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Tall, lithe, laid-back yet quick-witted, flashing bright-white smiles that look alternatively knowing or goofy, Jon Batiste plays the perfect sidekick as music director for The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. When the camera pans his way during a Colbert monologue, his charisma rivals that of his boss. When the focus turns squarely his way, Batiste takes charge, leading his Stay Human band through a Horace Silver composition one moment, Steely Dan’s “Reelin’ In the Years” the next, and so on, investing each tune with new wrinkles.
Late one August afternoon at Manhattan’s Ed Sullivan Theater, where The Late Show is filmed, during what will become commercial breaks, Batiste stands at the piano and pounds out chords to an original song, “Why You Gotta Be Like That?” Next, he’s in the balcony, beating out rhythms on tom-toms. Soon he roams the studio audience with his melodica, the mouth-blown reed-and-keyboard instrument he calls a “harmonaboard,” whipping up excitement. It’s Colbert’s show — fueled by the host’s feverish intensity and colored by his ironic air — yet in such moments Batiste creates the mood.
Batiste isn’t the first jazz musician to lead a network late-night talk-show band. (That would be Doc Severinsen, whose band for Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show included trumpeter Clark Terry.) He isn’t even the first jazz musician born and raised in Kenner, Louisiana, to hold the job. (That distinction belongs to saxophonist Branford Marsalis, who led Jay Leno’s Tonight Show band from 1992 to 1995.) Nor is Stay Human the first late-night-TV band to feature a tuba. (The Roots, the current Tonight Show band, features Damon Bryson, a.k.a. Tuba Gooding Jr., on sousaphone.) Still, Batiste brings fresh enthusiasm to the role. He was 28 when CBS hired him in 2015, making him the youngest musician ever offered such a gig, a fact he notes with pride when we meet a few days later in his eighth-floor office above the theater. The space is dominated by a Mason & Hamlin baby grand piano. Underneath it is a basketball. Surrounding it are four keyboards, a Mac computer, a drum kit, an electric bass, a whiteboard listing his schedule of concerts and appearances, and another basketball. (A decade ago, Batiste played point guard on a state-champion high-school team).
According to Batiste, what viewers see and hear merely scratches the surface of his work on Late Night. “I write or arrange all the music you hear on the show,” he says. “Every day I write four or five songs. You hear them on the air for maybe 10 or 12 seconds, but we play the whole thing for the audience. I’ve always dreamed of having an opportunity to write and arrange music constantly for a band and have it heard on a consistent basis, on a national level. I may not have imagined it happening quite this way, but here I am.” At the beginning of each year, he says, he compiles a playlist from which he plucks tunes that he’ll play, along with his own material, during each show. “On Twitter, nearly every day, someone reaches out to me to ask: ‘What was that song?’ It can be the most obscure thing, but when you broadcast to three million people, there’s always that one guy who was listening, who wants to know. I always answer.”
Even before he signed on for Late Night, Batiste had earned a loyal following for his music, which is rooted in many styles and is slyly challenging but utterly accessible. Like Colbert’s comedy, it balances mainstream appeal with a subversive streak. His new release, Hollywood Africans (Verve), may come as a surprise — a revelation, even — to his fans. “It’s meant as a still-life portrait of who I am today,” he explains. The mood, crafted with his co-producer, T Bone Burnett, is introspective. Even the most declarative tracks suggest vulnerability. The album combines well-known songs and original compositions. It nods toward legacies yet sounds personal. Two dozen musicians play or sing on one or more of the album’s 11 tracks, yet throughout, Batiste’s piano playing and singing commands the foreground. Despite that, he manages to project humility. Nothing he sings or plays seems forced or self-indulgent. Unlike his extroverted TV persona, he comes off here as reflective, as if pulling listeners into private moments. The album’s title is borrowed from that of a 1983 painting with which Jean-Michel Basquiat offered complicated commentary about the indignities facing African-American artists and entertainers, and their conflicted identities. He’s making a political statement, one that’s different and more nuanced than those made by Colbert each night, and one that’s not intended to elicit an immediate audience reaction. It’s Batiste sharing his own gradual awakening to realities Colbert senses but can’t really know. It’s Batiste revealing who he really is.
