JON BATISTE & STAY HUMAN: SATURDAY, APRIL 29—ACURA STAGE, 3:25 P.M.
“It’s like a day job except with instruments,” says a laughing Jon Batiste of his high-profile position as the bandleader and musical director of television’s “Late Show with Stephen Colbert.”
Naturally, the New Orleans–born pianist, vocalist and composer, who brought his band, Stay Human, to the CBS studio just about a year and a half ago, clarifies that understatement. He concedes that preparing and arranging the music that will be heard by millions is “intense,” though he describes actually performing in the 400-seat Ed Sullivan Theater before a live audience as “like a gig.” “By the time we’ve finished, we played for about an hour and a half.”
Batiste, whose image for Jazz Fest’s Congo Square poster was produced by fellow NOCCA graduate, artist Brandan “Bmike” Odums, hasn’t let working on the show overwhelm his other musical pursuits. “I love bringing music to people so we always figure out a way to do it,” he declares, explaining that since the program is taped early in the evening, four days a week it’s workable. “We have a really great schedule to kinda have stuff going on in New York whenever we want. And Friday all the way up until Sunday evening is prime for us to get out and travel and do one or two shows over the weekend.”
Batiste’s presence on the show and his interaction with Colbert, a brilliantly quick-witted, politically-bent host, has increased through time. There is more banter between the two, and Batiste throws in more asides and piano riffs to accent Colbert’s comically insightful monologues. He’s also had the opportunity to further reveal his sense of humor in skits. He hosted a mock public service announcement called “Hey White People!” that was hilarious and with a wink and a smile offered a silly music lesson on “Piano-1-O-Fun!” Batiste calls the “Barbershop Stories” with highly respected Congressman John Lewis “comedic and profound.”
“I never thought that I’d be in a position where there are bits that are written around my comedic sensibilities,” Batiste says. “I didn’t think they were going to completely just keep me in the music lane but they actually are having me do more comedy than I expected. They want a lot more and I’m open to it so I’m exploring it and trying it out. Like anything else, you get better at it the more you do it.”
Batiste also enjoys a reputation as quite a fashion plate and wears his clothes with an attitude that he enjoys them. Usually wearing a jacket accessorized with a scarf, fedora and/or sharp sneakers, a look well depicted in Odums’ poster, he describes his style as “elegant but with an edge.” “I’m coming from a very traditional place but I like to add a twist to it because that’s also a part of my personality.”
“Ever since moving to New York back in 2004, I learned a lot about different styles of dress and the culture that comes along with that,” says Batiste, whose sometimes flamboyant look is constantly changing. “It’s such a cosmopolitan city you get exposed to different parts of the world just by living in Manhattan. It’s important to represent yourself when you’re being seen by millions of people every night because they see you before they even hear you.”
“If you look back in the history of American music, all of the greats had some kind of way that they represented themselves,” he continues. “Duke Ellington was always dapper and Thelonious Monk wore all kinds of hats and glasses with just the frames, no lenses. Everybody had their thing.”
For Jazz Fest, Batiste will be bringing down the full, eight-piece edition of Stay Human that includes two of its original members, drummer Joe Saylor and tuba and trombone player Ibanda Ruhumbika. “The thing about the band is that everybody is extremely versatile and diverse—you know you have to have variety for TV,” says Batiste, mentioning that many of the musicians are multi-instrumentalists.”
Batiste blows a melodica, a hand-held, keyboard instrument, on the show’s theme song and uses it when he and the band head into the audience, second line fashion. Its mobility was required for the band’s 2011 album, My N.Y., which was recorded live in the city’s subway system. “I play it whenever I feel it though the piano has always been my main instrument,” explains Batiste, who began playing drums at age eight with the kin-filled Batiste Brothers Band. Holding a master’s degree from the Juilliard School, he is also naturally adept on a number of instruments.
Stylistically, Jon Batiste & Stay Human is equally diverse, moving freely from genre to genre. The members are quite young, with the oldest being 31 and the youngest in their early twenties, so they bring in the sounds of their musical eras such as hip-hop and electronic music with what Batiste describes as a “jazz sensibility.”
Batiste, 30, who many remember from his teenage years as a serious young jazz pianist, says his focus used to be on modern and traditional jazz, New Orleans music and fusion. “It’s all still in there,” he explains. “I guess I call it social music—it’s not any one thing, but it is one thing.” Social Music is also the name of the band’s solid 2013 release that finds jazz, classical music, pop-driven material and a rag all comfortably at home with each other.
“They are giving me loads of creative freedom, so much so that I have to plan and curate not only what we’re going to play but musical guests and arrange different collaborations,” he says. “The biggest surprise for me was how much a schedule like this would make the band become tight. To perform on TV, there is so much pressure and so many variables; it makes you play at the highest level.”
Batiste understands that some people, especially Crescent City natives, might have expected him to invite more New Orleans artists to sit in with him and the band. “I think it’s been way more in a year and a half than they saw on David Letterman for 33 years,” he quickly responds, while mentioning guests like pianist Harry Connick Jr., trumpeter Kermit Ruffins on Mardi Gras Day and vocalist Aaron Neville. “And there is more to come. We have a good lineup coming for people who want to hear New Orleans music.”
“That’s not my gig here,” he thoughtfully adds. “My gig here is to represent the culture because that’s who I am but also to just do what it is that I do and represent myself at the highest level. I think that resonates positively for New Orleans and the culture in the city and I’m proud of that.”
The first time Batiste performed at Jazz Fest was at Congo Square when he was, he guesses, about 14. So there’s a historic aspect of him gracing this year’s Congo Square poster. “Bmike [Odums] did a good job on that and it’s an honor,” Batiste says with sincerity. “We were in NOCCA at the same time so I want to shout out to him and to NOCCA.”
Batiste has moved on to bigger stages not only at the Fest, where he and Stay Human will get down on the Acura Stage, but in his career. Walk into a Chase Bank or turn on the television and there he is smiling on an advertisement for the financial institution. Batiste is also the featured artist on the new release by the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, The Music of John Lewis.
The Jazz Fest audience will get a taste of new tunes from Jon Batiste & Stay Human’s next album, which will be out later this year. It will stand as the band’s first full-length release since 2013’s Social Music and since becoming part of the “Late Show” family.
“I’m gonna play a ton of music that is unreleased,” Batiste promises. “There’s going to be a lot of material that hasn’t been performed live ever. That’s exciting to us because we have all this material and playing it back home is always a special thing especially for the first time.”
When Jon Batiste joyfully takes the center stage, which he does each weekday night on the Colbert’s show his exuberance appears uncontainable—he’ll dance, jump, wave his arms in the air. His music and mindset share that attitude.
“We’re number one now—for like five weeks or something!” he exclaims.