‘Soul’ Creators On Passion, Purpose And Realizing You’re ‘Enough’

by Terry Gross

The Oscar-nominated movie Soul tackles passion, purpose and the meaning of life — topics that aren’t usually addressed in animated films. 

The movie centers on Joe, a middle school band teacher who feels unfulfilled because his ambition is to be a full-time jazz musician. On the day he lands the biggest gig of his career, Joe nearly dies — but then gets the chance to return to his body if he can figure out the purpose of his life. 

Pete Docter, who co-wrote and co-directed the film with Kemp Powers, says the film was inspired by the emotional turbulence he experienced after writing and directing Inside Out.

“Having … so much success in [that] film, I found myself wondering: Why don’t I feel like my life is all wrapped up and solved in a nice bow? Why didn’t it fix everything?” Docter says.

Soul has generated success of its own. The film won the Golden Globe award for best animated picture, and is nominated for three Academy Awards. But Powers, who’s also up for an Oscar for his adapted screenplay for One Night in Miami, says Soul is actually meant to challenge conventional notions of success and failure. 

“We were trying to help not just Joe, but the entire audience, understand that it’s not about winners or losers and that everyone’s life has value,” Powers says. “That was really a powerful driving force from the very beginning.”

Docter says the film’s message is that life has meaning that goes beyond personal ambition. 

“The movie’s aim is really to say that we’re already enough,” he says. “We all can walk out of the door and enjoy life without needing to accomplish or prove anything. And that’s really freeing.” 

Interview highlights 

On Pixar approaching Powers to work on the film

Powers: It is pretty funny, because obviously when I got the call from my agent that Pixar was interested, they were looking for a writer to help them with a project … the first thing my brain said was, “Hmm, I’m guessing the story must have Black people in it.” I know that that can sound cynical, but look, that’s just the reality of this business, this industry. … It wasn’t very long ago — and when I say not very long ago, I’m talking just, like, three or four years ago — where it was very possible, if you happened to be white, to create and tell a story about anything you wanted to. And no one would so much as push you to even consult with people from that community, let alone invite them in and be partners.

So while it’s easy to kind of take the cynical road, I saw it more as a really interesting opportunity, because when I flew up to Pixar and I sat down and I saw the nuggets of what would become Soul, I really fell in love with the story that Pete was trying to tell. And it was a story that felt like it was about me, and it was a story that really wasn’t about race. That was one of the things that really, really excited me about this. … I tell people, yes, Soul is a film [where] the majority of the characters are Black, but it’s not a “Black” film. We’re trying to tell this universal story through the specific prism of a Black man. And I think that was a really bold choice that I was relishing an opportunity to try to execute.

On Powers’ feedback to an early reel of Soul

Powers: In the early reels, [Joe] seemed like the least interesting person in the film. … Part of it was, I think, because there had been such extreme caution and such a fear of doing things that might offend someone or upset someone, that instead there really hadn’t been much done [on the character]. I didn’t know anything about the guy. I didn’t really know anything about his family. It seemed like Joe was just a very, very lonely man who didn’t know anyone and had no friends. And so that just meant that his life had to be filled in. And, of course, it’s just the nature of being at Pixar, it doesn’t matter whether you’re a director or a designer or an artist, you use your life as fuel. So it was very easy for me [to] say, “Oh, he’s supposed to be a 45-year-old Black man from New York. What a coincidence! That’s what I am!” [And then] to start filling in a lot of those gaps with my own personal experiences.

At different points in our lives and careers, we’ve all been … ‘lost souls,’ based on our definition of it. Because when you find something you enjoy and you’re passionate about and you actually are pretty good at it, it is so easy to take the extra step of hiding behind that thing and using it to not deal with so many other elements of life.

Kemp Powers

On researching depictions and beliefs about the soul for the film 

Docter: I talked to priests and rabbis and experts in Islam, Hinduism, as many of the main religions as we could find, to just see how these different traditions look at the soul and the afterlife and the world beyond our bodily forms. What we found was that most of them have a lot to say about what happens after we die — but very few talk about what happened before. So that meant we were kind of free to make stuff up, which is my favorite place to be. …

If you ask, “What is the soul?” most of them talk about the soul being ethereal, vaporous, non-physical, invisible. We wanted to hint at all that in our design — not only of the souls themselves, but the world they inhabit. And actually, interestingly, the first draft of the film … was a version entirely set in the “Great Before” [a fantastical place where new souls exist before they go to Earth]. There is no Earth-based stuff. It was all about observing life just through these memories and these visualizations of the world, trying to talk this other soul into going [to Earth]. But the more we developed it, the more we realized, if we’re going to talk about what makes life worth living, we’ve got to go interact with it. We got to get our hands dirty — smell, taste, touch, all those things that a soul can’t do.

