Jon Batiste: All in the Family

The pianist and singer opens up about directing the music on a top network show, recording a solo album, writing a Broadway musical, and more

Jon Batiste
Pianist and singer Jon Batiste (photo: Oliver Schrage)

“Man, there is no other gig like this,” Jon Batiste declares buoyantly, settling onto a sofa in his New York office. It’s a little after 11 a.m., and the Louisiana-born musician has just arrived for work—next door to the Ed Sullivan Theater, where he’s been an onstage regular since September 2015, playing piano and leading his band Stay Human on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.

“It’s like audio Lego,” Batiste continues, grinning. “There’s improvisation and incidental music, cues to accent different jokes. Then there’s the audience—500 people every night, a different house. Jazz, at the root of what I do, helps me tremendously.”

Batiste, 32, is doing extra labor tonight as the musical guest, performing the quietly urgent ballad “Don’t Stop” from his new Verve album, Hollywood Africans. Sitting in his office, a small room crammed with instruments and jazz memorabilia, he likens the album, his debut as a solo pianist and singer, to his duty on The Late Show. “With the world being what it is, Stephen addresses things that are really tense,” Batiste says of the host, alluding to his topically pointed monologues. “My role is to be the balm, to get people to remember the shared humanity we have while we’re arguing.”

Named after a 1983 painting by the late, controversial New York artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, Hollywood Africans is a mix of original pieces and jazz-bible covers ranging from the riotous “Kenner Boogie”—named for Batiste’s hometown, a New Orleans suburb—to a hymn-like treatment of Louis Armstrong’s 1967 hit “What a Wonderful World.” “It’s from the heart,” says Batiste, who honed the album over three years in New Orleans’ Esplanade Studios, a former church, with roots-music producer T Bone Burnett. “I wanted to be vulnerable with the people. Nobody’s vulnerable right now. It’s like …” He holds up his fists like a boxer dodging a knockout blow.

Long before he was a TV star, Batiste was Crescent City royalty, born into an historic and extended jazz clan. Early mentors included clarinetist Alvin Batiste and producer/arranger Harold Battiste, both elder cousins, and Funky Meters drummer Russell Batiste, an uncle. Jon’s wide reach came naturally. In high school, he played in a combo with brass-band prodigy Trombone Shorty. After moving to New York to study at Juilliard, he toured with trumpeters Roy Hargrove and Wynton Marsalis and led his own trio, caught on a stunning 2006 CD taped at the Rubin Museum of Art. A 2011 album with Stay Human, MY N.Y., was also recorded live—on subway cars; 2014’s The Process was a fusion outing with bassist Bill Laswell and drummer Chad Smith of the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

“I am a natural link in the chain of lineage,” Batiste says, citing the New Orleans pianists Allen Toussaint, Fats Domino, and James Booker. Hollywood Africans frames “the music of these heroes not only in the context of what they created but what they were fighting against,” adds Batiste, who is currently writing music and lyrics for a Broadway musical about Basquiat. “This isn’t just jazz. This is music that came from the struggle and pain of people for generations. It’s so important for us, as jazz musicians, to remember that.”

Jon Batiste
Jon Batiste plays melodica at the “Louis Armstrong’s Wonderful World” concert in Corona Park, Queens, N.Y., on July 8, 2017. (Photo: Alan Nahigian)

JT: You are the latest in a line of prominent jazz and R&B musicians to lead a talk-show band, including Branford Marsalis, Kevin Eubanks, and Questlove of the Roots. Who did you talk to about the pressures and pitfalls before you took the job?

JON BATISTE: I got advice from all of the leaders in the recent iteration of late-night bands. Branford [who was on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno from 1992 to 1995] was like, “You look great, you sound great. You’re in a better situation than I was in”—which I think speaks to where he was in his life and the relationship between him and Jay. Quest is more process-oriented. He was telling me how the Roots [the house band on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon] go through their day and keep their repertoire fresh.

I ran into Kevin [Marsalis’ successor on The Tonight Show with Leno] at the Village Vanguard. He was playing with Dave Holland. Kevin and I hung out after the set, closed it down. He gave me a clear breakdown of the environment, how to navigate the politics of being on a huge network playing for millions of people. There are things you have to know that are different to playing in the club.

