Jazz pianist and bandleader Jon Batiste is about to become a very familiar face. Just 28 years old, he's the bandleader-to-be of CBS's new The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, a gig that will skyrocket his regular audience numbers into the tens of millions every week. It's a role that even the most experienced musicians would stress over, but despite looming pressures, Baptiste is keeping cool.
Batiste comes from a long lineage of New Orleans gospel-jazz, and has a penchant for leading his band (and audiences) up, out of their seats, and into the streets for riotous open-air jam sessions. He calls them "love riots," a push against the status quo that's kept the music he loves locked up in dim bars doused in liquor and pretension. We spoke with Batiste about what it means to make "social music," his plans for The Late Show, and what it's like playing in the streets when you're about to be a household name.
Batiste currently has a residency going on at the Nomad Hotel—you can find the dates on his website.
Let us get an idea of what life has been like for you in the last month. What's been going on lately since the announcement? We've been taking a break from performing, not a break but we just weren't out steadily. A show here and there, working in the studio. And I was having conversations with Stephen and his team, and after the announcement I've been up to the same thing. Of course there's been a lot of reaching out and congratulating. It intensifies everything even more.
Do you live in NYC right now? Yeah, I'm living in the city up in Manhattan. I moved up to go to school in 2004 and stuck around ever since.
And can you bring us up to speed on your musical background? The Batiste family is a large musical family in Louisiana, out in New Orleans. People go to New Orleans, and if they go to any club, four days out of the week I guarantee you that you will find a Batiste playing in the ensemble. I have seven uncles, and my dad played bass, they had a band together, that was the family band. And of course as the cousins got older including myself, we joined a family band. All the cousins played. That's my heritage. Then I moved to New York to go to Julliard and got to play with a lot of different people, a lot of people who I loved: Prince, Lenny Kravitz, Wynton Marsalis, Roy Hargrove, a lot of great musicians.
And I started Stay Human in 2011 with the idea that we really just wanted to give access to music in the way that early music, the root music of early America and the root music of any tradition, really started—in the community. People having music as something that was part of the fabric of everyday life, not something that was sold or marketed in a certain kind of way. But combining that sentiment with the modern world and the way that people are more connected now than they have ever been with the media and the internet, and also the strides that we have made with social justice. We still have a long way to go but more people are coming together and more people are thinking in a free and welcoming perspective about the world and race and gender. Music began as a community, it wasn't trapped in a venue. I think that we've gotten away from the root of how music really functions and how the music we love today started from that.
You labeled your latest album Social Music. That word is very coded today&,dash;it's a buzzword in our culture. I get a sense that you and the band are on a kind of mission; I almost get a preacher, gospel, New Orleans jazz funeral vibe from what you do. Do you see yourself as that way? I think that the greatest artists whether I agreed with their lifestyle or their value system figured out a way to align the purpose of their art with the purpose of their life. And to me, I feel that it has to be that deeply rooted whether it's something you are willing to die for, whether something the way you're looking at the world. has to be that deeply rooted to be unique, first off, and second if you're going to move people in a way that really draws them into your art, it has to be that deep. So for me I don't see myself in any way particular. Whatever I do with music I try to make it align deeply with the values and principles of who I am and what I believe the purpose of my life is.
I just listened to Social Music gain this morning. It strikes me as a really strong push back against cynicism and this throwaway, detached, disposable digital culture that we're so immersed in. Especially with "Let God Lead," faith, hope, and love are right there in the lyrics. We're you raised in the Church? I was raised in the Catholic Church and for me the thought in the Bible and Christianity, and the spirit within that, is one of the guiding principles in my life. Talk about purpose and it's rooted there. For me those lyrics, for instance, when we play live and people are signing together, it's hard not to love that person signing next to you.
Where are some of your favorite places in New York to play now? We always have a good time playing in the Lower East Side on Allen Street. We had some good love riots on Allen Street, Stanton Street near Rockwood Music Hall. The 1 train was our go-to train because we all went to Julliard. We would get out of school and go play on the 1. The L train to Williamsburg from Union Square. We've had a lot of really great moments with the crowd on that train, and would get off at Bedford Avenue. And the A train is a good wide train. You can fit a lot of musicians on that.
People are always debating whether or not NYC is being tougher for buskers, street musicians. Have you ever had any issues? We've gotten stopped a few times. We got people who stopped us from playing, we've got people who have given us tickets and that's to be expected. It's out of the norm, it's atypical. People don't really see it in the same way that we see it. They're doing their jobs. I get it, but I don't think it's a reason to stop doing it.
Have you ever had an officer stop you, and then become won over by your playing? Definitely, and in recent years it happens even more. I think I'm more proud of the riots where the police officers were won over by the experience when they didn't know who I was. Back in 2011 we were lesser-known by far and when we won over the people who were supposed to be stopping us, that was always the best feeling. Now some people recognize us from different performances and I'm sure that changes the perspective. Earlier even, with the Allen street love riot, that was the first time that happened. The cops came out and they were like "Yeah, keep going!" And that's when I realized the power of where this was going.
When was the first love riot? What was the vibe? Well we came out and we were at Katz's Deli. We walked out and we started to play and five people came up, jamming with us. Then five people turned into 200 people after about 15 minutes, then 30 minutes later the cops came and all the people started to chant. So we started the march with the people and they started to follow us and it turned into this really magical moment where everybody just jumped on board. And that was the first one. It was extremely spontaneous because we were just playing on the street after eating some sandwiches. Around that time we'd been doing the subway stuff before that. We'd never done any of the street like that. The subway is contained you have a captive audience. But we'd never created that energy on the street. That's where the term love riot came from. It was literally a scene that if you looked at it from afar, it could be mistaken for a riot—cops on horses, a paddy wagon even came, and it was hundreds of people on the street screaming.
Coming back to The Late Show any rough ideas for what you have planned with the band? Any love riots on air? What's on the drawing board? I'm leaving it open, because the right people are in the room. Stephen's team is great and I have great confidence in the band. They're great people. I'm going to wait because I think that something that we both would never have never come up with will happen once we're in the room and brainstorming together. So instead of me coming up with fully-fledged ideas of what we can do and bringing those to the table, I'm thinking of concepts and who knows where that will take us.