On depicting “lost souls” in the film

Powers: Something that we discussed when making this film was that at different points in our lives and careers, we’ve all been … “lost souls,” based on our definition of it. Because when you find something you enjoy and you’re passionate about and you actually are pretty good at it, it is so easy to take the extra step of hiding behind that thing and using it to not deal with so many other elements of life. That’s why it was so important that when we introduced the idea of the lost soul — that someone could be lost — but then they could be found. … I’ve definitely found myself, based on our own definition of it, [as] a bit of a lost soul, someone who — to avoid facing all different elements of life — just [loses] myself in my work. 

On screening Soul for kids

Docter: On Soul, we got started to get worried, like, is this too much? Are kids going to be able to track this? So we brought in an audience full of kids. It was probably the second scariest screening, because they’re quiet. Kids are quiet. They don’t laugh a lot. So you’re like, “Oh, we’re dying! We’re dying!” But we found over the years, like especially the first time they watch something, they’re typically just sucking it all up and taking it in. … But afterwards we ask them questions like, “Did you understand this?” And what seems to happen again [and] again is the parents will say, “This film was too complicated for kids. This is not appropriate for kids.” And then the kid sitting right next to them will sit and explain the entire movie better than I could. They get everything. They’re very smart. 

Heidi Saman and Seth Kelley produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.

Punta Gorda Wine & Jazz Festival

FEB 22, 2020


Punta Gorda Wine & Jazz Festival

Punta Gorda, Florida, USA

On the calm waters of the Peace River, feel the warm breezes and enjoy great jazz and wine! Celebrating 15 incredible years of jazz, wine, sun, harbor and so much more at Laishley Park with ERIC DARIUS, MATT MARSHAKand MINDI ABAIR!

Austin Area Jazz Festival

NOV 29-30, 2019

Austin Area Jazz Festival

Austin, Texas, USA

All roads lead to Austin Texas for the 5th Annual Austin Area Jazz Festival Performances by SHEILA E., KIRK WHALUM, WALTER BEASLEY, AVERY*SUNSHINE, TOM BROWNE, JEFF BRADSHAW, CINDY BRADLEY and MIKE HAMILTON! Building a legacy of great jazz in Austin!

Watch U.K. Jazz Group Sons Of Kemet Deliver An Explosive Midnight Set

By Nate Chinen

“Jazz built for arenas.”

A friend and former rock critic shared this admiring assessment of Sons of Kemet, after seeing the band for the first time at this year’s Big Ears Festival. There’s obviously truth in it: Over the last eight years, Sons of Kemet has not only fueled the fires of a raging London jazz scene; it has also scaled up the pyrotechnics, in strictly musical terms.

With Shabaka Hutchings on tenor saxophone, Theon Cross on tuba, and Eddie Hick and Tom Skinner on drums, it’s a hardy combustion engine that also feels like a breathing organism. Arenas, sure, but this is also jazz built for street parties. And certain proudly eclectic fests.

At Big Ears in Knoxville, Tenn., Sons of Kemet brought its exultant blend of carnival rhythm, club abandon and jazz improv to a midnight show that packed The Mill & Mine, a cavernous room that once housed the Industrial Belting and Supply Company. The set drew from a knockout recent album, Your Queen Is a Reptile, but with a spirit of freedom in the moment — whatever setting you think suits it best, it’s music made for a perpetual now.

