It doesn’t concern Jon Batiste if some people tend to put him in a particular musical box. “That’s okay, I always break ’em,” declares the pianist, vocalist and composer who leads his Stay Human band nightly on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.”
Those who know Batiste solely through his television persona see a gregarious, always smiling, stylishly dressed and extremely talented young man whose job seems to be keeping the music upbeat and in sync with the show’s comedic host. As a bandleader he also does some singing, too, usually in the mix with his group.
Batiste, 32, was purposeful in taking a different direction on his new album release, Hollywood Africans, his first on the prestigious Verve label. The music—and even the album’s cover, which captures him in a contemplative pose—could best be described as serene. For the most part, Batiste is alone at the piano or backed by minimal instrumentation or other voices.
“I think the people whom I’ve come in contact with over the last couple of years seemed like they needed a bit of a break or a bit more peace of mind,” Batiste explains. “The music is meditative and it gives you space for reflection but it’s also very hopeful. I think there’s a void in music like that, especially in the mainstream. The feedback has been amazing so I think my instinct was fairly accurate. There is always so much stimulus, especially with the political divisiveness of these times, and things that you just deal with on a daily basis.”
Batiste views his musical life as one of phases that to some extent display a certain pattern. He was eight or nine years old when he sang onstage with the Batiste Brothers Band, stylin’ like the Jackson Five.
“After a while I got kind of shy and didn’t want to do that as much anymore,” he remembers. “That’s when I started getting into my piano, classical, jazz, young composer/ musician phase.”
It’s somewhat difficult to imagine the now-outgoing Batiste as timid, although those people in touch with him during his teenage years—his NOCCA years—do remember considering Batiste a quiet, serious jazz pianist. Some of Hollywood African reflects back to that period.
When he went to New York to further his musical education at the Juilliard School and eventually formed his Stay Human band, Batiste found his voice again and started writing tunes with lyrics, not just instrumentals. “But this time on my own terms,” he’s quick to point out. “I think you’ve gotta let things develop and grow and evolve in the right time, and then once they’re ready, you can present it to other people.”
Batiste fully exhibits himself as a formidable vocalist and romantic in the quietude of Ray Noble’s classic “The Very Thought of You” on the new album. It’s rare for most to hear Batiste sing a ballad in a solo setting and it stands as a true opportunity to realize his tonal and emotional range as heard on this patiently delivered cloud of a tune.
“There’s been a lot of stuff I’ve been doing for years, but just not as publicly as featured predominately on this album,” he says.
In fact, Batiste’s behind-the-scenes activities are as impressive as his incredibly full schedule of rehearsing for and taping 220 “Late Show” episodes plus performing and touring. Presently, he’s writing a musical based on the life and work of African-American artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, whose painting, Hollywood Africans, was the inspiration for the title of Batiste’s album. Batiste has said that like Basquiat, he’s benefited from the sacrifice of those who came before who were marginalized and oppressed in their musical expressions. “They left us with superpowers: blues, rock ’n’ roll, boogie woogie, jazz, gospel and so many more.” The musical has already been green-lit to head to Broadway in the next several years and will be directed by the acclaimed John Doyle, who was nominated for a Tony award for The Color Purple. “I’m real excited,” Batiste exclaims.
Batiste, who has studied and is proficient in classical piano and composition, is also in the process of writing a symphony that’s been commissioned by investor and philanthropist Robert F. Smith. That commission was a result of Smith meeting Batiste when he performed at the opening of Washington D.C.’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Batiste incorporates his knowledge of classical music in several variations on the new album. On the lovely “Chopinesque,” the pianist reinterprets a piece by Frederic Chopin by adding his own modern flair. His original composition “Nocturne No. 1 in D minor” was written in a classical form that distinctly sways with what Jelly Roll Morton described as a Latin tinge, enhanced by the percussion of Bashiri Johnson and bassist Carlos Henriquez.
“I wanted to represent that music and pay homage to folks like Jelly Roll and Gottschalk [New Orleans composer/pianist Louis Moreau Gottschalk]. Many musicians—and Jelly Roll especially—didn’t necessarily get to have their music appreciated as classical music—high art, social music—until after they were gone,” says Batiste. He adds that he enjoys occasionally bringing touches of his musical interpretations of Bach, Chopin, Debussy, Beethoven—“all my favorite composers”—to the “The Late Show.”
Hollywood Africans has been a long time coming. Batiste began working on the album with noted producer T Bone Burnett back in 2015. The two started talking about doing something together in 2013 when Batiste met T Bone at Bono’s birthday party in Los Angeles. Two years later, they finally found the time to head into New Orleans’ well-regarded Esplanade Studios. Even then, the session was regarded as a three-day “exploration” with Batiste laying down some 40 solo tracks. “It was stream of consciousness,” the pianist explains, noting that every tune heard on the album was written for the album.
