Meet Jon Batiste, Stephen Colbert's Crowd-Thrilling Rebel Bandleader

Jazz party-starter plays in the crowd and on the subway — can 'The Late Show' contain him?

Jon Batiste, the Late Show With Stephen Colbert's new bandleader has a unique interaction with his audiences, from subway cars to Carnegie Hall. Credit: Erin Patrice O'Brien

Jon Batiste gets off the elevator and doesn't say a word to the percussionists already tapping out rhythms for a rooftop soundcheck at New York's NoMad Hotel — he just plops down at the white Steinway and joins in. There's not much of an audience beyond a handful of photographers, a soundman and some staff steaming a white tablecloth for a makeshift bar. Still, he's performing: winking and smiling at everyone, digging into the keys, laughing, shouting. Until he gets up from his stool maybe a half-hour later, he doesn't ever seem too especially concerned with the actual checking of sound.

The New Orleans–raised, New York–adopted pianist, 28, has a laundry list of accomplishments: a master's degree from Julliard, a position as artistic director at large at the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, a cast member on HBO's Emmy-nominated Treme and — starting this September — a role as the musical director of Late Night With Stephen Colbert on CBS. It's evident that his greatest attribute, however, is an enthusiasm that immediately pulls people into his orbit.

For many of the six percussionists (and one tap dancer) joining him, this "soundcheck" was also "the only rehearsal" and an "introduction without any official hello or instructions."

"That was it. None of us had met each other. That was it," says percussionist Taku Hirano. "The only e-mail we got — one e-mail of where to be and what time. The other e-mail basically just has the list of musicians."

"The music speaks for itself," explains Batiste. "I feel like the best thing to ever do with music is to not talk about it. It's not to be talked about. It's to be listened to." 

For this rehearsal and the night's show in front of 165 lucky fans, the band will find its direction via Batiste's musical cues: a bluesy solo, some salsa-style stabs, driving percussive rhythms, an EDM-style build, a climactic sweep of hands down the keys, a quick version of Scott Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag," a snatch of Suzanne Vega's "Tom's Diner," a total tumble into Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy." He grabs his melodica and wanders into the packed crowd. Tambourines are passed out and stayed jangling. An impromptu conga lines forms. 

Says NoMad co-owner Will Guidara about the first time he saw Batiste: "It was amazing music totally lacking in pretense, which is such a departure from what jazz has grown up to be. Just them getting into the crowd — 'No, no no, it's not crowd here, us here. We're all together.'"

Together Guidara and Batiste (with some financial assistance from Chase Bank) put a residency in motion: seven days in different small spaces around Guidara's hotel, affordable ticket prices, food and drink, raucous music in tight spaces.

"We have this shared kind of belief in creating experiences for people," says Guidara "I'm in the hospitality business, and I just thought the approach to music, just fully engaging the people that you're playing for, felt so profoundly hospitable to me."

Jon is currently the most prominent branch of the Batiste family tree, a lineage he says goes back four or five generations in New Orleans — free-jazz saxophonist Alvin Batiste is a cousin of Jon's grandfather, uncle Russell Batiste replaced Zigaboo Modeliste as the drummer of the Meters, Jon himself was a part the Batiste Brothers Band by age six or seven.

"Earliest musical memory," explains Batiste, poured into the corner of a NoMad couch, "is probably being scared stiff with my family's band as a youngster on stage playing the conga drums. Yep. . . . Trial by fire. That was it. You didn't have any real instruction other than, 'Go. Play.' One word instructions. 'Play. Go.'"

He switched to piano in his teens, honing his chops on classical lessons and transcribing songs from video games (favorites include the music to Street Fighter Alpha, Final Fantasy 7 and the "Green Hill Zone" and "Casino Nights Zone" tunes from Sonic the Hedgehog). Though surrounded by jazz, he didn't get serious about it until around age 14, juiced by the 1959 recording Sonny Stitt Sits in with the Oscar Peterson Trio and attending New Orleans Center for Creative Arts.

When he moved to New York to attend Julliard at age 17, he walked one of America's most prestigious music conservatories with a melodica, tooting away in the halls or the cafeteria. "None of the administration or teachers liked that," Batiste says about the uniquely rebellious act of playing music at a music school. "That's one of those interesting things about institutions. It's hard sometimes to understand but that's the way it works, the rules get in the way of the intent." 

Batiste wanted to explore a musical career beyond sharpening his chops at school. "I always thought, man, if we're working on all this stuff, we should actually put it into practice and go out there. I never forget the dean of the jazz department told me before I left, once things had become more clear that I wasn't just some crazy kid who dismissed any authority, they were like, 'Oh man you always had a plan didn't you?' It was kinda true, you know. I really did have a plan for going to school — it wasn't just to go to school."