Shabaka Hutchings: saxophone; Theon Cross: tuba; Tom Skinner: drums; Eddie Hick: drums

Producers: Sarah Geledi, Colin Marshall, Katie Simon; Head of Recording: Matt Honkonen; Lead Recording Engineer: Jonathan Maness; Assistant Recording Engineer: Ryan Bear; Concert Audio Mix: David Tallacksen, Josh Rogosin; Concert Video Director: Colin Marshall; Videographers: Tsering Bista, Annabel Edwards, Nickolai Hammar, Kimani Oletu; Editor: Maia Stern; Project Manager: Suraya Mohamed; Senior Producers: Colin Marshall, Katie Simon; Supervising Editors: Keith Jenkins, Lauren Onkey; Executive Producers: Gabrielle Armand, Anya Grundman, Amy Niles; Funded in Part By: The Argus Fund, The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, The Ella Fitzgerald Charitable Fund, The National Endowment for the Arts, Wyncote Foundation

Watch The Monterey Jazz Festival On Tour Celebrate 60 Years

How do you distill the spirit of the Monterey Jazz Festival into a single band? Considering the ethos of the annual event, the band was designed to be a celebration of diverse international talent, forward-thinking sensibilities and just plain killin’ performances. For artistic director Tim Jackson, that was the task at hand in 2018, marking the festival’s 60th anniversary.

The end result is The Monterey Jazz Festival On Tour. It’s a band of six individually acclaimed performers from the next generation of stars: Cécile McLorin Salvant, vocals; Bria Skonberg, trumpet, vocals; Melissa Aldana, tenor saxophone; Christian Sands, piano and musical director; Yasushi Nakamura, bass, and Jamison Ross, drums, vocals. The band toured through North America in March and April of 2019 and Jazz Night in America captured the band’s stop at Jazz at Lincoln Center, which features original tunes from different members of the band with new accents from project collaborators.


Cécile McLorin Salvant: voice; Melissa Aldana: tenor saxophone; Bria Skonberg: trumpet and voice; Christian Sands: piano and musical director; Yasushi Nakamura: bass; Jamison Ross: drums and voice


Producers: Justin Bias, Colin Marshall; Concert Recording Engineer: Rob Macomber; Concert Video Director: Joe Lucarro; Videographers: Hiram Becker, Andrew Trost, Brandon Smith; Editor: Jeremiah Rhodes; Project Manager: Suraya Mohamed; Senior Producers: Colin Marshall, Katie Simon; Supervising Editors: Keith Jenkins, Lauren Onkey; Executive Producers: Gabrielle Armand, Anya Grundman, Amy Niles; Funded in Part By: The Argus Fund, The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, The Ella Fitzgerald Charitable Fund, The National Endowment for the Arts, Wyncote Foundation

Wilco Guitarist Nels Cline Reclaims Mood Music In The City Of Brotherly Love

Nels Cline has earned his place as a guitar hero for our times, with a track record stretching back four decades and a marquee gig with Wilco. But if you mainly associate him with squalls of feedback, you’re missing a big part of the picture. “The Avant Romantic” is how Rolling Stone pegged him about a decade ago, in its list of Top 20 New Guitar Gods. And lately, Cline has been focusing his efforts, without pause or irony, on the romantic part of that equation.

Lovers, released on Blue Note in 2016, was Cline’s fond reclamation of “mood music” albums from midcentury, with his guitar in an earnest melodic role. It’s a suave collaboration with trumpeter Michael Leonhart, who wrote the orchestrations for a handful of versatile players like cellist Erik Friedlander and bassoonist Sara Schoenbeck. As Cline put it at the time in a conversation with NPR’s Fresh Air, Lovers was a project he’d been dreaming about for more than 25 years.

Lovers (for Philadelphia) didn’t require such a long gestation. Commissioned by the nonprofit Ars Nova Workshop, it was a sequel of sorts to Lovers intended to reflect a clear sense of place — the City of Brotherly Love, which of course has a great musical legacy not only as a jazz town but also an epicenter of soul. Cline made several trips to Philly for intensive research, visiting local institutions like the Curtis Institute of Music and the Germantown headquarters of the Sun Ra Arkestra. (He even helped create a Lovers saison at Tired Hands Brewing Company.)

The first and only performance of Lovers (for Philadelphia) took place at Union Transfer on June 2, and Jazz Night in America was there. See the video above for an up-close-and-personal view of the concert, and listen to our radio show for more insights on just how Cline and Leonhart made new tapestries of sound out of classic tunes like Benny Golson’s “Whisper Not,” McCoy Tyner’s “Aisha,” and The Delfonics’ “La-La (Means I Love You).”

“I wanted it to be sweet but I didn’t want it to be sugary,” Cline says of the Lovers project at large. He strikes that balance on this love letter to a musical city — which has now enfolded Cline in a reciprocal embrace.

All The Things You Are: Aretha’s Life In Jazz

Aretha Franklin was about a month shy of her 20th birthday when she appeared for a week at The Village Gate in late February of 1962. She shared a bill there with pianist and composer Thelonious Monk, who like her was an indescribable talent — a genius, in the fullest sense of the word — recently signed to the roster of Columbia Records.

Franklin, who died Thursday at 76, solidified her unchallenged reign as the Queen of Soul elsewhere, on grander stages, typically with grittier musical backing. But she wasn’t out of place at The Village Gate, nor really out of her element. For the previous couple of years she’d been working comparable rooms in New York with a swinging piano trio. Months later, that July, she’d sing with the Duke Ellington Orchestra at the Newport Jazz Festival.

Her Columbia output leaned into jazz as a signal of adult-pop sophistication, but also as an unforced affinity, less formative than the black church but just as inextricable, and maybe almost as deep. Jazz was central to her musicianship, however far she rambled. Without it we’d be remembering a different artist now, and celebrating a different body of work.

That Franklin isn’t often understood in these terms has something to do with commercial reception. Her musical trajectory, in a typical bit of showbiz reductionism, often gets framed in prodigal terms: She was forged by gospel fires, and lost her way in songbook razzle-dazzle until leaving Columbia for Atlantic Records, where a stripped-down, soul-forward style reconnected her with her sanctified roots. And boom: Respect. (This tidy arc was reinforced for years by Atlantic’s own Jerry Wexler, who had a vested interest in claiming the win.)

It’s no slight at all to Franklin’s incandescent work on Atlantic in the late ’60s and early ’70s — one of the all-time hot streaks in recorded music history — to recognize the glorious work she did earlier in her career. As Ann Powers put it in her eloquent tribute: “The beginning of Franklin’s journey toward stardom, under the tutelage of John Hammond at Columbia Records, offers another set of lessons, this time in adaptability, elegance and craft.”

On an even more basic level, Franklin was in some sense a jazz singer, even though that label captures neither the essence of her artistry nor the scope of her significance. In 1961 she was anointed “New-Star Female Vocalist” in the DownBeat critics poll, a measure of consensus for the jazz press. (She’d received 30 votes to Abbey Lincoln’s 25.) “The dimly lit, smoke-filled jazz club was taking on the aspect of a revival tent,” wrote Pete Welding in the accompanying profile, describing a Franklin performance almost as a kind of transubstantiation.

You’re sure to read, in every good obituary of Franklin, that she grew up around jazz in Detroit. Still, it’s hard to capture the extent of this contact in passing. The best resource we have outside the music itself is Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin, the 2014 biography by David Ritz, who’d previously collaborated with Franklin on her book Aretha: From These Roots.

Franklin took offense at Respect, which she pronounced “a trashy book.” But through his interviews with members of her family, Ritz unearths invaluable insight about her musical moorings. Aretha’s father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin, was a Detroit institution who was close to Dinah Washington, and many a night passed where jazz legends gathered around the family piano: Ellington, Oscar Peterson, Nat King Cole, even Art Tatum. So as a girl, Aretha had not only prodigious talent but also extraordinary access. Her jazz influences were close at hand, as a pianist as well as a vocalist.

Her older brother Cecil, who was close friends with Smokey Robinson, ran a barbershop out of the first-floor bathroom of their house. He took pride in the music he played in the shop: all the hip modern jazz of the day, from Mingus to Miles to Monk. Aretha would absorb it all.

As Cecil told Ritz, she also hunkered down alone with the hi-fi, for hours at a stretch. “That’s where she first heard Sarah Vaughan,” Cecil said. “But she didn’t stop with Sarah. She studied Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Carmen McRae, Anita O’Day, June Christy, Dakota Staton — anyone I had on the box. She got to a point where she could imitate these singers, lick for lick.”

Hammond, who had famously worked with Holiday, saw this potential when he signed Franklin to Columbia. It was no accident that her first album for the label, released in ’61, was Aretha: With The Ray Bryant Combo — Bryant being an exceptional jazz pianist from Philadelphia, and the son of an ordained minister. Throughout that album, especially on a churchified track like “Won’t Be Long,” you can clearly hear the spark that would later be so celebrated.

Jazz singing, idiomatically speaking, would be a flickering constant on the albums that followed: While it may be true to suggest that Franklin hadn’t yet found her lane, she was already very much driving her own car. Laughing on the Outside, released in 1963, opens with a spectacular reading of the Hoagy Carmichael standard “Skylark,” set at a swaying tempo, with an inspired, jolting octave leap in the final pass of the verse.

In Ritz’s book, McRae recalls running into Vaughan, somewhere around this time. “Sarah said, ‘Have you heard of this Aretha Franklin girl?’ I said, ‘You heard her do ‘Skylark,’ didn’t you?’ Sarah said, ‘Yes, I did, and I’m never singing that song again.’ ”

There’s some incredible footage of Franklin performing “Skylark” and other songbook fare, like “Lover Come Back to Me,” on The Steve Allen Show in 1964. She’s ostensibly there to promote her latest album, Unforgettable: A Tribute to Dinah Washington, but she doesn’t do any of that material. What she does is riveting, bordering on sublime.


“As a jazz pianist myself, I recognized her jazz chops,” Allen told Ritz. “They were tremendous. But I also saw that she had enough poise and experience to sing standards.” Along with the compulsion to share Franklin’s talent with the world, Allen had an ulterior motive: to get her to sing his tunes. (This happened in short order: Her 1965 album Yeah!!! opens with a Steve Allen joint, “This Could Be the Start of Something.”)

Nor did Franklin leave jazz behind during her celebrated run on Atlantic. Right after Amazing Grace, the epochal double album often hailed as her consummate masterpiece, she enlisted producer Quincy Jones for Hey Now Hey (The Other Side of the Sky), a fascinating mixed bag of an album that includes an uptempo romp through “Moody’s Mood for Love,” the Eddie Jefferson vocalese of a James Moody ballad. (I saw Franklin perform this tune a decade ago at Radio City Music Hall, along with “My Funny Valentine” and Irving Berlin’s “Easter Parade.”)

Soul ’69, released on Atlantic at the top of that year, features a stacked consortium of jazz musicians, working in an organic R&B mode. You wouldn’t call it a jazz album, but you’d also be wrong to insist otherwise. Another anecdote from Respect: McRae recalls listening to Soul ’69 at Vaughan’s house, and fixating on “Crazy He Calls Me,” a standout track:


For jazz singers of the ensuing generation, like Dianne Reeves, Franklin loomed as a north star. But it wasn’t just singers, and it wasn’t just that generation. The fearsome pianist Cecil Taylor, another irreplaceable original who died this year, once told Robert Palmer of The New York Times that he’d learned a great deal from Franklin’s music — “in terms of thrust, of how to make my piano playing more pointedly rhythmic and lighter.”

Earlier this week I spoke with Aaron Cohen, a fellow jazz critic who also wrote a perceptive book about Amazing Grace. He reminded me that Franklin’s relationship with jazz couldn’t be separated from the other strands of her musical DNA. “She’s held onto the whole idea that nothing is outside her grasp, especially within the American tradition,” he said. “And it’s so strong, that sense of jazz being America’s music at the time she was coming up.”

More than a few jazz musicians of our time have shared a stage with Franklin, in settings as unfussy as Baker’s Keyboard Lounge and as exalted as The Kennedy Center. Two years ago I saw her perform at the White House, as part of the festivities around International Jazz Day. Part of what I remember is her tribute to Prince, who had died about a week earlier. Backed by jazz musicians, she sang “Purple Rain” — by which I mean she skipped right to the chorus, and made it feel like a sanctified refrain.


But earlier, at the top of the program, she’d sat at the piano to perform Leon Russell’s “A Song For You,” backed by Herbie Hancock on keyboards, Christian McBride on bass and Brian Blade on drums. It turns out that this is the Franklin performance to remember from that evening.

“You are a friend of mine,” she sang, redrawing the shape of the line, and making the most formal and public of presentations feel scarily intimate, like a soul-to-soul communication.

She repeated the last two lines in a tag, contracting and expanding the tempo in ways that evoked another line in the lyrics, about a love “where there’s no space and time.” There’s no question, listening back now, that jazz is an essential part of the swirling magic that Franklin creates in that moment. But I can tell you truthfully that in the moment, among the assembled, that distinction was the furthest thing from anybody’s mind.