Paul Shaffer [from The Late Show with David Letterman], his advice was, “You gotta be on.” You’re doing 202 shows a year, five nights a week. That means you gotta be able to turn it on at will. But the harder part is turning it off. When you go home at night, you’ve got to know how to shut that thing off if you want to sustain that pace.

In the ’70s, Harold Battiste was a musical director for Sonny and Cher’s TV variety show. Did you ever get to talk to him about it? [Harold died at 83 in 2015, three months before Jon’s debut on The Late Show.]

It’s one of those things you realize in hindsight: “Oh, this makes perfect sense.” But hanging around Harold when I was 10 years old, I’m not thinking about, “What was it like on set?” Alvin was another great mentor. He was the first person to get me into jazz. But he would tell me stuff all the time that would be over my head.

For instance?

[Affects deep growl] “You gotta do the right thing, not what’s correct.” What? The right thing is the correct thing, especially in a musical context when you’re looking at notes on a page, right? “No, just because it’s correct doesn’t make it right.” [Laughs]

You met T Bone Burnett in a rather star-studded setting: a 2013 birthday party for the U2 singer Bono. What were your first impressions?

I was on tour with Stay Human. Bono had this party where you played. He’s being surprised by each performer; Pharrell Williams, Herbie Hancock, and Beck are there. I sit down after my performance and I’m at a table next to T Bone. We have this conversation about the history of black entertainers in American music and the power of that music resonating in the world today. It was a kindred moment.

Jon Batiste
Jonathan Batiste-Piano, Newport Jazz Festival, August 3, 2012 (Photo: Alan Nahigian)

He is also a white Texan.

But he loves the tradition and understands it. I dig the way he blends it with this authenticity, like that record he did with [Led Zeppelin’s] Robert Plant and [bluegrass star] Alison Krauss, Raising Sand. He understands how the strains connect: folk, gospel, the blues. We talked about it in a way that became “We gotta work together.”

At the first sessions with Burnett in 2015, you were covering Nina Simone, Duke Ellington, and Jelly Roll Morton. Those tracks did not make the album. Did you feel you were making a record or exploring possibility?

We put the piano in the middle of the room, and all the lights were off. There was no idea of what was the next song. We knew where we wanted to go, but we had to find the best way to articulate that. It took half of the first day to get the sound of the piano and voice, nailing it so you felt you were sitting right under the piano, having an intimacy.

Those three sessions yielded about 40 tracks. I sat on it, lived life for two years, did tons of things. But then the world changed and I felt, now more than ever, that people need music as a space that allows them to reflect on what’s happening and not come up with despair.

Actually, your new version of “Saint James Infirmary” is pure despair, much darker than the one you did with Stay Human on [2013’s] Social Music. What is it about the song that bears up under that scrutiny and treatment?

You know from the first line what that is: [sings] “I went down to Saint James Infirmary/And I saw my baby there/Stretched out on a long white table/So sweet, so cold, so fair.” You’re committed to a story. I love to take songs where people haven’t seen this side of their personality. People have seen the nostalgic side of “What a Wonderful World.” They haven’t seen the profundity of the lyrics.

You’ve stripped away the orchestral garnish that was on Louis Armstrong’s recording. Your take, in the vocal and on piano, is closer to the nuance in his singing.

He was a profound person. You lose that with the persona. But you can hear it in his voice. His voice doesn’t lie. But because he’s wearing a smile, it’s almost like he’s wearing a mask. People don’t see or hear deeper.

That was Basquiat’s indictment when he made the Hollywood Africans painting. These heroes wore masks in public and were basically owned by society’s perspective of them. They had to live in that, in order to create and be themselves. I don’t have to do that because they made it possible for me. But it’s still a long way for us to go.

Jon Batsite
Jon Batiste (Photo: Oliver Schrage)

Growing up in the Batiste family, was it assumed that you would be a musician, whether you liked it or not?

It was not. It was assumed that we would play. My mother wasn’t a musician at all. But she was responsible for giving me the piano, getting me from the drums.

Did you resist?

