For a man who has built his career on connecting intimately with audiences — recording entire albums on bustling subway cars, leading impromptu musical processions down city streets — the daily grind of late-night television presents a special set of challenges. But since joining The Late Show with Stephen Colbert as musical director and bandleader on September 8, Jon Batiste has gradually been finding his footing as a multi-talented entertainer and unlikely TV star while attempting to bring a dash of spontaneity and candor to the often formulaic network talk show circuit.
“I never dreamed of being a late-night band leader, but I did dream of collaborating on a large platform with great minds outside of just music,” Batiste, 28, tells the Voice. His words maintain the slight, friendly drawl of his Kenner, Louisiana upbringing. “I can just imagine the next ten years of what this show — and being a part of this community — will do for me and my vision of social music.”
Earlier this year, Stephen Colbert courted Batiste and his backing band, Stay Human, in the hopes of having them join his team as they transitioned from their longtime home at Comedy Central to a new, much-buzzed about format at CBS. In 2014, the two had bantered back and forth in a snappy, freewheeling interview on The Colbert Report — an appearance that culminated with the audience marching down the street to the tune of Batiste’s trademark melodica — and the idea was to recreate the easiness of their rapport on a nightly basis at The Late Show.
“When [Stephen] first approached me, he said, ‘I want someone on stage that I can play with,’” Batiste remembers. “He’s all about keeping everything in the spirit of [playfulness]. And he hadn’t been in a situation where he could play with someone else, or another entity, on The Colbert Report for the most part.”
Since The Late Show’s premiere last month, Batiste has often been asked to step into the familiar role of bandleader-cum-sidekick: a staple of the late-night genre practically since its inception, most notably demonstrated by David Letterman and Paul Shaffer on the Late Show before Colbert and Batiste. Stay Human’s sound, which blends pop and funk rhythms with New Orleans jazz, is well-suited to the feel-good vibrations of the show, and Batiste, having appeared in HBO’s Treme and Spike Lee’s Red Hook Summer, has looked loose and confident riffing alongside Colbert from the onset.
Batiste became the star of a recent sketch after Colbert pulled a copy of Underneath the Chuckles from behind his desk — a mock, tell-all book the musician had written about the dark underbelly of working for the talk show. “There’s not a day that goes by that Stephen Colbert doesn’t use meth,” the host read from the text, feigning outrage. Flashing the crowd a toothy smile, Batiste blamed the passage on an innocent misprint.
“It’s not just performance in the sense of being a musician — you have to really come and be a personality,” Batiste explains, adding that he believes the chemistry between bandleader and host will continue to evolve as the show progresses. “I think that now the focus is really on getting the process together and finding our footing as a team. Once we get that together it’ll definitely be more interactive, because we’re just going to be more comfortable.”
For many viewers, The Late Show has been an introductory course on Jon Batiste and Stay Human. Prior to landing the gig this summer, the group was relatively unknown on the national stage. But in New Orleans and New York City, two cities that have helped mold the artist’s sound and style, the bandleader is something of a hometown hero.
Batiste first came to Manhattan at the age of 17 to attend the Juilliard School, already seen as a jazz prodigy from playing piano and drums with his family’s band around the Big Easy. After finishing undergrad, he went on to earn a master’s degree from Juilliard and serve as artistic director at large at the National Jazz Museum in Harlem. Today, he claims he hails from “New York-leans,” equally influenced by the culture of both cities.
“New York is a global city, and being around all of the different cultures that congregate here has influenced my music,” says Batiste, who has lived in Harlem, the Upper West Side and the East Village before moving near the Ed Sullivan Theater in Midtown, where The Late Show is taped. “You’ve got a melting pot here in the same way that New Orleans is [a melting pot.]”
While Batiste was born out of two culturally and ethnically diverse worlds, he’s now entered a third realm that has typically lagged behind on issues of inclusivity. Though comedians like Trevor Noah and Larry Wilmore now host their own shows on Comedy Central, late-night network television seems to remain stubbornly dominated by middle-aged white men. Over the decades, it has been the bandleaders who have offered a glimmer of diversity amid a revolving door of white hosts.
“I think historically if you look at shows of the last 20 years or so — even going back to Jay Leno with Branford Marsalis and Jay Leno with Kevin Eubanks — and now if you look at the Roots and Jimmy Fallon and us, I think that the music chair has always been the most diverse in the show,” Batiste explains. “You have to shape the show somewhat around the way that Americans are developing and evolving and becoming more open to diversity — not just with race, but with everything.”
Throughout the course of his career, Batiste has championed the idea that music can be a transformative and unifying experience. This past Saturday at Webster Hall — during Stay Human’s first public performance since the launch of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert in September — Batiste appeared to be wholly in his element. The band ripped through a dizzying set of Nola jazz numbers and classic R&B and pop riffs, touching on everyone from Louis Armstrong and the Beatles to Michael Jackson and the Fugees.
Many of the numbers, including a heart-wrenching rendition of the folk song “St. James Infirmary,” first appeared on the group’s 2013 album, Social Music. Since its release, the record’s title has become something of a guiding philosophy for Batiste and Stay Human as they seek to make fans feel like active participants in their art. The trick now will be to carry that same sense of intimacy and belonging through the television screen to viewers at home.
“We’ll see you all next time,” Batiste said Saturday night before jumping into the crowd for his final song. “On the TV!”