In the discussion leading up to the 2022 Grammy Awards ceremony, there were several interesting narratives. Would teen star Billie Eilish experience more success on the back of her Grammy clean sweep back in 2019? Would new upstart Olivia Rodrigo cement her position as a titan of the music industry? One nominee that few pundits took seriously was contemporary jazz pianist Jon Batiste, who ultimately took home the biggest award of the night when he won Album of the year.
In hindsight, Batiste should have never been a surprising winner. Serving as the band leader on the popular CBS program The Late Show with Stephen Colbert since 2015, he is one of the most visible working musicians in the country. Furthermore, Batiste is a graduate from the prestigious Julliard School in New York City who has been churning out musically impressive records for his entire career. In 2021, he released his newest album We Are, which is an ambitious project aimed at combining Batiste’s classical New Orleans jazz roots with a pop music sound that is accessible to a wider audience. The record spawned singles like the jazzy feel-good song “I Need You” and the soulful “Freedom” that buzzed just beneath the mainstream throughout the summer, resulting in copious praise from music industry insiders and multiple Grammy nominations.
However, nearly everyone in the MGM Grand Garden Arena that night was shocked when We Are was announced as Album of the Year, including Jon Batiste himself, who appeared incredulous at the announcement. In his acceptance speech, Batiste channeled acceptance and humility. “I believe this to my core,” he said, “There is no best musician, best artist, best dancer, best actor. The creative arts are subjective.”
With that, this relatively unheralded artist had triumphed over pop culture icons like Justin Bieber, Lil Nas X, Taylor Swift, and H.E.R. While his unquestioned achievements in the field of music would seem a natural choice for the Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, his win comes at a time when they could use a boost to their musical acumen credentials due to the Grammy Awards being criticized as a popularity contest in recent years.