Colbert’s ‘Late Show’ Bandleader Jon Batiste on How Music Can Unite America Right Now

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Perhaps even more than Michael McDonald, Jon Batiste’s whole thing revolves around taking it to the streets. The Stay Human bandleader and come September, the official “musical friend” on Stephen Colbert’s Late Show has built his career around the kinds of performances that are common in his hometown of New Orleans. But his spontaneous shows aren’t not some flashmob gimmick: Batiste grounds his approach in pure humanism, so much so that it borders on political.

“If we want to change anything in the world, music is going to be our jumping off point,” he says.

We caught up with the man who made Colbert twerk (see above) to discuss what he’s got in mind for his Late Show bandleader gig and how that relates to his larger musical philosophy, plus how to make jazz culturally relevant again.

You’re known for taking your band of conservatory-trained jazz musicians and staging impromptu performances out in the world. What does that look like from your angle?

I have seen a different type of culture on every tour and every city — a different demographic and a different landscape, whether it’s in the streets, in a hospital, in schools, even on ski slopes. But the energy is always the same. From my perspective, that’s the only constant — the energy. Everybody always has a sense of shock because I guess they haven’t seen music in that context. Even if they have – like people from New Orleans have seen that all the time – but they love it, it’s joyous. From my perspective, it’s a lesson in how much people of different cultural and socio-economic backgrounds can be separated by those things on the surface, but actually, everybody’s pretty much the same.

Bringing people together is sort of the entire point of what you call Social Music, yeah? That feels more important than ever now, as our country comes to terms with the fact that we’re not as progressive as maybe we thought in light tragedies like Ferguson. Can music still unite us?

There’s always been a sound for every movement in history. I think that’s the idea of what Social Music can be: the soundtrack and the energy of people who go out and try to love more. Bringing together people who would never come together otherwise is a means of shedding light on the fact that we are all more the same than we are different. And if more people came together like this, even to just sing and dance, it would make all of these things that we’re facing socially in the world a lot better. You talk about Ferguson, that’s a perfect example where the music can dispel those differences that I’m talking about. Those differences cost him [Michael Brown] his life, it cost so many people their lives in recent years. That whole level of miscommunication can easily be dispelled if we do this right, on a big enough platform, and it’s touching enough people.

I think that we’ve figured out something music has done in the past, but for whatever reason, society has gone away from it in recent times. The idea of Social Music really comes from the early American root music and folk music that make up the foundation of all of the art forms. You have the sound of the drum circle in Africa, that people come together around the drum. When people in New Orleans get together to sing spirituals or play in the street, that’s from the marching band tradition, but that’s also root music. The bluegrass played in the Appalachians centers around passing the fiddle around and people getting together around a guitar. It all kind of ties into something happening in the community, where the aim wasn’t to sell the music but rather, it was a part of the fabric of everyday life.

You have a New York residency starting next week at the NoMad Hotel where you apply your highly improvisational concept to elaborately planned events. How does that work?

Well, the events are planned so that we can plan around the moment of improvisation. A skeleton is put in place to ensure that we get from point A to point B, but the moments of magic are more about having the right people in the room at the right time. We set the ticket prices super low, and we’ve gone into schools with a mentoring component to all this so that we can get the younger generation involved. But we also have celebrities and tastemakers coming, so they’re in the room with people who may not normally have access to this type of entertainment.

Do you plan to bring this sense of improv and diversity to Colbert’s Late Show?

It’s inevitably going to be in there, because that’s the way he thinks and that’s the way I think. We do different things, but we’re both about bringing together different kinds of people so that we can create something new. We’re also both about bringing along people who usually don’t have access to certain things — people who don’t usually have the spotlight shone upon what they do — and then to bring them into the fold as contributors. So between those kind of philosophies and the abilities he has on his team, plus my band, I think it’s inevitably going to take it to an even higher level.

Between the two of you, it feels like the tone of Late Show is inevitably going to be a little more political than it has in the past.

Well, I think with Stephen more so than me, the political is rooted in the concept of humanism as a key tenant of all of our political views. He’s always thinking about what’s the best thing for everyone, looking at the Colbert Report especially you see how he’s shining a light on, “This is absurd to think this way” because he’s always thinking of the perspective of the other guy. Even the character he plays isn’t him. It’s really cool to think about that and the context of when he’s going to break character. We’re bringing our music and context to it, and we’re all aligned so it’s going to be great.

You’re one of the Artistic Directors at the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, as well as one of the new players helping to introduce jazz to a younger audience who may be unsure of it by default. I was heartened to see, for example, Flying Lotus working with Herbie Hancock, Kendrick Lamar working with Kamasi Washington (among others), and My Morning Jacket’s close association with the Preservation Jazz Hall Band. What do you think the future of the genre looks like in the mainstream?

Well, I think jazz in the mainstream is gonna be more about jazz combined with other things outside of music. The beginning of it is the cross-genre collaboration is part of what we all in this generation, we’ve all had iPods and streaming and less about albums, were we put together a mixtape or playlist with different genres. We hear music that way. It’s naturally going to cross genres. What Kendrick is doing is a great example of that. I know Ben Jaffe at Preservation Hall [their creative director], and I remember when they performed for the first time with My Morning Jacket and that record they made together.

That’s just what we do now in this generation, but the way it’s going to break into mainstream is how it relates to the public consciousness. Right now jazz is so far outside the public consciousness that jazz is going to have to come in through something else. Like maybe it’s through collaboration with fashion, or with someone who does food, or maybe it’s a tech collaboration. But that’s the way I see it working out, coupled with education — musicians taking more of an active role in the education system. A lot people aren’t educated on jazz when they’re in primary school. So musicians need to go into schools and create space for those young people, who wouldn’t have access or knowledge about the music. The combo of those two things will propel jazz more into the mainstream again.