Carlehr Swanson knew she was in for a treat when Grammy Award-winning musician Jon Batiste visited Carr’s Hill at the University of Virginia on Sunday.

Swanson, a fan of Batiste’s genre-bending style who had put herself on the waitlist for Batiste’s “Arts on the Hill” event, just learned she had gotten a ticket and found a front-row seat to the action.

For Swanson, the concert at Carr’s Hill was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It didn’t hurt that, like Batiste, she’s also a gospel and jazz musician.

“This is a combination of all of my interests,” Swanson said. “This was a chance to see world-class talent right here.”

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Swanson was one of more than a hundred students who got to listen to Batiste, former director of “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” band, perform unreleased music and talk to NPR journalist and UVA alumnus Bilal Qureshi about the pressures artists face.

Later, a showing of “American Symphony,” a documentary focusing on Batiste and his wife, the writer Suleika Jaouad, closed the Virginia Film Festival at the Paramount Theater that evening.

Festival officials are finalizing attendance numbers for the five-day film fest that began Wednesday, but they estimate that they sold more than 19,000 tickets.

Students watch Jon Batiste on the piano
Students got to hear Batiste perform an unreleased song at Arts on the Hill on Sunday. (Photo by Sako Yamaguchi, University Communications)

“This was truly an extraordinary festival, not only because of the deep and rich program of films, but also because of the unique moments that the festival’s guests brought to our audiences,” said festival director Jody Kielbasa, who also serves as UVA’s vice provost for the arts.

Batiste performed a second time after “American Symphony,” zipping from song to song in a true jazz fashion. When he played “When The Saints Go Marching In,” hundreds of audience members stood up to sing along with him.

Jon Batiste at the paramount
Batiste joked that “American Symphony” was “one of the greatest home videos.” (Photo by Sako Yamaguchi, University Communications)

Friday night, the film festival hosted the U.S. premiere of “Origin,” an ambitious movie that portrays the life and trying times of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author Isabel Wilkerson as she struggles amid personal tragedies to research and write the award-winning book, “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents.”

The book looks at racism in the U.S. through the lens of caste, societywide systems that separate society into classes based on ideas of hierarchy, inclusion and exclusion, and purity.

The movie infuses drama into Wilkerson’s researching and writing a book amid personal tragedies, and at the same time explaining how racism fits into a caste structure.

Ava DuVerney and Jody Kielbasa
Ava DuVerney, who wrote and directed “Origin,” stands with Jody Kielbasa, UVA’s vice provost for the arts and director of the Virginia Film Festival, prior to the movie’s U.S. premiere Saturday night. (Photo by Clara Castle, University Communications)

The film festival and Charlottesville provided “Origin,” created by renowned filmmaker Ava DuVernay, the force behind the 2014 movie “Selma,” with its official U.S. premiere. Considering the film’s topic and Charlottesville’s August 2017 experience with neo-Nazis and white supremacists, it’s a great match, the director said.

“Usually these things happen in Los Angeles or New York. It was important for me to bring the film here because I feel that Charlottesville is integral to our American conversation about matters of race, caste and class,” she said prior to the film’s showing. “It is the right space to engage with people who have all kinds of ideas and actual experience in dealing with them head-on.”

DuVernay said film can spark conversation among people or inspire them to think critically about race and caste.

“Film is a doorway, a portal to imagination, thoughts and ideas. It’s a place where I think people feel safe,” she said. “Eventually, this film will make its way into spaces where people will be able to watch in the privacy of their own homes with their families. Those things are important as we consider folks who don’t feel comfortable talking about things in the open or sitting across from someone who has an opposing point of view and still being respectful.”

Ava discussing the impact of the actors in their roles in Origin
Ava DuVerney, center, discusses the making of “Origin,” a movie that uses dramatic device to delve into the concept of racism as symptom of a caste system in the U.S. with the movie’s producer Paul Garnes, left, and Washington Post movie critic Ann Hornaday, right. (Photo by Clara Castle, University Communications)

For Matthew Heineman, the director of “American Symphony,” the movie with Batiste was initially conceived as a “road-trip film” focused on the composer’s effort to create a piece of music that included everything from Indigenous music to folk to jazz. 

Filming took a dramatic turn when doctors declared that Jaouad’s cancer had returned on the same day Batiste was nominated for 11 Grammys.

“That was difficult, and we continually had to reassess,” Batiste said. “Throughout the process of every month, there was a moment or two where we were like, ‘Hey, maybe we should cut it right here.’”

After the film, Batiste and Heineman joined Tyler Coates of the Hollywood Reporter for a conversation about the documentary. Jaouad wasn’t in the crowd for the sold-out showing of “American Symphony,” but she was able to get a glimpse of the post-screening discussion.

“On three, can you say, ‘We love you, Suleika’?” Batiste asked, holding up his iPhone.

Hundreds of people in the audience responded, “We love you, Suleika!”

Media Contact

Alice Berry

University News Associate Office of University Communications