The television sets of Jon Batiste’s family, fans and friends will undoubtedly be in sync at 10:30 pm (CT) on Tuesday, September 8. They’ll be tuned in to watch the pianist and vocalist in his new, hot shot position as the bandleader and music director of Late Night with Stephen Colbert.
At 28-years-old, the New Orleans native is the youngest musician to take on the challenges of such a job that includes 202 days of taping.
“The draw for both of us is the chemistry between the two of us,” says Batiste of the rapport that he and Colbert, the new host of Late Night, share. “That’s not something you can buy.”
Jon Batiste, who most locals knew as Jonathan Batiste when he lived here, is a member of the very musical Batiste family. His father, bassist Michael Batiste, and his uncles established the soul and funk group the Batiste Brothers Band back in 1976. The journey that has ultimately led Jon to Late Night and the CBS studio started when he was a child with his family. He started playing drums at age eight with the Batiste Kids Band and the Brothers’ ensemble.
At the suggestion of his mother, he switched to piano at around age 11. “Her intuition was right,” Batiste allows. “As soon as I picked up the piano it made me feel like I had found my best friend. The piano fit in a way that made me feel some sort of spiritual connection.”
Attending the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts (NOCCA) was a natural for the gifted young man who became a regular on this city’s jazz scene, heading his own groups and performing with others including clarinetist Alvin Batiste and the Jazztronauts. (He believes they are distant relatives.) The next stop was New York’s Juilliard School from which he graduated with a Master’s degree. In 2011 he formed his Stay Human band that included drummer Joe Saylor and saxophonist Eddie Barbash who will be at his side for the Late Night show.
“We’re going to build around a core unit of Eddie, Joe and me,” Batiste explains while also mentioning multi-instrumentalist Louis Cato and bassist Michael Thurber.
“Cato is a really a funny, charismatic guy which is going to be a big part of what we’ll be doing on the show,” he adds. Batiste looks forward to inviting guest musicians for rotating slots—like a “residency.” “I’ll get some people from home and some people I’ve met while on the road.”
For the time being, that road might have to wait a bit for Jon Batiste.
“I’ll have plenty of time to tour but it will be a question of whether or not I’ll have the energy to do it. I want to pace myself at least in this first year.”
He does promise to be back home for Jazz Fest 2016.
How did the position on Late Night come about?
When I was on tour from 2013 to 2014—we [Jon Batiste and Stay Human] had a lot of success. My album Social Music was the number one jazz album on Billboard [Jazz Chart]. We were out for nine months and toured in every single venue that you can imagine. It ranged from festivals, concert halls, theaters, small clubs, holes in the walls, dive bars.
At the end of that tour we were playing a festival in Turkey and I got an email from someone who saw us in Aspen and it was the Colbert Report’s [Stephen Colbert’s previous show] executive producer, Emily Lazer. She asked if I would be able to come and be a guest on the show. That was the beginning of our relationship.
After the show, she reached back out to me and said “Can you come on the finale of the Colbert Report?” That’s when I got a chance to really see his whole team at work. People were mentioning it [the bandleader position] to me but I didn’t really think I would do that. I was thinking about being back on the road.
And they kind of convinced me after they told me that he would be working with the same team. It really didn’t take much convincing. After that finale I was thrilled to see how well the team worked together. It was a tight ship.
I interviewed Troy [“Trombone Shorty” Andrews] recently and he told me that when you were in NOCCA together you used to spend nights talking about how you could differentiate yourselves while keeping New Orleans in your music. Do you think you’ve accomplished that?
I know when I see him perform—and I hope when I perform—that the lineage of the music is represented at the highest level. So when you hear a New Orleans musician perform at the highest level it’s something that is going to make you feel a full range of emotions—you’re going to want to laugh, dance and have a good time but you’re also going to want to cry.
You’re going to feel this amazing sense of humanity. We have that in our sound, so in whatever style of music we start to experiment with we’re always going to have that range of emotions that comes with the New Orleans sound. That’s a special thing—it influenced the world and it’s not going to go anywhere.
How do you think you’ve differentiated yourself? Is using the melodica [a hand-held, blown keyboard] one of those ways?
The first thing that differentiates us is the era that we were raised in. There’s never going to be another Troy Andrews or a Jon Batiste because what we experienced is only going to happen one time.
