Jon Batiste: The Show Never Stops

by Dara Klatt

The acclaimed singer, composer, multi-instrumentalist, and leader of Stay Human, the house band of ‘The Late Show’ with Stephen Colbert, hits the perfect tune for DC JazzFest. 

Night in and night out, Jon Batiste strikes the chords to complement Stephen Colbert’s wit and banter. Batiste, however, doesn’t need TV lights and studio buzz to be captivating on his own. His career stretches beyond late-night programming, starting from his self-released first album at 17, being mentored by Wynton Marsalis while getting his Master’s degree at The Juilliard School, to jamming with Lenny Kravitz and Prince, and earning a role as artistic director at large for the National Jazz Museum in Harlem. Our editors spoke to Batiste as part of a DC Jazzfest Meet teh Artist Conversation. What follows has been lightly edited for length and clarity. >>

WASHINGTON LIFE: Tell us a bit about Stay Human.

JON BATISTE: “Stay Human” came from making connections with people in New York, on the road and around the world. We would leave Juilliard and go down into the subway and perform for people just for fun, not asking for money. “Stay Human” is a way of saying, “we can connect.” In this world with technology and all the things that make us want to tune out, just stay connected about how much we are the same.

WL: And now on “The Late Show?”

JB: We’ve done over 700 shows and it feels like a well-oiled machine. A lot of people don’t see on TV that I’m doing [a live] show for 500 people during the commercial break. So, I’ve enjoyed building the band’s muscles to the point that now we can do hundreds of songs and make up stuff on the spot. We can read each other in ways that I don’t think you get that proficient, unless you are playing with someone every day for years.

WL: What effect did studying at Juilliard have on your career and your understanding of jazz?

JB: I took the things that I thought connected with me. I learned over time how to remove the ideas that didn’t. The danger of studying music as a part of everyday life is that you can lose some experience unique. A lot of things enhanced my experience of learning music and growing up, being 10, 11 years old in New Orleans. I try not to change those things or discredit those things just because they weren’t orthodox.

WL: How was the experience recording “Soulful” with Roy Hargrove?

JB: Roy was a mentor of mine whom I went on the road with when I was 21. The “Soulful” recording was in Seattle at KPLU. We went to the radio station and he wrote a song and taught us te song seconds before performing…and that was “Soulful.” That recording happened after I played my first gig with Roy at the Vanguard in New York. A full circle moment happened recently in November. I recorded a live version of “Soulful” that’s coming out this year and it’s the “Live at the Vanguard” album. The day that we recorded “Soulful” [the live version] was the day that I found out that Roy died. It’s a bittersweet thing to record that one.

WL: What inspired the Jean-Michel Basquiat Broadway musical?

JB: Jean-Michel Basquiat was a great painter; one of the most important painters of color. I’ve been working on the Broadway musical for about a year now. The family actually contacted me directly to see if I would be interested in doing it. It was a dream that just dropped into my lap. There will be events even this year on the road to Broadway. So, stay on the lookout for that.

WL: How do you think music can get us to think deeper and push us to do better?

JB: Music has always been a soundtrack to different movements and different ways of thinking that push us to be better. Thinking about things generationally, instead of thinking about things in the context of your struggle can help to inform the struggle – to help you push past and help other people to see in a way that is humanizing.

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