“It was really to tell this story,” Batiste continues. “These songs were the right songs for the time.”
When Batiste was interviewed in a 2015 OffBeat Backtalk feature, he commented on how he and fellow NOCCA grad, Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews would spend nights talking about how they could differentiate themselves while keeping New Orleans in their music. Batiste responded by saying “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. You’re going to feel this amazing sense of humanity. We have that in our sound. So 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.”
Those who watch “The Late Show” and are hip to his meaning easily catch the little New Orleans nuances that he and his band throw into the musical mix on any given evening. It’s as if he’s giving New Orleans a little knowing wink when he plays a familiar piano triple or phrase. Yeah, we hear ya.
“Almost every day we play some form of second line or bamboula rhythms,” acknowledges Batiste, who often has Stay Human follow him out into the audience in a New Orleans signature second line style.
Hollywood Africans opens with “Kenner Boogie,” Batiste’s own, very New Orleans version of a boogie woogie. His solid left hand keeps the tune grounded in the tradition while his right goes flutteringly wild. This highly syncopated number displays the characteristic humor in his music. Again, folks tuned into their televisions do get a taste of this style; although here when he’s playing solo, it’s a big, delicious helping dished out by the Kenner, Louisiana native.
Batiste introduces himself as an emotionally dynamic soul singer on two strong cuts, his original, gospel-laden “Is It Over” and the powerful closer, “Don’t Stop,” which was co-written with the prolific composer/guitarist Steve McEwan.
It’s unusual to find a pianist matched with an organ player as he is on “Is It Over.” Batiste took engineer Harvey Goldberg’s suggestion to invite the frequently called-upon session man Leon Pendarvis to play organ on the tune. His presence and the background vocalists give this rather mournful love song its stylistically churchy sound that marries gospel and soul much in the way Aaron Neville often approached a ballad.
“Harvey thought it would work as we [Batiste and Pendarvis] both have a Southern background and like to blend different styles—classical, R&B, jazz and soul music—so he would understand my aesthetics,” Batiste explains. “In that way we could keep it organic and not have to overdub myself and keep the intimacy of me at the piano. And he was right. We connected in a way that I didn’t have to explain much to him.”
Unlike so many New Orleans and Southern pianists as well as an array of other African-American musicians and vocalists, Batiste didn’t play in church, though he attended services. Pendarvis, who hails from Alabama, grew up in the church. “He’s a veteran,” Batiste says of the 73-year-old musician. “I love having veterans work with me on things. You need to have a veteran in the room—he’s played on so many records.”
Though the lyrics of “Don’t Stop” are hopeful and loving, the mood of the tune also holds a certain mournfulness. “Let’s keep it shakin’ while we can,” Batiste sings over a repeated piano phrase. The passion builds with the entrance of a fervent string sextet and the voice of Janelle Kroll.
“That’s one of the big concepts of the album—one can go through the full range of emotions and it makes people feel like they’re not alone right now,” Batiste offers. “The other is showing how the African-American diaspora of music has transformative powers—the blues, folk music, gospel, soul, jazz and rock ‘n’ roll like Fats Domino and Chuck Berry created.”
“Don’t Stop” is the album’s only original song on which Batiste shares composer credits; the other originals were written solo. The album also includes several classics like “St. James Infirmary” and “Smile.”
“Steve [McEwan] is great because our process is very much like therapy,” says Batiste. “We come in, talk for a while and then that becomes a song. He is someone who wanted to branch out and do different styles of writing music—he had written a lot of country hits and also some hip-hop hits. Of course, he’s open to all of it and I am too. So I thought it would be good to collaborate.”
Echoing the album’s central theme to represent all of the different forms of love and human emotion—friendship, celebration and angst—is Batiste’s “Mr. Buddy.” It’s a sweet, simple song that brings to mind the spirit of the children’s television show Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood or the sentimentality of the tune “Old Folks,” as so sincerely delivered by drummer Johnny Vidacovich. It opens with Batiste gently singing, “Mr. Buddy was someone who never steered you wrong. He was always singing a good song.” The pianist occasionally adds a little whistle to this lullaby of a tune.
“Mr. Buddy” was inspired by a lot of things,” Batiste says. “I just hope that everybody can have a friend or a mentor or even a pet like what ‘Mr. Buddy’ represents. It is just one of those songs that I hope that people can experience that connection with somebody in these times.”
A similar youthful, innocent flavor can also be heard on the jaunty instrumental “Green Hill Zone,” which was the theme of the video game Sonic the Hedgehog. It becomes more sophisticated, more fully developed when Batiste changes his approach and strings are added.
“That song has a special meaning for me,” Batiste reveals. “I was an avid gamer when I was growing up. I loved playing games. When we were kids, that’s how the guys in our band first started learning about composition. We would transcribe music from video games and play them on our instruments.” (That’s probably an ear-opener to most folks—who knew?)
