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How Jon Batiste Found His Most Authentic Self on ‘Hollywood Africans’

The pianist and ‘Late Show’ bandleader on his new T Bone Burnett–produced LP and “what it means to be a black entertainer” in 2018

jon batiste

'Late Show' bandleader Jon Batiste discusses why he decided to sing on his new album and the stereotypes he faces as a black entertainer.

Abby Ross

The first thing Jon Batiste does when he wakes up each morning is write. It’s a exercise called Morning Pages, and Batiste has been doing it every day for several months now: three pages of handwritten free-writing to clear his mind and help open himself up to creativity before he begins each day.

That concept — blocking out the world around you in order to focus on one’s own deeper creativity — served as the central premise and working thesis of Hollywood Africans, Batiste’s major-label solo debut. It’s the first album he has recorded since rising to national prominence in 2015 after becoming the bandleader of The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, bringing his jazz-roots collective Stay Human with him as the show’s house band.

“There’s so much going on in the world that I wanted to respond to, and there’s not a lot of music where people can meditate, think, reflect, but also be uplifted by” says Batiste, calling from a car in the midst of a hectic day of press in Manhattan for his new album. “I wanted to get back to the basics of who I am as a musician but also the basics of who I am as a person.”

Named after a 1983 Basquiat painting, Hollywood Africans is an album equally devoted to drowning out and responding to what Batiste likes to refer to as “noise.” For him, the term refers both to the rapidly degenerating state of America during the past few years, as well as the increasingly hectic, often transcendent, but occasionally out-of-control pace that his own life has taken on since his Colbert adventure began.

“Part of this record,” he says, “is a response to me being in quote unquote Hollywood.”

Produced by T Bone Burnett, the album is a sparse solo affair guided entirely by Batiste’s Jelly Roll Morton–inspired piano playing and, for the first time, his vocals. Across 11 tracks, Batiste traverses the entire history of 20th-century music, mixing impressive original ballads like “Don’t Stop” and “Mr. Buddy” with Thirties pop standards (“The Very Thought of You”), traditional New Orleans favorites (“Saint James Infirmary Blues”), and video-game soundtrack classics (Sonic the Hedgehog’s “Green Hill Zone”).

“It’s about doing the thing that makes you feel most authentically you,” says Batiste, 31. “Expressing universal emotions like crying or laughing, singing along, meditating, praying, all of those little things. The songs on the record were built to aid people in that process.”

The genesis of Hollywood Africans dates back to 2013, when Batiste first met Burnett at a star-studded birthday party for Bono. “We talked about American music, ancestors who created the sound that we draw from, and that led us down a long road of conversation and collaboration,” says Batiste. “The conversation just went gangbusters.”

Since meeting Burnett and joining Colbert, Batiste has toured with the Dap-Kings, recorded with artists like Leon Bridges and Gary Clark Jr., and collaborated with everyone from Stevie Wonder to Mac Miller and Yo-Yo Ma on the Colbert stage.

After linking up with Burnett, Batiste met him in New Orleans for a series of sporadic recording sessions, with Batiste writing songs along the way. Deciding what songs to include on the record proved to be one of the most important creative challenges for Batiste, who is a big believer in the idea that a piece of art should be released into the world when, and only when, the world is ready for it.

“We were looking at the songs as people,” says the pianist, who wanted to communicate the “heart of the song” in his often surprising arrangements. Perhaps the most breathtaking moment on the album comes during his reinvention of Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World,” which he delivers as a mournful elegy.

“Louis Armstrong is known as a happy, jovial guy, but if you listen to some of his personal recordings or read his letters, you see that there’s a lot that the public didn’t see,” says Batiste. “A song is like that. You can bring certain things out if you focus on different elements of it.”

The inner complexity of Armstrong and his music serves as poignant example for Batiste. As a black entertainer who, like Armstrong, has mainstream appeal, Batiste has faced a host of subtle, complex, racially loaded expectations and assumptions during the first few years of his foray into mainstream showbiz.

“It’s built into the culture, and it’s part of the reason that we have some of the problems that we have today and in the past,” Batiste says. “It’s become part of the foundation of how we relate to each other in American life. Being a musician in 2018, an African-American male, I’ve inherited a certain amount of negative baggage. The idea that to define what blackness is and define what it means to be a black entertainer, the idea that if it’s not fitting into some of the narrow definitions that exist, then it’s some sort of political statement, when really it’s just a human being being human.”

More specifically, one of the primary hurdles Batiste has faced in recent years is pushing back against the well-established archetype of the affable black entertainer. “The idea of being a kind of more of a jovial kind of happy, that’s traditionally one of the tropes that people have placed upon you when you’re in my position,” he says. “There’s a difference between happiness and joy. You can express joy without it always being happy.”

For Batiste, fully realizing his artistic agency meant coming out as a vocalist on Hollywood Africans, which finds the piano player singing lead on record for the first time in his career. “It’s something that I’ve been doing more in the space of my creativity since I was a kid,” he says of singing. “I felt like I wanted to share it now, because there are so many things that I do that no one has heard in the public. I think part of me, at a certain time, thought it was maybe too much or that I should just focus on one thing, but I think that’s a myth. We have a lot in us, and you got to share it.”

These days, Batiste has been taking that idea to heart, the notion that he doesn’t need to limit what aspects of his own artistry that he shares with the world. In addition to Hollywood Africans, the pianist has a number of projects he’s juggling at the moment, including composing the music for an upcoming musical based on Basquiat’s life. He’s also already recorded a follow-up album with Burnett, and has several other potential LPs sitting around.

“There are so many things that I have in the vault for when the time is right,” he says. “It’s always about when people are ready for it. It’s about what is lacking out there, what the world needs, what I can contribute.”

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