Festival and we stayed at the Fairmont, which is right on the water with a view of the Swiss Alps. It was so memorable going into the Alps and eating fondue and spending time at the Claude Nobs Chalets. We also went to Lausanne, Switzerland, the day before the festival and visited the countryside, which was incredible.
I traveled with my family to Durban, South Africa, when I was a teenager to perform there. It was my first time going to South Africa, and it just opened my eyes to how many different cultures exist around the world. As I look back, I see that travel always inspires the music-making process. It gives you an energy that you can draw upon in your work. Sometimes I like to write lyrics and prose in a café where there are many people, or write in the lobby of a hotel as they are closing up.
Jon Batiste’s new album, We Are, is available now. Stream it on Apple Music below: