Former NFL linebacker Aaron Maybin’s new book, ‘Art Activism,’ is an ode to Baltimore and its challenges Former first-round pick includes his own paintings, photography and poetry

The words and images are searing. They speak to the destructive nature of poverty, miseducation and murder. But they also speak to the power of perseverance and the indomitable spirit that has always allowed African-Americans to find a way out of no way.

Those are but a few of the themes captured in the new book Art Activism, the product of the restless mind and talented hands of former NFL linebacker and Baltimore native Aaron Maybin. The work is both an ode to Maybin’s hometown and a lament of the city’s many challenges. He uses his paintings, photography, poetry and prose to convey both the pride and pain of Baltimore.

In a powerful open letter to his city, Maybin compares Baltimore to that girl from around the way: maybe a little ratchet with a little too much attitude, but with that mix of smarts, moxie and sexy that never allows her man to stray too far. “Sometimes you love her, sometimes you hate her, sometimes you want to light her on fire; but you always stay loyal to her,” Maybin writes.

More than a few people wanted to set Baltimore on fire in 2015 after the death of Freddie Gray while he was in police custody. During the uprising, Maybin grabbed his camera and went into the streets to document what he saw. Inspired, he also painted and wrote. It was only later that he decided to pull his photos, artwork and writing together into a book. The result is a collection that he hopes will add to the national conversation about what racial injustice looks like in the 21st century and how we should address it.

“I don’t profess to have all the answers. I don’t profess to know where to go,” Maybin said in an interview. “But I believe I raise a lot of questions.”

He also offers some suggestions, even if few would call them novel. He wants black churches to do more to lift up the city. He wants lawmakers to put more money into a public school system that does not have enough money to address the problems of its students. He would like to see more economic development in poor communities, and he wants employers to pay a living wage to workers.

He would like to see more drug treatment centers, and “more than anything else, we need to STOP KILLING EACH OTHER!!! How can we expect the outside world to value our lives when we don’t value them ourselves?” he writes. He also would like to see an end to the poverty, the blight, the drug addiction and the hopelessness that he sees as the root of Baltimore’s more than 300 murders a year.

Maybin, 29, was an All-American linebacker at Penn State and a 2009 first-round draft choice who made an estimated $15 million during a four-year NFL career that fell far short of lofty expectations.

But he was an artist and writer long before he played football. Maybin started studying art when he was still in elementary school, and he painted his first public mural when he was 11. Coming up, he also played the saxophone, acted in plays and sang in the choir. He was 6 years old when he read a poem he wrote for his mother’s funeral.

“Poetry for me was always a form of therapy,” Maybin said.

As Maybin started growing into a frame that eventually expanded to 6-foot-4 and nearly 240 pounds, he started playing football. By the time his family moved to a Baltimore suburb for his high school years, his goal was to play in the pros. But he also knew he would return to his art.

Some critics of his underwhelming professional football career have said that Maybin’s outside interests robbed him of the single-minded focus that transforms great athletes into great players. “Maybe there’s something to that,” he said. “[But] the game has always been a game to me. My family, my health, my mental stability have always been more important to me.” Not only that, but Maybin said he feels “more fulfilled in the aftermath of my career than I did as an actual athlete.”

Still, he has no regrets about his detour into football. “Without the platform that football created and the money I made, I would never be able to have the same impact that I am having now,” said Maybin, who heads a foundation that works to enhance art education to Baltimore schools. “Once people say ‘former first-round pick,’ then people start to listen.”

Maybin sees his new book, which is available on Amazon and at select Baltimore-area bookstores, as a weapon against injustice. “I try to use my platform as a basis for social critique,” he said. “I hope this book can start a dialogue, not just in my bubble, but with people across the aisle from me.”

Daily Dose: 12/11/17 NYC avoids terrorist attack

What’s up, kiddos? Hope your weekends went well. I’m coming to you live from Florida, where I’m at Major League Baseball’s winter meetings. It’s quite the experience, to say the least. We’ll see if any real news happens.

New York is again under attack. Happening at an-ever alarming clip, another attempted terrorist incident hit the city on Monday, this time near Times Square. Someone tried to detonate an explosive device inside the subway, which instantly caused a massive panic, understandably. The thing about New York is that ever since 9/11 you’ve sort of always got to assume you could potentially be in a dangerous situation. But then again, you’ve also got to live your life, so it is what it is. Thankfully, only a few people were hurt.

Hannibal Buress is a very funny dude. He’s also good because his regular-guy appeal is something that draws a whole lot of fans. When he first broke Bill Cosby off about his rapey ways, it resonated with a lot of people because of Buress’ casual delivery. So when I heard that he was arrested in Miami during Art Basel, I assumed it would be a case of mistaken identity. Instead, it was just a case of police being jerks because a famous person was drunk and doing too much.

The president’s job is a pretty intense one. He’s responsible for public policy for one of the most powerful nations in the world and therefore must always be on point to handle pressing issues. Meetings with important advisers, large decision-making sessions, etc. Surely he’s constantly studying documents and statistics, doing what he can to make the world a better place. Right? Nope, homey is basically sitting around watching television and drinking Diet Cokes nonstop. His eating habits are legit gross for someone who has a choice in the matter.

Speaking of baseball, being here in Orlando has been an experience. All sorts of characters are milling around, trying to get closer to players, execs or whoever wants to act like they’ve got some inside skinny on baseball news. It’s quite a scene. A perfect example of this kind of thing just happened Sunday. Someone paid over $100K for the original scouting report of Derek Jeter. Why on earth anyone would want that to begin with, never mind pay a healthy yearly salary for it, is beyond me.

Free Food

Coffee Break: I’ve been hesitant to write about the story of Daniel Shaver because it’s so scary. You’ve seen it by now. A man begging for his life in front of an officer who is literally toying with a person suspected of carrying a gun. In the end, he kills him. He also ends up walking free. The whole thing is truly despicable.

Snack Time: J Dilla never has and probably never will get enough credit for his work in hip-hop. Dude is a legend whom we lost way too early. Check out this mini-doc about him and his MPC.

Dessert: The Pentagon ain’t playing. Even if the president is talking trash.

Pay-per-views, Reddit rabbit holes — and a semi-ridiculous new TBS show: battle rap is back — if it ever left The gloves-off battles are sweaty, verbal MMA fights, with rappers getting directly in each other’s faces

On Dec. 9, dozens of rap fans crowded into a tiny, undisclosed location to watch a night full of rap battles — including a battle between Rum Nitty and Iron Solomon, who stole the show in what may go down as the most exciting battle of the year — as MCs traded mostly pre-written bars, insulting each other for three timed rounds. The event, called Smack Vol. 1, was held by the top battle rap league in the country, URL — for Ultimate Rap League. The fact that there were only dozens of fans in attendance is a misleading representation of battle rap’s popularity.

The small venue for Vol. 1 was by design — an attempt by URL to take the event to its roots of intimate crowds. But in actuality, battle rap events draw hundreds of fans, while thousands stream them live on pay-per-view before watching the battles on YouTube by the millions. Battle rap is a simmering subculture. It dominates Reddit threads, message boards and YouTube — and it’s going mainstream.

Iron Solomon vs. Rum Nitty

For instance, Drop The Mic. The Tuesday night TBS show is a spinoff of the rap battle segments from James Corden’s Late Late Show in which he battled celebrities like Kevin Hart and Anne Hathaway. Celebrities like the stars of Big Bang Theory lob rhymed insults at each other. The Seattle Seahawks’ Michael Bennett recently battled Vanessa Hudgens — to the tune of almost 1.4 million views. Hosted by Hailey Baldwin and Wu Tang rap legend Method Man, the show employs artists from the battle scene to help contenders craft lyrics and presentation. Drop The Mic is a gentrified but entertaining look at a battle scene that has been bubbling under the surface of mainstream American pop culture for decades.


The godfather of the modern-day battle rap scene is Troy “Smack” Mitchell. He’s an enterprising Queens, New York, native who set out to document New York rap culture in the early 2000s by recording guerrilla-style interviews of rappers. “I had access to a lot of MCs … because I was in the streets and knew a lot of people,” says Mitchell. “I really grinded … waited for artists outside of clubs. It just blew up from there.” He released the interviews and exclusive freestyles on his Smack DVD series, which features early looks at rappers like Kanye West, Cam’ron and Beanie Sigel. The series was hugely popular in the pre-internet era. And at the end of each DVD was a rap battle.

Kevin Durant once stood on stage, right next to Smack himself, in breathing distance of the battlers.

“We came up doing the battles as kids,” says Smack. The rap battles on the Smack DVDs took place on street corners, barbershops and clothing stores. MCs surrounded by dozens of spectators. The rappers had prepared “rounds” of timed raps directed at their opponents. No beats played, and if there was a stumble, slip-up or stutter, the rapper’s round was over.

Shells and Jae Millz

Mychal Watts/WireImage for KSA Publicity

The competitions were intense and legendary, and they helped rappers like Murda Mook and Jae Millz get signed to Ruff Ryders and Young Money. Smack brought battles to living rooms, even though the competitions have been part of hip-hop lore since the genre’s inception.

Here’s your history lesson: Rappers have always tested their mettle against one another. Big Daddy Kane used to roam the Big Apple streets challenging the best rappers. Jay-Z and Busta Rhymes infamously rapped against each other in high school. And a young rapper named Biggie Smalls made his name taking on all comers in freestyle competitions.

Eminem in 8 Mile which was one of the first time mainstream America got a glimpse into battle raps.

Universal Pictures

But it was Eminem’s 2002 8 Mile, in which he battled to famous rap beats like Mobb Deep’s “Shook Ones,” that introduced battle rap to the mainstream. The battles in 8 Mile were fictionalized takes on the real-life Scribble Jam battles that Eminem participated in during the late ’90s — and which got him noticed by Dr. Dre in the first place. By 2003, rappers E. Ness and Jae Millz were battling on MTV’s Making The Band. MTV also had a show called “Fight Klub,” and BET’s 106 & Park had a popular Freestyle Friday segment from 2001 to 2013.

Rappers have exposed opponents for cheating on their fiancées and poked fun at dead relatives or whether rappers’ dads turned state’s witness.

Battle rap found a new level of popularity via YouTube, and it shed light on leagues that had formed around the world. The two front-runners were Grind Time — the popular, now-defunct league that started in Florida and expanded to Los Angeles — and Smack’s own Ultimate Rap League that sprouted from his DVD series. Today, Smack battles sell out venues like New York’s Irving Plaza and the Highline Ballroom, and fans pay upward of $100 to attend.

The leagues book the battles. The rappers spend weeks preparing rhymes catered specifically to their opponents. The rappers take the stage, flanked by entourages, and perform alternating timed rounds anywhere from two to five minutes. The battles are verbal MMA fights, with rappers getting directly in each other’s faces.

While most of the rounds are pre-written, some rappers open their rounds with freestyled rebuttals to what their opponent just rapped, flipping insults in their own favor. Battlers never know what’s coming, or how personal an insult can get. When it’s a rapper’s turn to listen to his or her opponent, “defense” is employed, which is essentially how someone reacts to the person rapping — standing stone-faced, shaking a head to show disapproval or mumbling sarcastic reactions. It’s a human chess match — mentally taxing. Competitors physically train for battles and usually end up sweaty and dehydrated by the end of each contest.

“You know who your opponent is ahead of time so you can do research,” Smack said. “Did they get played? Did they get beat up? You can expose them.” Battles have gotten personal and tense, but it’s accepted, especially since the rappers are celebrities within the culture. They are revered within the battle scene but largely lead regular lives. While the most famous battlers like Loaded Lux and Murda Mook can live off of battles, making music and bookings, most battlers have day jobs. And, yes, the day jobs are function as ammo for insults. Nothing is off-limits.

Really. Dumbfoundead and Conceited once spent their whole battle exchanging short jokes and racist Asian stereotypes. Rone went viral for a whole round about Big T’s obesity. Rappers have exposed opponents for cheating on their fiancées and poked fun at dead relatives or whether rappers’ dads turned state’s witness. Despite that, you could count on one hand how many battles have turned physical.

Courtesy of Underground Rap League

“It’s very much like a boxing match,” says Kyle “Avocado” Gray, who has filmed and directed battles for Grind Time and URL, adding a cinematic touch to battles broadcast live on pay-per-view. “These two people get into a ring. They have to have a thick skin. They have to be ready for people to say anything, and not be fazed by it. It almost brings them closer in the end, for having been through that battle together.”

Because fans are so invested in the battles — they reach such a fever pitch — battle rap culture has become a community of message board commenters and YouTubers. Battles often refer to earlier battles and online happenings online that may sound like a totally foreign language to the novice. However, catching the references is part of what makes fans feel rewarded for their dedication.

Competitors physically train for battles and usually end up sweaty and dehydrated by the end of each contest.

“The culture is super incestual,” Gray remarked. “The art in general isn’t that welcoming to an untrained ear.” But that’s what YouTube rabbit holes are for. And celebrities are happy to join in on the fun, even if that means getting called out midround. James Harden has attended — and Kevin Durant once stood on stage, right next to Smack himself, in breathing distance of the battlers. Drake and Diddy have co-hosted, with Diddy famously putting up $10,000 of his own money midbattle to see who would win between T-Rex and Aye Verb.

There are now leagues in every corner of the globe. In addition to URL, there’s King Of The Dot (KOTD) out of Canada, England’s Don’t Flop, Atlanta’s Bullpen Battle League and all-woman Queen Of The Ring in New York. Battle rap is as popular as ever, with landmark moments happening at a breakneck pace. This year alone saw KOTD bring in Russian battle rapper Oxxxymiron, whose massive following garners tens of millions of YouTube views per battle, to Los Angeles for the most viewed battle in North American history — and counting.

And Drop The Mic does utilize writing talent of competitors from the scene like Rone and Hollow Da Don. And the satire Bodied, about battle rap, is making a splash in independent movie festivals and should see wide release in 2018. There’s also the permanent roles of rappers like Charlie Clips and Hitman Holla on Nick Cannon’s improv show Wild N’ Out.

The rapid expansion of battle rap culture is what made Smack want to take things back to the basics with Dec. 9th’s Vol. 1 event. “I didn’t want the battle culture to lose its identity,” he says. “We wanted to take it back to the essence.”

Backstage at ‘The Late Show’ with Jon Batiste The musical director and former point guard on why it’s important to keep score

On a recent Wednesday afternoon, Jon Batiste reached over to the Crosley record player in his dressing room at the Ed Sullivan Theater. He lifted the needle so that Stevie Wonder’s In Square Circle could provide a little background music while he talked in the dim glow of what once was Carol Burnett’s dressing room. Old-fashioned showbiz lights still frame the vanity’s mirror, although the vanity itself is covered with books, hats, records and a speaker. A couple of paintings lean against the mirror.

The musical director of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert was quiet and relaxed, possibly the most subdued he’d been all day.

Batiste, 31, rarely stays still, which is the only way a person can hold down his Late Show gig while also acting as artistic director at the National Jazz Museum of Harlem, recording new music, promoting a Christmas album, reimagining “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” collaborating with Wynton Marsalis, writing op-eds for The New York Times and constructing a tribute to dancer Carmen de Lavallade for the 2017 Kennedy Center Honors. Batiste is arguably the country’s most visible preservationist and celebrator of jazz. He and Stay Human, The Late Show’s house band, reach roughly 3 million people each night through their televisions.

Full Track

Jon Batiste’s fingers glide across the keys of a Steinway & Sons piano in the Stay Human rehearsal space ahead of a live taping at The Ed Sullivan Theater in New York City.

Melissa Bunni Elian for The Undefeated

The Late Show has recently vaulted to the top of the late-night ratings on the wings of host Stephen Colbert. Monday through Friday he provides a wry yet sunny accounting of how the world is descending into a morass of fear, uncertainty and, lately, how it’s being pushed there by famous men who can’t keep their hands to themselves. Batiste sets off the monologues with a tinkle of piano keys, a laugh or a quip. He’s the amen corner for Colbert’s sharpest jabs.

On the gray, overcast day after a terrorist plowed into a bike path in New York, killing eight people, Batiste strode into his eighth-floor office. When he crossed the threshold to find a stranger waiting for him, he held out his hand and let out one of his trademark “Yeeeeeeeeeeeaaaaaahs.”

His buoyant, irrepressible happiness might seem inappropriate for the day after a tragedy, even for a man who comes from the land where people give you a parade when you die. (He grew up in Kenner, Louisiana, about 20 minutes from New Orleans, before moving to New York as a teen to attend The Juilliard School.) Nevertheless, he was humming, scatting and upbeat. Batiste considers transmitting that energy to be part of his job.

“It’s an interesting line to thread, to find a joyous sound that also matches the tone of the material in the show,” Batiste said. “That’s the real challenge every day, is finding out, OK, how do we find that thing that’s gonna push the energy that we want forward but not come across as insensitive or not come across as kitsch or out of taste? And that’s what I enjoy. I love these artistic challenges.”

He’d been listening to The Commodores on the way to work, and he sat down on the small gray couch in his office, barely able to contain his humming until I joined him in the chorus of “Lady (You Bring Me Up).”

Admittedly, it’s hard not to bop your head once you hear the lively strings and driving beat of “Lady.” The Commodores are part of a playlist that Batiste made for 2017. At the beginning of every year, he compiles a mix of songs, a sort of aural lookbook for the next 365 days. This year’s mishmash included contemporary Bob Dylan, 1920s and ’30s Louis Armstrong, Peggy Lee and Michael Jackson’s Dangerous album.

The yearly mix provides a thematic foundation for what Batiste wants to reference in the show. About a week after we spoke, Batiste and Stay Human played an arrangement of “Lady” during a Late Show commercial break. It’s evidence of the thoughtfulness that defines his tenure as Late Show bandleader.

“I like putting stuff into the machine and then seeing what comes out of the machine. The brain, that’s like our processing machine,” Batiste said. “So for me, I like to just make a list of all the stuff that I want to digest and assimilate and then I just live with it.”


Batiste has had years of experience putting music into his “processing machine.” He began playing with his father, Michael, in the family’s Batiste Brothers Band when he was about 6 or 7.

The Batistes are one of New Orleans’ most respected and legendary jazz clans, and they’ve often worked side by side with the Marsalis family. Both Batiste and his mentor, Wynton Marsalis, attended high school at New Orleans Center for Creative Arts. Wynton’s father, pianist Ellis Marsalis Jr., headed the jazz department there and was succeeded by clarinetist Alvin Batiste, a distant cousin of Jon’s.

“Him and Alvin and Clyde Kerr and Kidd Jordan, they were like the four village elders who taught everybody in New Orleans music from the last 40 years,” Batiste said. His upbringing in a family of jazz musicians and his experiences playing point guard, both in school (where he was part of a state championship-winning squad) and for an AAU team, gave Batiste his energy, his musical acumen and his constant all-American drive for self-improvement.

Jon Batiste is an avid dresser, usually opting for suits with bold colors or prints paired with custom made sneakers.

Melissa Bunni Elian for ESPN

“It’s a discipline to achieve whatever your desired end result is,” Batiste explained. “In sports, there’s a score. There’s statistics, and there’s a winner and a loser and a championship, and there is one team that gets it. It’s just very clear-cut.

“I think, in order to get better at being a musician and a bandleader and a composer and all these different things, you have to create things that are that clear-cut, because the competition that you’re up against is yourself. So it’s harder, if you’re not willing to look into the mirror, to define what the end result is. It’s very easy to get to a certain level and to just coast, and to not push yourself to be better, because nobody is really keeping score.”

That constant pushing isn’t just what Batiste expects of himself. He expects it of his bandmates in Stay Human too.

It’s important to get “the team to where’s there’s a built-in camaraderie and built-in sense of purpose, that you’re OK passing your guy the ball to take the shot when it counts in the fourth quarter,” Batiste said, again likening the job to running a basketball team. “It’s not always going to be you that gets to take that shot. You may have to trust your sixth man, or your 2 guard. You’re running point, and I played a lot of point. You’re going to have to trust … I’m not going to be able to take this shot. This is not a smart shot for me to take.”


Batiste comes to work after lunch — this time, he raved about the meatball sandwich at a spot on 53rd Street and Ninth Avenue — usually taking a car from his apartment in midtown Manhattan. His office is filled with sunlight, although the view is basically of a construction crane, thanks to New York’s never-ending real estate development. He’s got two keyboards, a Mac, an amp, a drum set, an electric bass and a Mason & Hamlin baby grand piano. An unopened bottle of Dom Pérignon still in the box, sits on his windowsill — he doesn’t drink.

He catches up on the news and tries to get an idea of what the show will address. Because Colbert riffs on the day’s news for his nightly monologue, things at The Late Show are often in flux right up until it’s time to tape the show. That means Batiste finds himself flipping through the musical library in his head on deadline and making last-minute changes at sound check.

“Picking music for TV is so specific,” Batiste said. “It has a mystery to it until you pick that right song, play that right beat, and then it’s like, ‘Oh, of course I should have been doing that.’ So it’s a mystery until then. You gotta crack the code.”

The code-cracking continues in the Stay Human rehearsal space, which is about the size of a McMansion bathroom.

Jon Batiste, left, reacts to the music while practicing new material with his band, Stay Human, a few hours ahead of a live taping at The Ed Sullivan Theater in New York City.

Melissa Bunni Elian for The Undefeated

The Late Show tapes four days a week. So Monday through Thursday, 10-plus people cram into the space with their instruments, including a tuba and a drum set, and jam.

Batiste’s assistant squeezes into a chair next to the upright Steinway and plays a song from her phone through the Marshall speaker that sits on the piano. Gradually, the band picks up the groove and joins in. There’s little to no sheet music.

Batiste and the band rehearse for roughly an hour, their choices guided by that night’s guests and notes from a morning production meeting that his assistant attends. Then he’s off to comedy rehearsal with Colbert, where the two go through Colbert’s proposed monologue. A small gathering of crew makes up the audience for the rehearsal, which was kept so off-limits that not only could I not watch, I couldn’t even be in the building while it was taking place.

All those little riffs and interjections that feel natural and spontaneous when you watch Colbert’s monologue? They’ve been rehearsed.

After comedy rehearsal, Colbert and his staff make script changes and Batiste refines his music selections. Then there’s a sound check on the stage with the whole band. This time, Batiste was working through a song with Jonathan Groff, who played King George in Hamilton and now stars on the Netflix series Mindhunter. The two fumbled around to find the right key for a jokey promotional duet for Mindhunter that Groff sang with Colbert.

While everyone ventured off to hair and makeup, Late Show staff members shepherded the night’s audience into their seats. They were treated to a bawdy warm-up act by comedian Paul Mecurio. Batiste and Stay Human played a 15-minute concert, and Colbert came out, introduced himself to the audience and took questions.

Finally, they make the television that shows up after the local news five nights a week.


Duke Ellington favored natty suits and a top hat. Cab Calloway rarely performed without his conductor’s baton, white waistcoat and tails.

While Colbert sticks to a uniform of sober suits and dress shoes, his bandleader favors blazers from Mr. Turk and fresh Jordans. Batiste is a consummate sneakerhead, and while he sat and talked on his sofa, he casually dribbled a basketball between his feet.

Now Batiste has access to an entire collection of covetous footwear, an actual binder full of sneakers, via The Late Show’s stylist. He’s an admirer of Russell Westbrook’s sartorial boundary-pushing, and though his loyalties are not wedded to one particular NBA team, he casually follows Oklahoma City.

Unlike Calloway, Batiste doesn’t come out in a zoot suit every night. But there’s a special element of showmanship involved in being a bandleader. It’s a skill, one that Batiste, who swears he used to be shy, had to learn. And his personal style, which he began to cultivate after moving to New York, is part of it. Presentation, he insists, is separate from being a skillful musician.

Jon Batiste is an avid dresser, usually opting for suits with bold colors or prints paired with custom made sneakers.

Melissa Bunni Elian for The Undefeated

“I think it really is important to think of them as different things,” Batiste said. “It requires a certain understanding of yourself and your comfort zone, and then stepping outside that and expanding your comfort zone. I actually didn’t see a connection with the two. Also, when I was growing up, it was more the older family members who took that role of presenting the band and everything like that. … That’s always a shock to people who I’ve known for a long time, to see how both those things have developed. It’s a surprise, almost, like a different person has emerged.”


Batiste interprets the world through the youthful ears of a wizened soul. His workspaces at The Late Show are a cornucopia of old and new. Crosley and Marshall are companies that specialize in making music equipment that draws on vintage aesthetics but benefits from modern technological innovation. It’s a theme that recurs throughout Batiste’s working life — he began playing for vocalist Cassandra Wilson, now 61, when he was just 22. He’s a jazz musician whose instrument of choice is the melodica, a contraption that looks like a small hand keyboard with a mouthpiece and sounds like a harmonica.

“A lot of people think that this instrument, you know, is like a child’s toy,” Batiste said, but he loves it. He recounted how he showed it to Stevie Wonder the first time they met, when Batiste was still a student at Juilliard.

“Man, you ever played one of these?” Batiste asked Wonder.

Wonder took the instrument, played it, then gave it back.

“Yeah, I used to play them, but I would get so much spit in them, I stopped,” Wonder told him.

“Oh, you got jokes!” was Batiste’s retort.

Unlike many of his earliest predecessors in jazz, Batiste boasts formal musical training besides everything he learned in his family’s band. He earned a master’s degree from Juilliard.

“I feel like it connects me to the ancestors more, the kind of founding fathers of the music,” Batiste said of his musical education. “Mothers and fathers, because women were a big part of it as well. There’s a lot of female artists that I think are still actually becoming recognized that we don’t even know about. The training just gives me another tool. Nothing can hurt you in pursuit of knowledge, the pursuit of your craft.

“You know, there were great musicians who were the most erudite, studied, and they knew everything there was to know even before there were all these schools. And there were also musicians who didn’t know all that stuff, but they knew it in their own way. So, in my mind, I don’t even think about it like I’m educated more so than a musician who didn’t go to a conservatory. It’s just I know the terminology. But the person who knows it is the one who experiences it. So, if somebody is playing it on their instrument, they know it. … Whether they call it a C scale or dominant seventh chord or they just know it by whatever they know in their mind, when they play, it’s there.”

In Batiste’s office there’s a poster of Mavis Staples, one of his many heroes.

“She’s not just a musician now, she’s bigger than music,” Batiste said. “[Her involvement] in the civil rights movement and being a force for goodwill and a force of peace and a force for faith and a force in all kinds of ways. It’s amazing.”

Staples represents what he wants to achieve, Batiste said, “just what kind of energy I want to have as a performer and a celebrity. Somebody that’s authentic and is very real and also accomplished and all that, at the same time.”

In marrying youth with tradition, drawing a line from zoot suits to Jordans, Batiste has become a vehicle for advocating and communicating about jazz. He’s reverential, but not stuffy, and always repping New Orleans. (When it comes to gumbo, Batiste prefers filé to okra as a thickener for the city’s signature stew — that’s how his mama makes it.)

For decades, there’s been a panic that jazz, born in Louisiana and spread via the Great Migration, radio and vinyl, is dying. As once-booming jazz corridors in cities such as Washington, D.C., and Kansas City have shrunk or transformed, those changes are accompanied by understandable worries that no one’s interested in carrying on the genre’s traditions, that a uniquely American art form is going underappreciated outside of Lincoln Center, the Kennedy Center and rich people’s wedding receptions. Damien Chazelle won an Academy Award for directing a movie around that theme.

But there’s always a young, handsome, passionate and charismatic ambassador keeping the legacies of Bird and Miles and Satchmo alive. In the ’90s, it was Batiste’s mentor, Wynton Marsalis. Now Batiste has picked up the torch, along with the requisite fedora and porkpie hat — he’s got a stack of them in his dressing room and more in his office. As for the next generation? Well, Batiste turned 31 in November. He celebrated by traveling to see his 8-year-old nephew’s piano recital. The culture is in safe hands.

No matter if it’s a rehearsal or an actual performance, Batiste and his band member play full out, laughing and having fun with each note they play.

Melissa Bunni Elian for The Undefeated

“I don’t expect that jazz is always going to be on top like it was in the ’20s, for example,” said jazz pianist and bandleader Herbie Hancock. “The music is always evolving and constantly changing, and it’s very difficult for a lot of listeners to keep up with that.”

But he’s optimistic about Batiste’s work on The Late Show. “That experience is incredible because you’re challenged in a lot of new ways, doing that type of TV show,” Hancock said. “Because of the kind of talent he has and his experience in jazz, he’s able to more easily adapt and include new ways of dealing with the music for that kind of show than if he had not had it.”


As darkness began to settle over Manhattan, it was time for a show.

Batiste sprinted onstage to greet the show’s live audience. Joined by Stay Human, they pumped up the crowd with James Brown’s “Get Up, Get Into It, Get Involved” and an arrangement of Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” modeled after Tito Puente’s salsa-fied version.

One of Colbert’s guests was writer and Aspen Institute president Walter Isaacson, who was there to promote his new biography of Leonardo da Vinci. To introduce Isaacson, the band played an up-tempo rendition of “Oh! Didn’t He Ramble,” a New Orleans ditty from 1902 later popularized by Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong.

“I grew up with his whole family,” Isaacson explained to Colbert. “The wonderful Batiste family of New Orleans.” Isaacson gestured toward Batiste. “He’s a great man.”

When the interview concluded, Isaacson walked over for a hug, thrilled that Batiste had chosen to pay musical homage to their shared roots.

Later, Colbert said goodbye and the band exited. While the audience made its way to the lobby, stopping for pictures with cardboard cutouts of Colbert, Batiste huddled with the host for a post-mortem of the night’s show.

The process of assembling and putting out a newspaper used to be known as the Daily Miracle. Making late-night television involves many of the same pressures related to accuracy, tone and intellect. On top of that, it’s got to be funny, and it’s done in front of a live audience.

No wonder The Late Show tapes smack in the middle of Broadway. With Colbert and Batiste at the helm, it’s clear that’s exactly where it belongs.

Baltimore Raven Ronnie Stanley on being half-Tongan, crushing on Rihanna — and Krispy Kreme The starting left tackle also loves to win arguments with his quarterback, Joe Flacco

The day after the Baltimore Ravens’ crucial Monday Night Football win over the Houston Texans, Ronnie Stanley is still celebrating. For Baltimore’s starting left tackle, the victory and following off day calls for a snack.

“I got some Krispy Kreme,” says Stanley via mobile, and fresh out of line. “I played well, so I thought I deserved some doughnuts.” What did he order? “A little assorted half-dozen. Probably won’t eat them all, but just a few to pick from. Chocolate and original glazed.”

The 6-foot-6, 320-pounder needed some fuel after grinding through the matchup against the Texans, in which he suffered an apparent knee injury that he feared could be a torn ACL. Yet Stanley checked out fine with trainers on the sideline before returning to the field to do his job: protect quarterback Joe Flacco. His prowess is the reason the Ravens selected Stanley with the sixth overall pick in 2016. At Notre Dame, he was a consensus 2015 All-American. When the 23-year-old isn’t guarding Flacco’s blind side, he’s trying to prove a point to his quarterback, embracing his half-Tongan/half-African-American heritage or crushing on @badgalriri — Rihanna. Maybe one day she’ll notice him on the field.

What’s the most painful injury you’ve sustained in your life?

You know those souped-up golf carts that are meant for outdoors and hunting? I was in an accident on one of those and ended up breaking my arm and my right ankle. I could’ve died. That was the most painful experience I’ve had in my life. That was freshman year in high school.

What’s one thing you always do before a big game?

One thing I’m always doing is making sure I’ve done everything I can. I’ve warmed up. I’ve gotten as much direction as I can. I kind of overprepare.

What’s the most unique thing about your quarterback, Joe Flacco, that not many people know?

He’s a hilarious, superoutspoken guy with a ton of opinions … nothing really weird, but if there’s something that could be a gray area, or you’re going back and forth, he’ll always have an opinion. That’s the same with me, so we’ll always be trying to be the right person in the conversation. We both love trying to prove the other wrong.

What’s your most vivid memory from the day you got drafted?

Walking out on the stage, seeing all those people and holding up that jersey for the first time in front of the crowd. Just it all settling in. Everything you’d dreamed of since you were a kid, and it finally happening in one moment.

What was your first major purchase after being drafted?

I didn’t even purchase it, I’m leasing it, but I guess you could say my car. It’s a BMW. It was originally white, but I got it wrapped in this dark matte gray.

If not for the NFL, what career path would you be on right now?

Probably something entrepreneurial, having to do with a technology startup, along the lines of innovation.

In November, did you bet with any of your Ravens teammates that Notre Dame would beat Miami?

I didn’t bet anyone at first, but I was having a good feeling about it the day of the game. Our D-tackle Brandon Williams, an hour and a half before the game, was trying to set something up with me. We ended up betting, and I ended up losing.

“I always get some type of tweet, or some message, from not just Tongan fans but Polynesian fans in general.”

If you could meet any athlete, dead or alive, who would it be?

I’d want it to be someone I could gain some wisdom from, not just someone who was good at their sport. … I’d probably say Muhammad Ali, back in his day. I met him when I was a kid, actually. He was in Las Vegas because his grandson, who’s a lot younger than I am, played at my high school. I never got to talk to Muhammad like that because he was a lot older, so to be able to talk him when he was younger, and be able to have a full conversation … he had a lot of insight.

If you could take one celebrity on a date, who would it be and why?

Oh, gosh … I’d go with Rihanna. … She does her own thing … and is supersuccessful.

What’s your favorite platform for social media, and why?

Twitter, for sure, because the content is hilarious. You can’t find funny s— like that on any other social media.

How did you come up with the Instagram handle @megatronnie?

When I made my IG, I was sitting there thinking, ‘OK, I want something to go with my name.’ So I said, ‘What ends with ‘-ron’?’ so that I could finish it off with Ronnie. I was just making up all these names in my head, and I came up with ‘Megatronnie.’

Who’s the most famous person following you on IG/snap/Twitter?

Jerome Boateng is pretty famous, I guess. He follows me. We’re actually pretty good friends.

What’s one thing about yourself that others might consider embarrassing?

Just the way I act in general … the things I say.

What’s one place in the world you’ve never been that you’re dying to visit?

Dubai.

When in your life did you realize you’re half-Tongan, and what does your Tongan heritage mean to you?

I knew I was half-Tongan when I was pretty young. My parents did a really good job of introducing me, my little brother and my little sister to the culture. We went to a lot of family reunions with our Tongan side of the family. To be around them a lot as kids definitely normalized the heritage for us.

Do you get a lot of love from Tongan NFL fans?

For sure. I always get some type of tweet, or some message, from not just Tongan fans but Polynesian fans in general. It’s such a small group of people compared to other races in America. To see someone of that ethnicity playing football … they all support us because there’s only a handful of us.

You have a huge tattoo inspired by your Tongan heritage — what made you get it?

I always thought tribal tattoos were amazing. Just the detail, the pattern, the art, the symmetry. What I got was actually done by Haloti Ngata’s little brother. … In the middle, I have a big dove that’s on my grandma’s tombstone. I also have my mom’s name written in Tongan within the design. The rest of it is all traditional Tongan freehand. … It took like 13 hours, and I did it in one session.

Where does your courage come from?

My parents always telling me to stand up for myself and to do what I know is right. They were always reaffirming, ‘You’re no less than anyone else … so don’t let people walk over you.’ That definitely made me a lot more courageous being out in the world by myself.

What will you always be the champion of?

The people.

Five highlights from the 2017 Kennedy Center Honors Stevie Wonder, Meryl Streep and ‘Mama Said Knock You Out’: You won’t want to miss these moments when the Honors are broadcast

Sometimes you need a bit of black tie glam to remember there’s beauty in the world, and that it’s worth celebrating.

Thank goodness for the Kennedy Center Honors.

On Sunday, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., held its 40th Honors ceremony to fete contributions to American culture. This year’s Honors were a celebration of Gloria Estefan, Norman Lear (at 95, the oldest person to be honored), LL Cool J (at 49, the youngest), Carmen de Lavallade and Lionel Richie. LL Cool J was also the first rapper to be recognized.

Certainly there’s plenty of darkness these days. Have you read a newspaper? Sunday, as journalists and spectators huddled around velvet ropes for a word with the night’s VIPs, CBS chairman Les Moonves and his wife, Julie Chen, quickly swooshed by and managed to avoid being harangued about the firing of CBS This Morning host Charlie Rose over allegations of sexual misconduct. Rapper Darryl McDaniels, better known as D.M.C. of Run-D.M.C., and LL Cool J were confronted about multiple allegations of sexual assault leveled against Def Jam co-founder Russell Simmons. LL Cool J declined to discuss the allegations, while D.M.C. condemned Simmons’ actions. Both rappers were key players in the success of Def Jam, the record label Simmons founded.

But the Honors reminded us that the performing arts aren’t just a distraction from the serious, gloomy issues of the day but rather the thing that makes us able to persist through them.

Here are five magical highlights from the evening that you can see Dec. 26 at 9 p.m. EST on CBS.

Meryl Streep’s salute to Carmen de Lavallade

Carmen de Lavallade, one of the 2017 honorees, walks the red carpet at the Kennedy Center Honors at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. on Dec. 3, 2017.

Gabriella Demczuk for The Undefeated

Meryl Streep is always fun to watch during awards shows. There’s a reason that her reactions turn into viral GIFs. She was on the list of expected guests for Sunday evening, as a former honoree, but it was a pleasant surprise to see her take the stage.

Streep was a student of de Lavallade’s at Yale School of Drama, and she lovingly described her dance teacher’s soft-spoken methods and teaching philosophies. Streep affected de Lavallade’s famous hand motions, which she’s executed for decades with an enviable and flawless seeming grace and natural ease, as she spoke about her admiration for de Lavallade as a role model and dance pioneer.

Replicating de Lavallade’s soft-spoken manner, she cooed, “No one is late on the second day of class.”

The musical tribute to LL Cool J

In person, the Honors can be a bit of a staid Washington event. Its attendees are not known for taking chances with fashion, and it’s the one night of the year there’s probably enough brocade in the building to make curtains for the center’s many windows. But this was the first time in the history of the event that a rapper was being honored.

The tribute to LL Cool J was loud, boisterous and funky, and some of the younger audience members, namely Becky G, a young singer who performed earlier in the evening for Estefan, could be seen bobbing their heads and rapping along to “Mama Said Knock You Out.” This wasn’t polite hip-hop, toned down for the opera house. This was the real deal, and the audience was treated to footage of an oiled-up, shirtless LL Cool J as Queen Latifah extolled his position as “rap’s first sex symbol.”

The elephant not in the room

Norman Lear, one of the 2017 honorees, walks the red carpet at the Kennedy Center Honors at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. on Dec. 3, 2017.

Gabriella Demczuk for The Undefeated

Months ago, the president and first lady announced they would not be attending the ceremony. Richie, Lear and de Lavallade said they would boycott the annual White House reception that’s part of the weekend’s celebrations.

But the president’s absence was noticeable, especially during the tribute to Lear. You can argue that all art is political, but few make it as obvious as the storied television producer. In expressing gratitude for Lear’s cultural contributions, the video short about him focused on his decision in 2001 to buy one of the last remaining original copies of the Declaration of Independence, which he sent on tour around the country so Americans could see it up close.

Dave Chappelle was on hand for Lear’s tribute, and after expressing surprise that a copy of the country’s founding document could simply be purchased with enough money, he dropped the hammer: “I’m sure we’ll fetch a lot of rubles for that.”

Then, the U.S. Air Force band performed “America the Beautiful” while Lear’s copy of the Declaration sat center stage.

A surprise appearance by Stevie Wonder

The honorees have no idea who will be performing their work until they see them on stage, but those who keep an eye on the red carpet can guess. Leona Lewis, D.M.C., MC Lyte, Questlove, Kenya Barris, Anthony Anderson and Rachel Bloom were among the glitterati spotted in the center’s Hall of States early in the evening.

But the real magic takes place when the Kennedy Center sneaks in some unexpected cultural royalty, and Sunday it was Stevie Wonder. There was an audible gasp in the audience when he turned up on stage to honor Richie by singing “Hello,” one of Richie’s many solo hits.

Paquito D’Rivera’s national anthem

Gloria Estefan, one of the 2017 honorees, walks the red carpet at the Kennedy Center Honors at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. on Dec. 3, 2017.

Gabriella Demczuk for The Undefeated

With Estefan in the mix, this year’s class of honorees included a Cuban immigrant who made Latin pop part of the fabric of the country. The Kennedy Center quietly thumbed its nose at nativism with the inclusion of Paquito D’Rivera, who got the evening started with a jazz saxophone rendition of the national anthem. He even worked in a couple of bars of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” in the middle of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

‘My Cause My Cleats’: The top 24 Week 13 customs — and why players wore them Reppin’ everything from the American Cancer Society to the Trayvon Martin Foundation to Kaepernick

Week 13 in the National Football League, at least since last season, is all about creativity, customization and cause. Through the “My Cause My Cleats” campaign, which the league started in 2016, players can bend uniform guidelines and wear cleats designed to represent a cause of their choice.

Typically, players are only allowed to wear custom-painted kicks during pregame warm-ups. Then switch to uniform footwear while the game clock is rolling. But in Week 13, flashy cleats in vibrant colors, featuring unique illustrations and messages, are the norm. Athletes all across the NFL, from every position group, commission the hottest designers in the sneaker game to create the perfect pair of cleats for their cause. This year, around 1,000 players reportedly took part in the initiative, and after games ended, select cleats were sold at auction, with 100 percent of the proceeds benefiting causes such as the #BringBackOurGirls campaign, Colin Kaepernick’s #KnowYourRightsCamp, Habitat for Humanity, autism, POW and MIA families, anti-bullying, social justice and criminal justice reform, the Trayvon Martin Foundation and more.

“This weekend, you’ll really see the impact art has had on the NFL,” Los Angeles artist Troy Cole, aka Kickasso, tweeted before Sunday’s games. Last season, he designed every pair of New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr.’s anticipated pregame cleats. “Art is a powerful way to tell a story #MyCauseMyCleats.”

Here are The Undefeated’s top 24 “My Cause My Cleats” customs, along with the players who wore them, the causes they supported and the artistic geniuses who brought charitable creativity to life.


Chidobe Awuzie, Cornerback, Dallas Cowboys

Cause: #BringBackOurGirls campaign

Joe Barksdale, Offensive Tackle, Los Angeles Chargers

Instagram Photo

Cause: Fender Music Foundation

Designer: DeJesus Custom Footwear Inc.

Michael Bennett, Defensive End, Seattle Seahawks

Cause: National League of POW/MIA Families

A.J. Bouye, Cornerback, Jacksonville Jaguars

Cause: American Cancer Society

Designer: Kickasso

Antonio Brown, Wide Receiver, Pittsburgh Steelers

Instagram Photo

Cause: RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network)

Designer: Corey Pane

Kurt Coleman, Safety, Carolina Panthers

Cause: Levine Children’s Hospital

Designer: Ryan Bare, SR Customs

Mike Daniels, defensive end, Green Bay Packers

Cause: Anti-bullying

Designer: SolesBySir

Stefon Diggs, Wide Receiver, Minnesota Vikings

Cause: American Heart Association

Designer: Mache Customs

DeSean Jackson, Wide Receiver, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Instagram Photo

Cause: Brotherhood Crusade

Designer: SolesBySir

Malcolm Jenkins, Safety, Philadelphia Eagles

Cause: Social Justice and Criminal Justice Reform, Players Coalition

Designer: Sixth-grade class at Jubilee School, Illustrative Cre8ions

Eddie Lacy, Running Back, Seattle Seahawks

Cause: International Relief Teams, Hurricane Katrina

Designer: Bizon Customs

Jarvis Landry, Wide Receiver, Miami Dolphins

Instagram Photo

Cause: Cystic Fibrosis Foundation

Marshon Lattimore, Cornerback, New Orleans Saints

Cause: Social injustices and honoring close friend Dayton Williams, who was shot and killed in 2010 in Euclid, Ohio.

Rishard Matthews, Wide Receiver, Tennessee Titans

Instagram Photo

Cause: Colin Kaepernick, Know Your Rights Camp

Designer: SolesBySir

Gerald McCoy, Defensive Tackle, Tampa Bay buccaneers

Instagram Photo

Cause: “The Life of a Single Mom”

Designer: The Hulfish Project

Eric Reid, Safety, San Francisco 49ers

Cause: Colin Kaepernick, Know Your Rights Camp

Designer: Tragik MCMXCIII

A’shawn Robinson, Defensive Tackle, Detroit Lions

Cause: Leukemia patients

Jaylon Smith, Linebacker, Dallas Cowboys

Cause: Autism

Designer: The Hulfish Project

Torrey Smith, Wide Receiver, Philadelphia Eagles

Instagram Photo

Cause: Torrey Smith Family Fund, Show Your Soft Side, Players Coalition, NO More Campaign

Designer: Kreative Custom Kicks, Dez Customz

Shane Vereen, Running Back, New York Giants

Cause: Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles

Designer: Kickasso

Anthony Walker, Linebacker, Indianapolis Colts

Cause: Trayvon Martin Foundation

Designer: Desmond J. Jones, Art is Dope

Deshaun Watson, Quarterback, Houston Texans

Cause: Habitat for Humanity

Designer: 5-year-old twins Kayla and Jakwan; Evan Melnyk, Nike

Russell Wilson, Quarterback, Seattle Seahawks

Cause: Why Not You Foundation

Designer: Kate Neckel and Dash Tsai

 

Daryl Worley, Cornerback, Carolina Panthers

Instagram Photo

Cause: CeaseFirePA

Designer: SR Customs

No matter the circumstance, black men walk through life with swag In their new movies, Denzel Washington, Chadwick Boseman and Rob Morgan walk like brothers with a certain attitude

Something in the way three black men move in their current movie roles is evocative not only of the characters they play but also of the times in which these men each lived.

As soon as Denzel Washington walks on-screen in the eponymous role of Roman J. Israel, Esq., it is clear the two-time Oscar-winning actor is exploring new terrain as an actor. Gone is his soulful strut, which has taken its place alongside Marilyn Monroe’s wiggle, Charlie Chaplin’s waddle and John Wayne’s saunter as one of Hollywood’s most recognizable gaits.

Denzel Washington stars in Roman J. Israel, Esq.

Glen Wilson

Instead, in his new movie, Washington walks as if he’s a tightly wound rubber ball who, nevertheless, doesn’t bounce very high, instead rolling through life with harried purpose, often uphill.

In the movie, Washington comes to grips with the internal and external forces he’s been battling to an anonymous and noble draw, just as so many people in real life do.

In movies such as 42 and Get on Up, a James Brown biopic, Chadwick Boseman has used different walks to portray very different men. As Jackie Robinson in 42, Boseman used his walk to portray a great athlete burdened by the pressure of breaking major league baseball’s color line. As Brown, he glided more than walked, a high-flying bird circling his own sun.

Now, as Thurgood Marshall in Marshall, Boseman walks with open and confident strides as the crusading civil rights lawyer who would later become the nation’s first black Supreme Court justice. I’m eager to see how Boseman will walk in Black Panther, a 2018 superhero movie based in Africa. If the teaser trailer is any indication, the Black Panther will walk a little like James Brown. Black superheroes have soul, and they are superbad.

And as Hap Jackson in Mudbound, Rob Morgan walks as if his soul and spirit dance, despite the bone-breaking work he does to support his family in the 1940s American South. And he stands tall, as if he can see a better day for his family and his people.

In Hollywood, actors of all races root their characters in how they move, how they walk. But in much of black America, our men turn everyday walking into a kind of performance art.

During the 1960s, Martin Luther King Jr. walked with the serenity of a man who could hear the waters parting as he sought to lead his people to the promised land.

Twenty years later, a young Michael Jordan of the Chicago Bulls walked on to NBA basketball courts as if it were Friday night and he carried two weeks’ pay in his back pocket and the prettiest woman on the South Side of Chicago waiting for him back home.

And a generation after that, Barack Hussein Obama, the nation’s first black president, walked into the White House as if the majestic horns of John Coltrane’s “Blue Train” or Earth, Wind & Fire’s “In the Stone,” fanfares for an uncommon man, heralded his arrival.

When I was a child growing up in Philly, I learned that there was nothing pedestrian about the way black men walked. Instead, each man’s gait revealed a journey, whether it was from the street corners, the factory floors or the cotton fields.

Today, too many young black men walk as if they wear chains around their ankles, tottering back and forth, with no particular place to go. We’d do well to understand the sorrow and disaffection revealed in the way they walk.

In their current movies, Washington, Boseman and Morgan explore the inner and outer space of their characters’ lives. They take us to places we know. They take us to foreign places. They take us to places we’d like to be: a bite of the good life, a sip of forbidden water, the embrace of a good woman.

They ask us to walk with them and see what they see, feel what they feel. We do. And we are better for the journey.