[caption id="attachment_14870" align="alignleft" width="290"] “I’ve always dreamed of having an opportunity to write and arrange music constantly for a band and have it heard on a consistent basis, on a national level. I may not have imagined it happening quite this way, but here I am.”[/caption]
The booming left-hand figures and chiming right-hand chords of Hollywood Africans’ opening track, “Kenner Boogie,” evoke a lineage of New Orleans pianism: Champion Jack Dupree’s propulsive boogie-woogie; the groove-based magnetism of Fats Domino’s early rock ’n’ roll; the tumbling Afro-Caribbean beats of Professor Longhair’s jazz-colored R&B; the deft blend of funk and elegance that was Allen Toussaint’s calling card. The song’s title refers to Kenner, Louisiana, the suburb of New Orleans where Batiste grew up, which is also home to jazz’s Marsalis clan. (Pianist and family patriarch Ellis Marsalis was among his early teachers.) Batiste, too, hails from a well-known musical family, which includes at least two dozen working players. At age 8, he played congas in the Batiste Brothers Band, a funk group somewhat in the mold of the Neville Brothers, alongside his father, Michael, who plays bass. Later he’d study with clarinetist Alvin Batiste, a celebrated educator in New Orleans, who is a distant cousin. By 11, at his mother’s urging, he took up piano.
“Kenner is like a lot like of other suburbs,” Batiste says. “The big difference is that 20 minutes up the road, you have this completely unique place, New Orleans, that’s like no other place in the world. So you can get a taste of that anytime.” Thanks to his family’s deep ties to New Orleans’ music scene and his own prodigious talent, Batiste got plenty of tastes. “But I also had the balance of a completely normal upbringing,” he says.
He played basketball, took tennis lessons, worked hard in school. One of his classmates at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (NOCCA), an acclaimed high school-level program that has served as an on-ramp for the careers of Terence Blanchard, Donald Harrison and Christian Scott, among many others, was Troy Andrews. Andrews, who grew up in New Orleans’ Sixth Ward (often called “Tremé”) and is better-known these days as Trombone Shorty, drew Batiste into the community of second-line parades and traditional jazz bands. Batiste learned yet more of that repertoire while gigging at now-defunct Donna’s and other New Orleans clubs, often in bands led by drummers Shannon Powell and Bob French. Batiste and Andrews realized that their NOCCA education focused on the modern jazz of, say, Art Blakey and Miles Davis, and they both sensed a deep tension between that tradition and the one existent in New Orleans streets and neighborhood clubs, which some saw as outdated. “But we didn’t pay attention to what was called modern and what wasn’t,” Batiste says. “We were each searching for a sound that broke stereotypes but somehow stayed true to our roots. We just wanted to communicate.”
At 17, Batiste moved to New York City to attend the Juilliard School of Music, from which he now holds a master’s degree. In 2005, when it was time for his second-year audition (at the time, the school required an audition each year), he and his family were stranded in Houston after the flood that resulted from the levee failures following Hurricane Katrina. He phoned in his audition, playing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” on a piano in a hotel lobby. (“I copped the rendition on The Amazing Bud Powell,” he says.) While studying piano at Juilliard, he also intensified his focus on melodica, treating it as a serious undertaking. “I must have played it 12 hours a day at Juilliard, up and down the halls,” he says. “But the administrators thought it was a toy. They wanted me to cut it out, to stop bringing it to school.” He shrugged off that admonition.
Batiste’s first recording, 2005’s Times in New Orleans, bears overt imprints of his upbringing and features notable Crescent City musicians such as saxophonist Donald Harrison and drummer Jason Marsalis. On his second recording, the following year’s Live in New York: At the Rubin Museum of Art, he sounds mostly like a straight-up jazz pianist wearing his affection for Thelonious Monk’s spiky arpeggios and dissonant tone clusters on his sleeve.