With the recent death of Henry Butler, the passing of Fats Domino just last year and the loss of Allen Toussaint three years ago, there’s been a lot of concern about continuing New Orleans’ legacy of piano-playing singers and the repertoire of this city’s R&B heyday. Batiste’s name is not often mentioned as a keeper of the flame of that tradition.
“I love the exploration of that music and I also love writing songs in that style,” declares Batiste, who has a yet-to-be released New Orleans rhythm and blues album in the can. He does get a chance to strut his stuff in that direction with the Dap-Kings, as heard at this year’s Jazz Fest. He toured with the band and performed nine gigs with the group last summer. “We arranged stuff from the New Orleans canon like Allen Toussaint’s ‘Yes We Can Can’ and Lee Dorsey, Earl King and Jessie Hill songs. I fronted the band and wrote songs inspired by the idiom or directly from the idiom.”
Batiste feels like the experience of being on Colbert’s show has strengthened him and his band in more ways than he realized. “I’ve learned a lot about just being a band leader and being a performer,” he says. “There’s nothing better than being able to play with a band every day and write music every day.”
“It’s different than any other stage. You’re working with the camera one minute and then the next minute you’re transitioning into playing for a live audience, and the next minute you’re transitioning into a comedy bit or you have to improvise banter. It makes it easy now when I’m just performing. [On the show] I feel like I’m running with weights on. When I take the weights off, I feel very, very free.”
“The Late Show” airs 220 shows a year, but because it is taped earlier in the day Batiste and the band can still head out to gig locally in New York later in the evening. The schedule can sound pretty hectic, though it doesn’t seem to faze the energetic band leader. One day in November, the band rehearsed for the television show, taped the show and then went to play two sets at the Village Vanguard.
Stay Human, formed in 2005, includes one original member, cowboy-hatted drummer Joe Saylor. It has expanded this season primarily to accommodate the diversity of guest artists who—like cellist Yo-Yo Ma and rapper Nas—have sat in with the band recently.
Batiste was a student at NOCCA when he met Saylor, who was visiting New Orleans for Jazz Fest. “We jammed in a room and it felt good,” Batiste remembers. The two got together when Batiste attended Juilliard—Saylor was at the Manhattan School of Music—and they started gigging together. The pay was, well, pathetic, but they established a residency that tightened up the group and helped to develop a repertoire.
“When you’re a young musician, you don’t worry about the money; it will come,” Batiste advises. “Don’t worry about being known, worry about the music first. Find a place to play regularly in front of people. It’s paid off for me now; it’s paid off tremendously.”
Batiste has also been out nationally and internationally on what he calls a “solo in the round” tour where his concert grand piano is placed in the center of a circular stage in the center of the venue. “Everybody has the best seat in the house,” he declares. Batiste enjoys the intimacy of the dates that are afforded by performing in this setting. It’s an important element for him as an artist.
“People need something real in a time when there’s a lot of superficiality,” he offers. “Intimacy is an act of resistance against that kind of a world. Intimacy is a way to be alone with yourself and your feelings and to access them to see how you actually feel in order to develop a perspective on things so you don’t just feel overwhelmed by the state of affairs.”
Batiste has remained in New York since he left New Orleans to attend Juilliard and the Big Apple has obviously done right by him.
“I live in Brooklyn—it’s great, I love it,” he declares. “It’s a beautiful place to develop as an artist but I love going back home and I visit every chance I get. I do love the balance of going back home and then coming up here. In New York, I like going out to hear people and not telling them I’m coming—I do that all the time. I also just like when I’m in town for a minute getting a chance to just sit back and cook and invite people over to my house. We like playing this game called ‘Mafia’—it’s kind of like an acting game.”
“New York is a global city so I have all these different friends who have all their own cultural experiences. When you have everybody over and you cook together it kind of becomes a potluck of everybody’s culture and they bring that to the table.” When he’s home, though, he looks forward to Camellia red beans cooked by his mother—that’s his favorite. But during the holidays, gumbo is his go-to dish.
Jon Batiste understands the richness of bringing the world of academia and serious study together with what he calls “social” music. Having grown up in New Orleans in a talented musical family, entertaining an audience is almost instinctual.
“There are many sides of people and one thing about the entertainment business is that there’s often times a level of marginalization,” explains Batiste of some people’s expectations and tendency to put an artist in that dreaded “box.” “With my music—my own personal music that I’m putting out—I don’t have to live up to be the persona that you see on the show. I can be me without the mask.”
“There are a whole lot of people who knew me before the show and a lot of people who were introduced to me through the show,” Batiste continues. “It’s a champagne problem—it’s just a problem I’m fortunate to have. In the end, everybody will get to see all the different sides of me as an artist and that’s a blessing.”