Jon Batiste
Photo: Louis Browne / Courtesy Crossover Media

Late Show Bandleader Jon Batiste Discusses His Genre-Busting Year

Pianist and bandleader Jon Batiste is a near-perfect representative of what it means to be a millennial jazz musician in 2021.

We Are
Jon Batiste
15 March 2021

Pianist and bandleader Jon Batiste is a near-perfect representative of what it means to be a millennial jazz musician in 2021. And that means that he is simultaneously a kind of jazz royalty—from a famed New Orleans jazz family with deep roots, educated both at that city’s famed Center for Creative Arts and at New York’s Julliard, and mentored by Wynton Marsalis, with two “Live at the Village Vanguard” albums under his belt—and that his most recent recording is a genre-spanning mostly-non-jazz work of autobiography.

Batiste’s talents are multimedia powerful. Most prominently, perhaps, he is an on-air personality and bandleader for CBS’s The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, making him and his band Stay Human known to a generation that still watches network television. But Batiste also has a claim to fame for the youngest in a Gen Z population that caught the Pixar/Disney animated film Soul—that was Batiste on the Golden Globe Awards telecast, accepting a Best Original Score award. And during a year when live performance was mostly not possible, Batiste could not have been more publicly vital, performing at the Brooklyn Juneteenth celebration, and then appearing in the streets across his adopted city at protests for racial justice, notably performing his transformation of “The Star-Spangled Banner”—simultaneously noting that its lyricist was a slave-owner and channeling the anthem’s modern history of interpretation by Marvin Gaye, Jimi Hendrix, and others.

In addition to all that, his new audio recording—the mostly vocally-oriented of his career—is powerful and funky.

Reaching Out to the Wider Public

We Are is a heady mixture of Black American Music, with a dollops of jazz, yes (passages of hip acoustic piano, a trombone solo from Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews), but mostly it is an eclectic blend of old-school soul and hip-hop. In many ways, Batiste uses the album to trace two kinds of lineage: his own biographical movement and maturation (a boyhood in New Orleans that then brought him to New York) and the way that classic rhythm-and-blues  has morphed into today’s hip-hop, a music that gives Batiste the tools to collect and weave together so many strands of his life, his influences, his musical comrades, and his own varied talent.

The ingredients that create We Are are pretty darn glorious. Down-home grooves (and some voices) from the past mix with rapping, spoken-word samples, contemporary political passion, and references to food, family, and music. Horns, marching band music, some strings, and several prominent guests come in contact with Batiste’s lead voice: singing and playing keyboards. This is certainly the Batiste recording that most features his vocals—which are more varied and capable than you might guess. He may be, first and foremost, a pianist and composer. But—like Nat “King” Cole from a couple of generations back—his pianism has clearly opened the door for him to sing, to entertain, to be a more complete entertainer.

Batiste acknowledges that Cole might be considered a musician whose mold he matches. Both, having begun as serious jazz pianists, became popular figures. “I think artists start to sing on records to be popular. Nat Cole still played piano later in his career, after he started singing, but he wanted to reach the wider public.”

In fact, in 1956, Cole became the first Black American to host his own television show. And while Batiste’s helm as Colbert’s bandleader isn’t quite that prominent, it may give him just as large a perch for reaching audiences. “Nat,” Batiste says, “expanded culture and that allowed for more opportunity to create culture. If something strikes me as inspiring and I have the talent, then I’ll do it.”

We Are deftly moves from one genre to another, much as Cole could hop from “jazz” to “jive” to polished “pop”. But to Batiste, the better way to think about it is, of course, without labels or categories that divide up the music.

“These boundaries never really existed,” he says. “Genres were always more about commodification. The segmenting of different genres was just a way to sell the music.” But Batiste goes farther in his analysis. He also feels that the limitations of genre were a kind of “dog-whistling” that “separate Black diasporic music in limiting ways. As artists become more adventurous, they breaking away from genre, realizing that they don’t have to make music confined by boundaries.”

The Through-Line from Jazz to Hip-Hop

Batiste notes, for example, that “Americana and the blues are the same thing.” The former, of course, is associated with White artists and the latter with Black artists. But both have their origins in African-American culture.

And, in a sense, this is exactly where hip-hop comes in. “The current generation of musicians have grown up with a lack of boundaries. Now we are in this space where technology has blown the doors off these differences.” Hip-hop, then, is a less a genre than a way of approaching the production of music—using new tools in pursuit of a classic tradition, While no one would stylistically categorize We Are as a hip-hop recording, it uses the technology that makes hip-hop possible to create Batiste’s own blend of styles and sources.

“I relate to the spirit of creativity that is in hip-hop”, he says. “I love listening to people who make music in that form—and particularly those from New Orleans. That music comes from the spirit of creativity that informs all improvised music. The tech revolution strikes again!

“Even Duke Ellington was in on it in his day, blending into his sound a Fender Rhodes electric piano, tap dancers, music from all around the globe. He drew on dance and drama—he wrote a suite inspired by Shakespeare.”

Like Ellington, Batiste is drawing from many sources, but he is trying to paint a larger, linked portrait. “The new record is a cumulative representation of my life and experiences thus far, a much more  autobiographical work than any record prior to this. My approach is holistic in having art represent a life. I can be influenced by politics and by my grandma’s cornbread. Anything.”

That sense of autobiographical inclusivity is plainly evident on the track “Boy Hood”. Batiste brings in producer and fellow New Orleans native P.J. Morton to bring to paint a nostalgic portrait of growing up in the Crescent City. Morton and Batiste create layers of harmony that particularly pop when the rhythm section cuts out to leave the vocals supported only my Batiste’s throbbing barrelhouse piano—followed by a brassy solo from another NOLA native, Trombone Shorty, over just piano. It’s not hip-hop, but its willingness to shift from one style to another is related.

Or, as Batiste puts it, “inclusivity creates opportunity.” This is not to suggest that Batiste isn’t willing to rap. “Whatchutalkinabout” features the leader as a rapid-fire MC, rolling over a lurching groove. Batiste’s patter negotiates a rock drum feeling with a little stutter in it, collecting more voices and noise along the way until the conceit of the piece is exposed: it’s an old-school video game with Batiste facing various levels and bosses along the way—made clear by a short interlude of 16-bit gaming music that, well, still swings.

Again, inclusivity. You truly never know what is coming next on this recording.