As Dave Itzkoff reported in yesterday’s New York Times, Stephen Colbert has named pianist Jon Batiste to be his bandleader when he begins hosting “The Late Show” for CBS on Sept. 8.
Colbert stuffs a lot of sugary beignets into his face and packs a lot of funny into the 43-second video introducing Batiste .
Meanwhile, Batiste flashes his pianism and his affection for his other favorite instrument, the melodica. He mugs like a good sidekick but also a subversive one: he utters the word “jazz,” and features tambourine, two things well understood in New Orleans, where Batiste first came of age as a musician, but generally alien on network TV.
Batiste isn’t the first jazz musician raised in Kenner, Louisiana and trained at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts to be a late-night TV star. That would be saxophonist Branford Marsalis, who was Jay Leno’s “Tonight Show” bandleader from 1992 to 1995. Marsalis and Leno never achieved the type of on-air banter late-night TV needs (Jay just wasn’t cool enough nor was Branford willing to pander) and ultimately, Marsalis’ estimable musicianship seeemed watered down, his musical inclinations hemmed in.
That’s unlikely to happen to Batiste: Colbert’s show will probably skew more hip and open-minded. Besides, Batiste, whose broad smile wins people over as easily as his long fingers span piano keys, seems to thrive in any environment. When he was nine, he played congas in the Batiste Brothers Band, a New Orleans funk group in the style of the Nevilles. A decade ago, he moved to New York City to attend the Juilliard School of Music. He’s been a uniquely inspiring presence here ever since, playing what he calls “social music” with his Stay Human Band and serving as Artistic Director at Large for the National Jazz Museum in Harlem.
Viewers have no idea what to expect from whatever incarnation of Colbert will host “The Late Show.” Nor will they have a proper frame for whatever Batiste brings. He’s a new breed that draws from the well of New Orleans music, which itself has always drawn from jazz, blues, funk, Latin and other sources. When I wrote about Batiste for the Village Voice in 2012, he described the attitude he and his friends had at NOCCA:
“We didn’t pay attention to what was called ‘modern’ and what wasn’t,” Batiste says. “We were each searching for a sound that broke stereotypes but somehow stayed true to our roots. We wanted to communicate.”
Back then, I caught up with his Stay Human band in the subway, which they used as a rolling gig and rehearsal hall. As I wrote:
The Stay Human Band head down the escalators of Columbus Circle and board the A train. (The show’s starting point had been announced on Facebook and Twitter.) Soon, the hymn “Just a Closer Walk With Thee” gives way to “Country by Choice,” a complex tune composed by trumpeter Nicholas Payton, who is among the illustrious alumni of the high school–level New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (NOCCA); Batiste went there, too. When the train lurches into 42nd Street, Barbash nearly loses his footing but clings tight to his alto and his phrasing. One couple carries on their conversation, unmoved, but the guy seated directly across unburies his head from his iPhone and bobs it to the beat.
“I’m doing this for an artistic reason,” Batiste says. “Jazz performances can seem esoteric, like an experiment or a recital. Here, there’s no hat passed around. We’re not practicing, either. We’re playing at the highest level we can. And we’re doing it two feet from your face, right where you live.”
Now Batiste will be right where millions live—in their bedrooms, on their computers and tablets and smartphones. And he might just sneak a whole lot of good music from New Orleans and New York onto network TV.