Jon Batiste: Day & Late Nite

The New Orleanian settles comfortably into the role of talkshow bandleader

Jon Batiste (left) and Stephen Colbert
Jon Batiste (right) and Stephen Colbert
Jon Batiste
Jon Batiste at the 2015 Newport Jazz Festival, with saxophonist Grace Kelly at right

Jon Batiste had one request, early in the courtship dance that led to his installment as bandleader for The Late Show With Stephen Colbert on CBS. Batiste-the irrepressible young pianist and singer, and the engine behind the trademark phrases “Love Riot” and “Social Music”-wanted his new boss to meet his folks. So they went down to Kenner, La., just outside New Orleans, for some red beans and rice at the Batiste family home.

During the trip, Colbert filmed the online video snippet that would serve as an announcement of Batiste’s hire. (Naturally, it involved a beignet gag.) He also imparted a kernel of insight to his new collaborator about the nature of their upcoming gig. Don’t think of the show as the brand-name commercial property of a massive corporate conglomerate, Colbert advised, even if that’s ultimately what it is. “Think of it as the Joy Machine,” Batiste recalls him saying, eyes gleaming. “And we’re going to take it for a ride.”

Batiste told this story at the 2015 Newport Jazz Festival, backstage in the stone ruins of Fort Adams in early August. Stay Human, his rangy band, had just played a typically jubilant set, and he sat wedged on a couch with its other core members, saxophonist Eddie Barbash and drummer Joe Saylor. Batiste was wearing a black V-neck T-shirt with the name of his latest single on his chest-BELIEVE, in bold white letters-and he seemed the picture of easy confidence, neither heavy nor harried. Still, he admitted that there were a lot of unknowns about the workings of the new Late Show. At that point its highly anticipated premiere was five weeks away.

••••

It would be a stretch to say Batiste was an obvious choice for the Late Show gig, but the signs were there for everyone to see. A former prodigy from one of the leading musical families in New Orleans, he had spent the last decade making a name for himself in New York. His youthful poise as a pianist, and his mastery of a jazz language that ran all the way back to stride and ragtime, earned him acclaim early on. I first saw him in concert during his first year at Juilliard, as a featured guest on a Jazz at Lincoln Center concert with Wynton Marsalis.

Unlike Marsalis-also the product of an important jazz family in Kenner-Batiste doesn’t feel a burden of responsibility to jazz as an art form. While he proudly identifies as a jazz musician, he’s obviously not hung up about the sanctity of the style. “We come from the same place, with a very similar background,” he said, “but culturally there’s a world of difference between us.” He pointed out that Marsalis went to Juilliard at a time when its curriculum and identity were strictly classical. Batiste, by contrast, met Saylor and Barbash in the school’s resident jazz program.

Batiste had a bit of a reputation, even in a comparatively more relaxed era at Juilliard, for his informality and overwhelming sense of play. He recalls striding the halls with his melodica, a toylike wind keyboard, improvising melodies. Eventually, partly as a corrective to the antiseptic experience of the academy, he began bringing his peers into unusually close proximity with their audiences, often purely as a surprise. His 2011 EP My N.Y. was made entirely in the New York City subway system-not on the platform, but on actual moving trains, mere inches away from the nearest startled listeners. (This was another advantage of the melodica: mobility.)

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Soon afterward Batiste and Stay Human began to rally behind the term “Social Music,” which pointedly makes no claim on any particular genre. Batiste described it to me as “a declaration,” a self-defining banner he could wave. “You gotta stand for something,” he said. When Stay Human released its only studio album so far, on Razor & Tie in 2013, Social Music was the obvious title, and a natural talking point.

The idea came up during Batiste’s appearance on The Colbert Report, in the summer of 2014. But a funny thing happened during the interview: Batiste, identifying himself first and foremost as an improviser, made a crack about Colbert’s reliance on his script. Colbert, instantly accepting this as an invitation and a challenge, engaged Batiste in an intimate, playfully tense repartee.

The moment crackled nicely. “As soon as that interview was over,” Colbert later recalled, on the Late Show Podcast, “I went, ‘Damn, I think that’s a guy I could actually spend a few years onstage with.'” And then there was the musical performance: Stay Human, attacking Batiste’s buoyant anthem “I’m From Kenner,” ended up leading Colbert and the studio audience out into the street, for a basic-cable Love Riot. It was a moment of unplanned euphoria that left a clear impression on Colbert.

“I loved your positive message,” he told Batiste, on that podcast. “I loved the mastery you and your band had, and the joy that you brought to it. You were the first people that ever took our audience outside. Wasn’t a long time before you and I had a conversation about it. It started from the moment when you said, ‘I like to improvise.’ One of my favorite interviews I ever had.”

••••

Batiste and Stay Human performed three separate times at the 2015 Newport Jazz Festival, if you count their appearance at a fancy fundraising gala. They also appeared the previous weekend at the Newport Folk Festival. Seeing the band in these different settings underscored Batiste’s highly developed intuition with an audience. No two sets were alike, despite some commonalities, and in each case the band had people more or less eating out of their hands.

At the Folk Festival, Batiste tailored the set list and his delivery to an ideal of performance you’d associate with the festival’s lodestar, Pete Seeger. He introduced “St. James Infirmary,” which appears on Social Music, by saying: “Very much a part of the folk tradition, this song is over 100 years old.” Later, playing some unaccompanied piano, he segued from “Blackbird,” the folklike Paul McCartney ballad, to “Home on the Range,” the Western anthem. The show ended, of course, with Batiste and his bandmates parading through the crowd.