We’re in an era where the music has the opportunity to be global and reach the entire world. I think that being interactive is a big part of the performance experience. So I want to go into the audience and be interactive and I can’t always take a piano. [Laughs.]
Shorty also spoke of pushing the music forward. Do you see doing the Late Night show as a way to help promote New Orleans?
It’s not only promoting New Orleans music, but it’s also promoting an alternative to popular culture. That’s the beauty of having a television platform or a hit record or anything that goes out to the world. It becomes something that could infiltrate the popular culture or at least touch enough people that they can have a choice.
I don’t have a problem with popular culture. I just think there should be other music that people can listen to and should check out if they’re under the age of 40. People don’t really promote the other stuff—they don’t promote New Orleans music or jazz or classical or any of the higher art music that’s instrumentally-based and that’s not about a vocalist or something like you’d see Justin Bieber doing. [He laughs again.]
New Orleans has always been about a gumbo of different cultural influences. Right now, what we’re trying to do is reach out to our generation and reach the world and make it not only what makes New Orleans what it is, but to draw upon all the different cultures we experience on the road. And that makes it even more of a global sound.
It was bound to happen. New Orleans music started as a regional sound and then you get guys coming out like Louis Armstrong, King Oliver and Sidney Bechet. And they make it the root of jazz music. Now in our generation it’s a global sound. The nature of New Orleans music is to embrace everything and make that its own thing.
It’s too early to say how it will be perceived, but I definitely think people are tired of the music that has been promoted to them. New Orleans music is so real and so human. It just sounds so much like life.
Because of your family, you grew up surrounded by music. Is there something beyond listening and learning that has stayed with you?
My family has always been supportive. The thing I’ve taken from that is if you support and nurture a gift early it can really blossom in a way that is unimaginable. It’s unimaginable even to the person who has the gift. They don’t even know how far they can go. That support and nurturing from the elders is the springboard to become all that one can be. It’s a blessing.
You perform with pure joy and enthusiasm. Does that come from your family too?
I think it has always been a part of the family sound and not only the family but the New Orleans sound. Joy is definitely something that distinguishes us. My family and the musicians that I grew up around were no exception to that.
How did members of your family influence your learning to play?
My main influence was my dad. He took me to all these gigs when I was a minor. He would coach me in the living room in our house in Kenner. It’s really easy for a kid to learn how to play rhythm with a dad who plays bass.
I remember watching my cousin Russell [drummer Russell Batiste] during the early rehearsals of his Orchestra from Da Hood when I was a kid. It changed my life.
I take the approach he uses in leading my band. It’s a visceral and direct form of band leading—go for the gut, use your ears, be individuals. He is one of the forces that changes the sound of a band. He can take a band and put them on his back and carry them.
You used to play primarily straight-up jazz as a headliner at spots like Snug Harbor. Did you get any backlash when you started incorporating other styles? You caused quite a stir when you moved from the Jazz Tent to the Acura Stage at Jazz Fest.
I got a bit of concern—not backlash. Big George [Brumat] at Snug, he was the guy who always told me “Whatever you do, keep the swing in there.”
It’s a surprise thing. At the time [at Jazz Fest], I was like 17 or 18. It was more that people wanted me to succeed than backlash. I think it makes sense because when you get used to seeing someone and you’ve watched them develop and grow and then they make a very bold decision to change direction, sometimes it doesn’t end in the best way.
No one ever discouraged me. New Orleans has been one of the most supportive communities in the directions that I’ve wanted
to take. It’s more New York that has very specific sensibilities—different clans.
Do you have any idea of what kind of material you will be doing on Late Night? Do you know how much of interaction you’ll have with Colbert?
It’s really early to tell, but the plan is to have a lot of interaction and a lot of dialog between the two of us. It’s not really one of those things you can plan because it’s so improvised. He’s an improviser by trade and I’m an improviser by trade. We know how to do stuff by the book but we’re also really, really good at going off on the fly.
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 also do the same for musical guests and arrange different collaborations. It’s going to be pretty amazing to have such a platform and to think about creative ways to put music on television.
I have written a theme song for the show. The name that I composed it under was “Humanism.” I think it’s going to stick because Colbert loves it.