[caption id="attachment_14872" align="alignleft" width="300"] Hollywood Africans was released on September 28 via Verve Records.[/caption]
Batiste soon found his own sound, his way of breaking stereotypes while staying true to his roots. He began performing regularly around New York with his Juilliard peers, bassist Phil Kuehn and drummer Joe Saylor. Later he expanded his ensemble to include alto saxophonist Eddie Barbash and tuba player Ibanda Ruhumbika. He began played melodica as well as piano. He named the new band Stay Human — “to project a spirit of togetherness and community at a time when things have become more synthetic and virtual,” he told me a decade ago. “It’s about not concentrating on the genre but on the intent of the music, and it’s about connecting to the uplifting things in everyday life that keep you human.” He was distilling the drum circles and second-line parades of his childhood in New Orleans, and addressing a latent sense of alienation in his adopted home.
In 2011, seated at the piano of Moldy Fig, a small and smartly renovated Lower East Side jazz club, Batiste told the audience: “We’re gonna play jazz tunes in the jazz style. We’re gonna play tunes that aren’t jazz and jazz ’em up. We’re gonna play tunes that are kind of jazz and make ’em even more jazzy.” He segued from a clever rearrangement of Lady Gaga’s “Just Dance” to Thelonious Monk’s “’Round Midnight,” then stood up, grabbed a melodica and ripped into a version of “You Are My Sunshine” that would befit a parade. Later that night, he slipped me a self-produced Stay Human album titled My N.Y. It was recorded on the subway — not the platform, but on trains in motion. “This is where we really live,” he said.
A week later, on a chilly Monday night, Batiste stood next to a hot dog stand in front of the Time Warner Center, the home of Jazz at Lincoln Center, the institution helmed by Wynton Marsalis, who he counts among his mentors. He pointed his melodica skyward and began to play. Then he and his Stay Human band headed down the escalators of Columbus Circle and boarded the A train. Soon the hymn “Just a Closer Walk With Thee” gave way to “Country by Choice,” a complex tune composed by trumpeter Nicholas Payton, another of NOCCA’s illustrious alumni. One couple carried on their conversation, unmoved, but the guy seated directly across unburied his head from his iPhone and bobbed to the beat.
“I’m doing this for an artistic reason,” Batiste told me then. “Jazz performances can seem esoteric, like an experiment or a recital. Here, there’s no hat passed around. We’re not practicing, either. We’re playing at the highest level we can. And we’re doing it two feet from your face, right where you live.” Saylor had been reluctant to take to the subways until Batiste persuaded him during late-night conversations at a diner. “You get on a train, and you see people who are afraid or sad,” Saylor said. “And then you start to play, and their whole countenance changes. You can see it, you can sense it. Jon told me that would happen, and he was right.”
On a hot June day in 2015, Batiste squinted in the midday sun at Manhattan’s Union Square Park. He picked up his melodica as a small but enthusiastic crowd formed. He began a loosely swinging version of “My Favorite Things,” and then led his band and their followers in a procession across Irving Place, storming a newsstand and a dry cleaner, leaving befuddled shopkeepers in his wake. Five days earlier, Colbert had announced him as the new Late Night bandleader. This “love riot,” as Batiste likes to call such outbursts, was his way of celebrating, or perhaps announcing, the fact that, five days earlier, Colbert had named him the new Late Night bandleader.”
The seeds for Batiste’s current job were planted in 2014, when he appeared as a guest on The Colbert Report. He led Stay Human through a rousing rendition of “Express Yourself,” a tune from his Social Music album. During the interview segment, he drew Colbert in close, challenged him, one-upped some of his punch lines. “The thing that clicked about it all,” Batiste says, “is that we aligned on how music connects to the audience. Part of the studio audience thing is that it’s not just about entertainment. There’s a level of what Stephen is doing, a deeper and more profound level, that may go over some people’s heads.”
Colbert appreciates Batiste’s talents as a musician, performer and comedian. In an email, he wrote: “He’s a great listener, which helps with all three of those things.” Saylor told me that the Jon Batiste he loves best is the one the TV audiences don’t see. “There’s this deeply meditative guy,” Saylor says, “the one I stay up with until 5 a.m. in a hotel room talking, who can go on for hours about the Bible and the goodness of Jesus or about “’Round Midnight” and the greatness of Thelonious Monk.” This open sincerity is balanced, according to Saylor, by a sly ingenuity. “The other day, during a commercial break, we were playing ‘My Sharona,’” he says. “But Jon was doing it the way McCoy Tyner might play the song.”
As Executive Director of the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, Loren Schoenberg brought a teenaged Batiste into the organization more than a decade ago (Batiste is presently the museum’s creative director). Schoenberg taught jazz history at Juilliard, and Batiste was once his student. “I noticed that he never took notes,” Schoenberg says. “Now, there were a lot of obscure facts in my lectures, stuff you can’t just look up. So I was concerned — until he aced the first test. Soon after, the class watched Spike Lee’s Bamboozled. Afterward, Jon sat down and pretty much played the film’s score without any sheet music.”
Schoenberg was impressed by how easily Batiste connected with elderly members of the museum’s community and with how well he improvised, in all senses of the word. When Batiste played a recital, within a Jazz Museum series at the Rubin Museum of Art — recorded for his 2006 Live in New York album — Schoenberg brought his own piano to the venue. “There was one funny note in middle that didn’t work right, that even the piano tuner couldn’t get to work properly,” he says. “If you listen to the track ‘Virupa’ — one of Jon’s tunes — you can hear how he jumped on that note. He used it as an element of the piece”
[caption id="attachment_14873" align="aligncenter" width="1280"] “Jazz performances can seem esoteric, like an experiment or a recital. Here, there’s no hat passed around. We’re not practicing, either. We’re playing at the highest level we can. And we’re doing it two feet from your face, right where you live.”[/caption]
Early in 2018, while still working on his new album, Batiste began performing in intimate formats. In February, he played two “Solo in the Round” shows at Manhattan’s Bowery Ballroom. He sipped tea at the piano and talked gently to the audience between songs about the idea of “coming together even if we don’t agree.” A few months later, at the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, South Carolina, he played a solo concert in a large open-air courtyard on a starry night. During an afternoon soundcheck, while he played “Amazing Grace,” a housekeeper who was making her way across the courtyard stopped. She began to sway and softly sing along. Batiste motioned for her to come onstage; soon, broom in hand, she was singing in duet with Batiste.
That evening, while playing a long and ruminative improvisation, an audience of some 2,000 people listened in hushed silence. A bit later, before playing “’Round Midnight,” he told a long story about a musical awakening he experienced when he was 18. He described hours spent in practice rooms searching for a sound “that dealt with space and logic, that rhymed and was almost obtuse.” He recalled showing up at a jam session, where “there it was, what I’d been looking for, in a Thelonious Monk tune.” He marveled at how Monk had discovered that sound he had sought long before he, Batiste, was born. It was touching, as if Batiste weren’t onstage but in a hotel room on the road, going on about Monk to a bandmate. Colbert, who grew up in Charleston and still lives there part-time, sat in the fourth row that night. In an email, he wrote, “Jon’s performance that night had an emotional candor and vulnerability that did not surprise me, but that I had not seen from him onstage before.”
T Bone Burnett says that the sessions for Batiste’s new album, at Esplanade Studios, were like “a series of séances.” “We were in a beautiful old church in a part of New Orleans that got flooded. The church got reclaimed as a recording studio. It had a great piano. It’s a large wooden space, with deep resonances. Jon played the whole room like an instrument.”