Batiste’s afternoon set at the Newport Jazz Festival was similar in substance, but with more emphasis on solos among the band. He had augmented his ranks with a horn section, including Sam Crittenden on trombone and Grace Kelly on saxophones. The same expanded lineup appeared in an evening concert at the Newport Casino, with even more virtuosity and polish. There was no trampling through the aisles in that show, but still an abundance of flair.

It was virtually impossible to feel ungrateful about these performances. The joy and commitment of the band were contagious. Yet I left thinking about the high degree of difficulty Batiste would face on television, where it wouldn’t be possible to routinely pull his Pied Piper routine. The last time a musician from Kenner held a late-night gig, it was saxophonist Branford Marsalis, Wynton’s older brother, and it didn’t go so well. I can recall eagerly tuning in to The Tonight Show With Jay Leno for any taste of Marsalis’ impressive band, and never feeling satisfied.

As it turned out, neither did Branford, who resented his obligations as a sidekick and left the show after three grudging years. The dynamic was better with guitarist Kevin Eubanks, though his yuk-yuk chemistry with Leno was strictly transactional, no more nuanced or natural than the blinking “APPLAUSE” sign hanging somewhere in the show’s Burbank studio.

The gold standard for bandleader-host simpatico would have to be the long run that keyboardist Paul Shaffer had with David Letterman, in the previous Late Show and before that, on NBC’s Late Night With David Letterman. Shaffer maintained a perfectly calibrated rapport with his host: wry but not detached, in on the joke but not smug, always ready to pounce. Batiste, the sort of guy smart enough to know what he doesn’t know, asked Shaffer out to lunch soon after he got the gig. “Well, of course, we don’t know how much freedom the show will really give him,” Shaffer told me, speaking of his successor days before the new show aired. But he was sanguine about the potential that Batiste was bringing to the table. “He’s a natural at everything else,” Shaffer said. “So the only challenge will be fitting into the format of the show.”

••••

Every late-night television talk show has a format. They’re fairly rigid, and not so different from one another. Watch any episode of The Late Show With Stephen Colbert and you’ll recognize the beats, along with the template. So it’s mostly in the area of tone and texture that Colbert, who stepped into Letterman’s shoes after nine brilliant years as host of The Colbert Report on Comedy Central, has carved out his niche. His bandleader is a big part of that.

The show opens each night with Batiste out front, his lanky frame in a tailored suit, hyping the audience in the elegant Ed Sullivan Theater. Often you see him with his melodica-“face piano,” Colbert likes to call it-reeling off boppish phrases. A scrim-like curtain rises, and out walks the show’s grinning host, amid the thunderous cheers and rave-up clamor of the band. He and Batiste exchange a high-five, a bro hug or some other amiable physical contact. There’s a mini-monologue before the band kicks in with the show’s theme song, a Batiste ditty with a staccato hook and a pop-gospel chord progression.

There isn’t room for a lot of jazz on the show; that’s just the nature of the gig. But during the snippets that bracket a commercial break, you’ll often hear the band play something remarkably fluid, or crisply dynamic. Batiste rotates among piano, synthesizer and melodica, his rapport with the band, especially Barbash, effectively popping off the screen. Stay Human haven’t pushed into the area of viral online sketches, like the Roots on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, but their energy is palpable, and it fits into the peppy, airtight mood of the show.

Batiste himself, on the other hand, is funny. He has a loose-limbed, unreserved way of dancing, like a funky Gumby, and he savors the effect of a provocative line issued in blank-faced deadpan. In many ways he has adapted to his television profile by inhabiting a character, much as Colbert did on Comedy Central (and still does, to a lesser extent, on CBS).

There’s an awkward, unanswerable question worth posing about the racial dynamics of the show-why does the invariably white late-night host always end up hiring an African-American bandleader, and why does the bandleader have to be so damn happy?-but none of that mitigates the repartee between Colbert and Batiste, which feels genuine, and rarely overplayed.

One evening, about two months into the show’s run, Colbert welcomed Batiste over to the guest chair to set up a video about their visit to New Orleans. “Thanks for being my bandleader,” he said. “You guys having a good time over there?”

“Yeahhhh,” Batiste replied, settling into the chair. “It’s a good job, man-it pays well.”

Colbert, about to say something glib, is obviously caught off guard by the line. “Good to know, man,” he says, laughing, recovering. “But obviously you do it for

the love.”

“I love it, man,” Batiste fires back, still looking serious. “I love money.”

The New Orleans segment happens to be charming: Colbert and Batiste go for a stroll on Frenchman Street, parse the meaning of “the hang,” and improvise along to the bleating warning of a reversing utility truck. But the more important test had already happened in the moment, before a live audience, with neither party quite sure of where the interaction would go.

Colbert had another word of advice for Batiste during that trip. As Batiste remembers it, they were about to part ways, sitting in the driveway of his parents’ house. This insight had supposedly been passed along from Johnny Carson to Conan O’Brien, who had passed it on to Colbert. It was: “With a show like this, you’ll use everything you know.” Repeating it, Batiste gave out a low whistle.

“I said, ‘That’s deep, man. That’s deep.'”

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