My dad was a musician, he had seven brothers and then there were the cousins—there were so many drummers already. But I was the youngest cousin and it was easier to play drums. At the piano, you had to sit and practice, work on things. After a while it clicked. I zoned into it. When I was 14, I started to play with some of my elders. Alvin had a band, the Jazztronauts, and I would play with Donald Harrison Jr. That was a thrill. Moving to New York added another layer of intensity.

How would you describe it?

I was 17, studying at Juilliard, and being thrown into so many situations. I remember getting a phone call from Abbey Lincoln: “Come to my house.” I’m playing piano with Abbey, she’s singing and I don’t even know why I’m there. We start watching TV, Michael Jackson is on the news, and she’s like, “See, he dances like an African.” Then she says, “Let’s go on the road.” So I toured with Abbey.

I was doing a weekly gig with my band at Sweet Rhythm, a club which no longer exists. That turned into me meeting [drummer] Louis Hayes and [trombonist] Curtis Fuller. I’m playing in their band. Roy Hargrove comes to that gig, sits in, and tells them, “I’m gonna take Jon on the road.” The first gig we play is at the Vanguard. Between 17 and 21, I played with all of these heroes of mine—Wynton, Kenny Garrett. In many instances, it was that I’m in one place, and it leads to me playing in another.

How does the melodica come into it? It’s now a signature instrument for you.

It was [dub-reggae producer] Augustus Pablo. He was one of the first musicians I’d seen with one. I got Augustus Pablo merch when I was a kid. And I’d seen my uncles play it. My father was in Japan, and he brought one back for me. I wanted to be able to get up from the piano and interact with the audience in the way you can when you’re playing a horn. I carried it around with me in New York, playing it everywhere.

With its limited tone and range, the melodica isn’t much of an improvising instrument.

It’s a character, a mood that breaks the texture. And it’s averse to any pomposity. I like to pull it out and be like, “Toot!” Sometimes we get too caught up in ourselves, take ourselves too seriously. I started embracing it in live shows, when I wanted to put another character in the room.

There was a moment at the 2016 Jazz Fest in New Orleans when you were on a ramp in the crowd with the melodica, and you pointed it at the sky as you played. It reminded me of that 1961 photo of Armstrong with his trumpet at the pyramids in Egypt.

I love that photo—he’s releasing the spirit sound. New Orleans, I’ll say, gives you a level of fearlessness not just as a musician but as a connector and entertainer. It’s a tradition going back to Buddy Bolden, playing to make people feel good whether it’s in the streets or the halls—the down-home, soulful, welcoming embrace. It’s a big part of how I am as a person. I’ve always felt that if we’re not connecting, then what’s the point? Why are we playing for people if we’re not striving to make things better than they are?

You have a new album, you’re touring, and you are on TV every weeknight. Where do you find the time to write new music, especially for this Basquiat musical?

I write music for the [Basquiat] show every day. I liken it to what it must have been like for Duke Ellington at the Cotton Club, having a show every night and writing for the band. He would write stuff on a napkin. He loved to write in hotel lobbies while the crew was cleaning, the vacuum was going, or in his room late at night.

I’ve adapted to my lifestyle. If you have an idea, document it, whether it’s in an iPhone voice memo, on the computer, or sheet music. Go to the piano and play it until it’s under your fingers. I do that constantly. I’m also writing music and arrangements for the band every night. I’ve gotten so comfortable generating ideas that the next step is to hone that idea around whatever the musical setting is.

You’ve worked in many settings—Stay Human, piano trio, fusion groups, and now as a solo pianist and singer. Do you have trouble settling on one path?

In entertainment, people want the same thing. But the artist is always changing. Charles Mingus said that. [“I am trying to play the truth of what I am,” the bassist once told Nat Hentoff. “The reason it’s difficult is because I’m changing all the time.”] For me, it’s about expansion. I’m adding to the base of knowledge. And I can’t predict the way it comes out until it’s time to happen. Maybe by the time I’m 50, I’ll be settled on one thing I want to do.

But that’s the beauty of jazz. It can accommodate everything—and still remain itself.

Top photo: Oliver Schrage

David Fricke

David Fricke has written about music for more than four decades for publications including Rolling Stone, MOJO, the late great British weekly Melody Maker and now JazzTimes. He is a DJ at Sirius XM Radio, a Grammy-nominated writer of album liner notes and a three-time winner of the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for excellence in music journalism.