Oscar winner John Ridley wants us to keep asking questions about the L.A. riots The writer-director — ’12 Years a Slave,’ ‘Red Tails,’ ‘American Crime’ — tells truths via fiction and nonfiction

If you’ve been paying attention these past few years, you see exactly what John Ridley is trying to do. The Oscar-winning filmmaker — he earned Hollywood’s biggest prize for writing the adapted screenplay of 2013’s 12 Years a Slave — has been working on projects that entertain and educate. When you experience a John Ridley project, you end up ordering a book or going down a Google rabbit hole. You figure out a way to learn more. He challenges his audience to think more deeply.

His latest project is documentary Let It Fall, which was released in New York and Los Angeles theaters earlier this year (a shorter version ran on ABC). The film documents the mood and events that led to the Los Angeles riots, which happened 25 years ago in the aftermath of the Rodney King verdict. Like most of what he does, the work is rich. And now his name, once again, is being whispered in Academy Award circles.

Why do you gravitate toward the kind of work — statement art — that you do?

I started in a space where much of the work that I did was self-expression. I started as a novelist, and the first novel I wrote was made into an Oliver Stone film, U Turn (1997). And with Three Kings (1993) and Undercover Brother (2002), [they] were about me trying to speak to people. That was good, and I think I was successful to a degree. But it was a time in my career where things shifted, and I was very fortunate to be involved in stories that were less about me and more about who we are. And where we came from, and representatives of, I’ll say, our community — certainly in our country, and in general. People of color who, against all odds, and without a desire for much recognition of self, just work to achieve, and to be, and to excel.

So you do things like Red Tails and get involved with the Tuskegee Airmen, and you do things like 12 Years a Slave, or American Crime, which were fictionalized stories but real human accounts. We spent so much time with people, listening to them. Their stories and their struggles. Their hopes, their dreams and their desires. People compliment me on my work, and I go, ‘Look, I don’t know that I’ve gotten better over the years as a storyteller. But I think the stories that I’ve been fortunate enough to be involved in, they are more potent and they are more emotional. And they touch people in a greater way.’ I’m absolutely attracted to those kinds of stories.

“These individuals, who on the surface have no connectivity, will forever be connected by a very particular tragedy.”

Let It Fall certainly falls into that. Why did you want to document this horrific moment in American history?

There were so many very personal stories, very personal narratives, that were beyond the narrative. People called it a ‘riot.’ ‘The Rodney King Riots.’ Rodney King didn’t start it; the riots didn’t start right after the arrest. There were so many incidents … that led to these tragic events. They affected many different communities and many different kinds of people. One of the reasons I wanted to tell the story was I thought it deserved to be told from multiple perspectives, and over time. These different points of views, and these different neighborhoods, and these different individuals were given equal weight and equal measure … a tapestry was being woven. One can do that and not obscure a central point that we’re all sharing these spaces. If we don’t see the commonality that we have, on an everyday basis, we will end up seeing it in a shared way, and usually with a shared tragedy. It shouldn’t come to that before we see ourselves in other people.

So much rich material is coming out of the documentary space right now, and black directors and creatives are telling these stories — look at the Oscars documentary category last year.

There are moments in Let It Fall, … [where] I don’t think I could create characters or moments or emotions that are as strong as they are in reality. I also think now is a very good time for telling documentaries because there are so many platforms that are very supportive of the documentary space, and audiences no longer have to go to an art house or see them in a movie theater. You have these great stories, you have audiences that are now being cultivated — and you have artists, whether it’s Ezra Edelman, whether it’s Ava DuVernay — who want to tell stories.

The L.A. riots happened 25 years ago, but so much of what was happening then feels very contemporary. What surprised you most when putting this together?

How raw some of the subjects’ emotions remained, even 25 years later. The stories they’re telling, it’s like they happened yesterday. The sharpness of their pain, or their loss, or their regret, things they wished they could do differently. Things that they wish they could do again. These individuals, who on the surface have no connectivity, will forever be connected by a very particular tragedy. That was my strongest takeaway … just the rawness of the emotions.

What would you hope audiences take away from this doc?

It’s wrong to put something in front of people as though I have the answers and I have the solution. I think people need to be continuing to ask questions. Questions about their environment, questions about how they interact. What would be my decision? What would be my choice? What would I do in a similar circumstance? Or more importantly, what can I do now so that I can avoid ever having to make a choice like that? There’s far too much of that going on right now, people being told what to think. But not enough of us being inspired to ask more questions, dig more deeply and upend expectations.

Let it Fall is available on ABC.com and Netflix.

Thunder GM Sam Presti, coach Billy Donovan know how to jazz up a conversation about basketball A talk about the teamwork in jazz as it relates to hoops

Oklahoma City Thunder assistant coach Mark Bryant was walking alongside the basketball court at the team’s practice facility when he passed a legendary face from the jazz world oddly hanging out. Bryant turned around on this September day to enthusiastically introduce himself to Branford Marsalis. The three-time Grammy Award-winning saxophonist was there to talk about the connection between jazz and basketball with Thunder general manager Sam Presti and head coach Billy Donovan.

“When I talk to people who are in a discipline outside of my discipline, talking to them kind of affirms to me what I know to already be true,” Marsalis said during a phone interview from Warsaw, Poland, after a recent performance. “That was that situation. Billy had a ton of questions. They know what they are doing. I really didn’t have a lot of questions. I just watched. But there was stuff I learned about the building, the organization and ownership being hands off. Just things that really matter.

“It was a great experience for me. I appreciate basketball. I appreciate the skill of it.”

Presti is a longtime jazz fan, while Donovan says he is not familiar with the genre of music. Both, however, have huge respect for superstar brothers Branford and Wynton Marsalis, who have combined to win 12 Grammys. Presti said that “nonbasketball learning” is important to the Thunder organization.

Presti and Donovan sat with Branford Marsalis hours before he performed with his quartet at the University of Central Oklahoma’s Mitchell Hall Theatre on Sept. 8. Donovan also had a long conversation with Wynton Marsalis this summer.

The reason? To pick the jazz legends’ minds about teamwork and philosophy in a jazz band as it relates to basketball.

“When I met Branford in person and talked to Wynton on the phone, I was blown away on their mentality in terms of sport, music and society and just how much it’s about making the people around you better,” Donovan said. “In team sports, it’s not necessarily about, ‘Hey, I want to play my music.’ Sometimes you have to listen to other people’s music and how to make the group better by listening. I thought their messaging, background and being basketball fans and sports fans, both were incredible.

“I just loved listening to those guys. Those guys, in their industry, they’re legends. I have not listened to a lot of jazz music, but I know those two names.”

Saxophonist Branford Marsalis (left).

Paul Bergen/Redferns

Presti said he became a fan of jazz as a kid growing up in Boston when he took drum lessons. He was hooked on jazz after his music teacher gave him the album Miles Smiles from legendary trumpeter Miles Davis. Presti eventually became a huge fan of the Marsalis family’s influence on jazz, most notably Branford.

“He has been so well-known for so long because of how early he started,” Presti said. “All the different genres he has played within, The [Jazz] Messengers [group] to obviously working with Sting to his solo work. He’s touched so many different facets. From a production standpoint, he’s just been involved in so much music. It’s hard not to collide with something he has not touched.

“Obviously, that family in general has had such a huge influence on music. Not just in terms of their contributions in music themselves but as educators that share their experience and insights. They have a tremendous reach. It’s really interesting to hear them speak about how they interpret the art themselves.”

Branford Marsalis is a huge sports fan who lives and dies with his hometown New Orleans Saints and is optimistic about the New Orleans Pelicans. The former musical director for The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and Sting was introduced to Presti by a mutual friend after hearing that Presti was a big fan. The two kept in touch, and Branford Marsalis even sent music. Branford Marsalis texted Presti to let him know he was going to be in Oklahoma City on Sept. 8 to teach a master’s class on music at a local college and to perform a concert.

Branford Marsalis next accepted an invitation to hang out with Presti and Donovan at the Thunder’s training facility. The three men, along with other Thunder staff members, sat for about three hours talking jazz and basketball and how the two intertwine. Presti said he learned a lot from Branford Marsalis about how he challenges himself to continually improve as an artist even at his level, how he still learns from the jazz greats, the struggle of jazz artists and what some of the jazz greats were like as musicians and people.