[caption id="attachment_14874" align="alignright" width="314"] His new music, which seems worlds removed from his TV trappings, represents a bold professional move.[/caption]
On the album, Batiste’s version of “What a Wonderful World” — made famous by Louis Armstrong and too often interpreted in syrupy fashion — is built on a single-note drone and sung earnestly, like a prayer. (“We need that energy, Louis’ energy, and that simple but profound lyric to counteract some darkness that has entered our world right now,” Batiste says.) Elsewhere on the recording, he celebrates classical forms, but in gently swinging, blues-inflected manner. His “Chopinesque” draws its theme from Chopin’s most celebrated composition, “Nocturne, Op. 9, No. 2.” His own “Nocturne No. 1 in D Minor” is grounded in the bamboula rhythm, an African influence that composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk showcased in a Romantic-era classical piece, and that permeates New Orleans music. In between, Batiste sings and plays “St. James Infirmary Blues,” a song of enduring relevance in New Orleans. Unlike his version on Social Music, which built into a raucous celebration, this rendition stays mournful and stately. For him, this is a sort of classical music, too. Throughout, careful production details achieve a spare and delicate ambience. While the prominent tape hiss behind Batiste’s brief solo-piano rendition of “Smile” seems overdone (his playing alone suggests its silent-film roots), most of these touches — the gentle pulses of Bashiri Johnson’s brushes (against a cardboard box, according to Batiste) on “The Very Thought of You” and the subtly manipulated reverb in the mix of “Is It Over” — deepen tenderness and heighten drama. That latter track — a convincing original song about a heartbreak (or, by song’s end, maybe not) — drips with gospel feeling. His pleading vocal leans up into notes and his chiming piano chords lay back on the beat, balancing desperation and restraint. Batiste’s singing is no match for his virtuosic pianism, but it brings to bear an equivalent, if humbler, kind of charm.
Not long after I’d interviewed Batiste about this new music, he wanted to talk again. He’d settled on the title, Hollywood Africans. He knew that it would have pointed meaning for those familiar with Basquiat’s painting, and that it still might sound unsettling to those who weren’t. “There are themes involved in my choices of songs and how I present them,” he said, “and a lot of this has to do with race, and with things we’ve been talking about for a long time.” Batiste has been exploring such themes in various ways and with increasing boldness. Last year his first assignment as “musical director” for The Atlantic Monthly was to reimagine “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” a song indelibly tied to the Civil War. The irony of this undertaking, right after the city of New Orleans had removed four prominent Confederate statues, was not lost on him. His version is dreamy, built on a drone, with hints of African rhythms and sung like a Spiritual. “It’s meant to sound global and contemplative, like our country should be,” Batiste says, “though in some cases I guess we’ve been the very opposite of that.”
Following Fats Domino’s death in October 2017, Batiste wrote an op-ed piece for The New York Times. “My first exposure to rock ’n’ roll came from watching mostly white bands like Nirvana, Korn and Limp Bizkit perform angsty songs on MTV,” he began, and then recalled first hearing “Blueberry Hill” during one of his father’s gigs and marveling at both the percussive piano part and how “folks of various ages and races got up to dance and sing along in a joyous communal outburst.” He went on: “Maybe that explains why it was only after I enrolled at Juilliard when I was 17 years old and really studied Mr. Domino’s catalog that I fully grasped the significance of the fact that an African-American man, born in the Jim Crow South, was a founder of a mostly white musical movement.”
On the cover of Hollywood Africans, Batiste, whose Afro has grown out noticeably of late, is shown in profile. He isn’t flashing his teeth like he does on TV, but he’s not unsmiling either. Compared to Basquiat’s brashness, Batiste is gentle and mannered; he’s no radical. His artistic expressions are elegant and thoughtfully arranged, not streetwise and scrawled like Basquiat’s. His story, unlike Basquiat’s, is not that of a tragic artist. In a New York Times lifestyle piece not long ago, Batiste explained that he starts every day with a brief period of prayer and meditation to ground himself within the pace and tenor of his current career. His new music, which seems worlds removed from his TV trappings, represents a bold professional move. It is also an elegant meditation on complicated truths from a young black man thrust into stardom, still sorting out traditions of richness and pain. -Larry Blumenfeld