He self-released multiple albums and still managed to get his master's degree in 2011 — Batiste wagers he only sleeps for about three to five a night and then crashes for a day. He would take his melodica onto the city's streets or subway cars and it ultimately inspired him to form a band of classmates, Stay Human, who would stage traveling mobile performances they called "love riots." The guerilla performances earned the band some notoriety — and some tickets. "Yeah, three for playing on the subway and bringing people joy," says Batiste. However, he says, one police officer offered something to the extent of, "This is against the law, but what am I gonna stop you for?"

With Batiste's theories about "social music," it seems that no venue or stage can hold him. At a 2013 performance at Carnegie Hall he started his performance by playing in the seats. His 2014 appearance on The Colbert Report memorably concluded with the band and studio audience snaking out into the Manhattan streets. For what it's worth, the NoMad has been accommodating to his unique vision, but not without their requests. 

"The first two nights they said, 'Don't put more than one or two people on the bar,'" says Batiste. "We put five people on the bar, both nights. . . . It is not like we didn't want to listen, it's just the moment led to it. We take that into consideration, but then if a moment leads you to do something, don't fight the feeling.

"That's what I look forward to about going on The Late Show. The team there, we have a very similar philosophy and vision about the way they do jokes and the way we do music," says Batiste, pointing to an attitude of focusing on how to do things as opposed to finding reasons not to do them. "In another scenario I wouldn't even take a day gig like that because I think it would be too restrictive."

The following Monday, the final night of his residency, Batiste and Stay Human stretched boundaries in fantastic ways. The evening started with an audience crammed in the NoMad's "library room" as Batiste and band snaked their way through the ebb and flow of people, with versions of "My Favorite Things," "The Star-Spangled Banner" and "Killing Me Softly" (audience members dutifully adding Wyclef-ian adlibs). Doors opened and the show was suddenly on 28th Street, then Broadway. The audience organically grew from the tight guest list to include rubberneckers, Citibikers, honking motorists, some Italian tourists ("Belissimo!"), the crew from a 25th birthday party and a Pekingese named Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs. It moved into the Belgian Beer Café to entertain clapping diners and a shocked bar staff who took photos instead of chasing them out. The final notes were played at the door of Eleven Madison Park — the famed restaurant owned by the NoMad team and one of only six New York restaurants with three Michelin stars.

Once inside, the band laid claim to different pockets of the restaurant. Two dueling sax players and a trombonist stood on islands. Later, eight musicians (including Batiste) crammed into a booth where people usually enjoy a $225 meal. The tap dancer commandeered the top of a cabinet. By the end, the horn players sneaked off and turned up tooting from some scaffolding above the entrance — a height more appropriate for pigeons. Quipped 11 Madison Park director of strategic development Aaron Ginsburg earlier in the evening, "It's a good thing you guys are a skinny band."

That night, the music ping-ponged from Dixieland to Michael Jackson to Shoenberg-esque avant-garde to "If You're Happy and You Know It." This wide scope should assuredly help Batiste when he's into millions of homes every weeknight.

"He believes in exposing people to different assets of American music," says Batiste of Colbert. "And as I was saying, the idea of de-categorizing of American music. . . that concept resonates with him and that's why he likes what we do, you know?"

At some point last year Batiste started thinking about gunning for the Late Show gig — he appeared as one of dozens of cameos on the final episode of Colbert's beloved Comedy Central show in December. Before he approached Colbert with the idea, Batiste wanted to talk to the man who provided CBS with tunes around 11:30 for 23 years and more than 4,000 episodes. Over dinner, he asked Janey Chase, wife of Chevy, if she could introduce him to her friend Paul Shaffer, David Letterman's longtime bandleader and foil. Unbeknownst to CBS, Batiste and Shaffer met at P.J. Clarke's for hamburgers and Batiste hammered him with questions. 

"He was like, 'Yeah, all I wanted to do was to come from Toronto and play covers of American songs that I enjoy and do a little bit of acting,' and I was like, 'Well, man, you got the perfect gig to do that.' The meeting was very powerful because he was so laid-back about it"

Batiste says he had sat with Colbert a few times, talking for hours about his concepts for the show, but says both the comedian and the musician skirted around the idea of actually joining forces. Batiste was in St. Louis, performing as a guest for the Jazz Foundation when he got the phone call.

"He had the whole team of CBS execs, himself, his team and everyone on the speaker phone and the writers and everybody said, "You know, it's your gig if you want it.' . . . Last time we spoke was the day before the call and he had told me that he would be in touch with me at some point several weeks maybe in the future. I was like, 'Oh! I guess that's what all the talks were about.'"

New Yorkers have had many chances to get up close and personal with Batiste from subway cars to Carnegie Hall. But appearing on network TV on weeknights, Batiste wagers that everyone will get new perspectives.

"Some people don't know that I'm funny, some people don't know that. . . I have a point of view on certain things outside of music," he says. "Some people may not know that I have a less gregarious side. So there's five nights a week, over 200 days a year. They'll see it all."