“Music and sports are such a metaphor for so many things in the world,” Presti said. “They both involve having to listen and react and interpret different things. For the conversation in general, I asked him, ‘How do you continue to grow and learn? How do you know what is quality? How do you find that?’ And obviously, the art form itself with Branford and his craft, so much of it is about listening and really hearing what the other people are doing. It’s really fascinating to listen to him talk about that as well as his preparation and the way he has taken his career path. It was a pretty wide-ranging conversation, to be honest. It was interesting to hear him speak about that stuff.

“A couple things stood out to me. With him, the thing that was really cool was his respect and reverence for the people that he grew up listening to. He still listens to those records endlessly and learns from them. And the emphasis he placed on listening and hearing different things from the same recording. I thought that was really because he basically put such an emphasis on going back and listening to those specific artists, the greats, and there is so much knowledge wrapped up in there. The other thing that stuck out to me was never wanting to repeat yourself and stretching yourself to try new things.”

Branford Marsalis said Donovan and Presti asked him a “pile of questions” on alternative types of leadership. Branford Marsalis explained that jazz and basketball were similar since “very few people can do this s— on a very high level.” He also told Donovan and Presti that the evaluation of jazz artists should be the same as NBA free agents by looking beyond the statistics. Donovan also asked Branford Marsalis about finding personnel, adapting to playing in different venues, and more.

“I talked to [Donovan] about the parallels between music and sports in a way that he would have never thought about it because he’s never played music,” Branford Marsalis said. “For better or for worse, a lot of us have played sports. In a jazz band, it’s very similar to basketball because you can have musicians who can really play their instrument really well. But they don’t have an understanding of what their function is to make the group succeed.

“Many times in the history of basketball, you think of players who got [big] free-agent contracts based on their stats when what the s— would really be would be apparent if you were just looking at the person play with the kind of eyesight that you need to have. It’s like little things. I listen to musicians play and I look for little things. I don’t look for the big things. Is the musician that is playing a solo feeding off what the rhythm section is giving him or is he playing some s— that he just worked out? Does he play? Does he balance with the other musicians? Does he play louder than everyone else? Does he play softer? Does he make eye contact? Does he communicate? Can he hear the music?”

Branford Marsalis also was impressed by the Thunder’s development of players while watching some work on their game and play pickup ball during his time at the practice facility in the NBA offseason.

“I said, ‘Let’s talk about the team.’ [Presti] likes his job, so he was excited to talk about it. By that time, Carmelo [Anthony] and Paul George were coming,” Branford Marsalis said. “But we talked more about the philosophy of the team, the facility, the guys who are playing now, who are those guys. They have these development league guys, and those guys are playing with them. And sometimes the Thunder guys will ball with them. There were guys playing and being coached then. I was like, ‘Damn, it was year-round.’ ”

Presti and several staff members went on to attend Branford Marsalis’ concert later that night. While at the concert, Presti picked up more insight on the connection between jazz and basketball.

“It’s not every day that someone like that comes through town,” Presti said. “They were playing in what he felt was a really great acoustic venue. It was a really old auditorium locally. That was pretty cool that he really liked the environment. He also talked about the dynamics of the group. There was a new bass player that evening because someone had a travel issue or maybe was sick. They called a guy in from out of the country. Just watching the interplay, none of us would have picked up on the fact that this was someone relatively new for the evening that may spend a few weeks with him.

“With that knowledge, it was interesting to see it all work, the professionalism and the craft that goes into it. It was a really great experience, and he was really kind to us when he was there. And just to see him onstage where he was at his best was cool to see.”

Donovan was honored to get time with Wynton Marsalis, who is the most decorated jazz legend living today.

The New Orleans native is the only artist to win Grammys for jazz and classical records. Time magazine celebrated Wynton Marsalis as one of America’s 25 most influential people in 1996. The first jazz musician to win the Pulitzer Prize for music has sold approximately 7 million copies of his recordings worldwide, has toured every continent except Antarctica and received the National Medal of Arts from President George W. Bush in 2005. Wynton Marsalis also created a series of “I Love This Game” commercials for the NBA during the 1998 NBA season and appeared in the public service announcements for the NBA’s Team Up program.

“Wynton used to always say that jazz is like a fast break,” Branford Marsalis said.

Donovan became “fascinated” with Wynton Marsalis after watching an interview of him talking about jazz having a connection to basketball.

“He talked in the interview about the ability to be unselfish, how to make people around you better,” Donovan said. “It sounded so much like the game of basketball. There is a stylistic freelancing. Guys are playing instruments together and they are improvising. And a lot of times on the court, they have to improvise. So when I saw this interview after my assistant showed it to me, I was like, ‘Wow, this is really powerful.’ ”

Last offseason, Thunder assistant coach Billy Schmidt passed Wynton Marsalis’ book, Moving to Higher Ground: How Jazz Can Change Your Life, on to Donovan’s coaching staff and the team’s front office. Wynton Marsalis wrote that he hopes the book reached “a new audience with the positive message of America’s greatest music, to show how great musicians demonstrate on the bandstand a mutual respect and trust that can alter your outlook on the world and enrich every aspect of your life — from individual creativity and personal relationships to conducting business and understanding what it means to be American in the most modern sense.”

Donovan, part of that new audience, would later have a phone conversation with Wynton Marsalis about the book.

“It was a really incredible book,” Donovan said. “You have a 50-team piece band. Everybody wants to be soloing. Everybody wants to be out in front. But sometimes the most important guy is the drummer because he is keeping everyone in rhythm and he is the guy in the background. You have to be OK with that egowise. And it was just how you make the group better. The biggest thing he talked about as a musician is you have to be willing to listen.

“In the interview, he told a guy, ‘You play what you want to play, and I’ll play what I want to play.’ And they both played what they wanted to play, and it was awful. Then he said, ‘You start playing and I will listen to what you’re playing and I know I will complement you to what you’re playing.’ And that stuff to me in terms of team sports with basketball really resonated.”

Donovan yearned to speak with Wynton Marsalis after hearing the interview and reading the book. One of the Thunder security guards was able to make it happen in early October thanks to a connection to Wynton Marsalis. Donovan said he sent notes on Wynton Marsalis’ book to him before the phone call.

“We talked for about an hour on the phone,” Donovan said. “We talked about life, jazz bands and what he goes into performing, and every show being completely different. Every game is completely different. Every team is different. And I hope that they can both speak to our team, because it was really powerful.

“And I didn’t know enough about jazz. I didn’t know that jazz was all improvised. I had no idea. He educated me on it and how they have to be a team, how they have to work together and sometimes how guys walk offstage and say, ‘You know what, I was really bad tonight.’ And they play great the next night. Not every player is going to play great every night. There was a lot of correlation and comparisons to be made.”

Wynton Marsalis said what he most recalls about his phone conversation with Donovan was how “very polite” he was, as well as his “focus and graciousness.” Wynton Marsalis, a self-described “midlevel scrub” as a basketball player, also agrees with the connection between jazz and basketball. He said most of Donovan’s questions were centered on refocusing individual goals to align with collective goals and ways to change “a value system so that the sacrificial decisions that undergird group success are as venerated as individual achievements.”

“Both require the different positions or instruments to understand and accept the unique requirements of their specific roles,” Wynton Marsalis said via e-mail. “Both encourage accurate decision-making and graceful execution under the pressure of time. Both have a tradition of transcendent geniuses who change the definition of greatness and a tradition of definitive groups or teams that demonstrate the superiority of collective emotion, intelligence and execution.”

Wynton Marsalis said a key to teamwork in a great band is finding members who believe in “the value of group expression and buy into the philosophy and practices of our group.” He said he evaluates talent by assessing “spiritual depth” at first before assessing desire, knowledge, intelligence, humility, charisma, execution under pressure and collegiality. When all those attributes are combined, Wynton Marsalis believes, a team can be great whether on the stage or the hardwood.

“In jazz, it means someone strives to understand the meaning and philosophies of the music across time and are equally as willing to meticulously repeat the smallest details of a given piece as long as is necessary,” Wynton Marsalis said. “In basketball, it means a person understands the meaning and history of the sport, the game plan from different positions, and is willing to do the most tedious and specific drills and studies every day until they achieve the desired mastery. Finally, the macro-micro type integrates both methods into one practice. Then, you have a lot of trouble beating them. A whole lot.”