By Ilana Kaplan
Photographs by Billy Kidd
Jon Batiste was born to be a musician. It was in his blood years before he even graced the planet with his presence, thanks to his long lineage of family musicians, the Batiste Brothers Band. “[Music] was more a part of everyday life — not really something I really thought of as a profession until I was a teenager when I started to develop my own band and had different musicians calling me to perform that weren't in my family,” the 31-year-old jazzman explains. At eight years old, Batiste began playing drums and then piano at 11. By 17, he had already put out two albums. But Batiste will admit that he thought he would immediately be on the brink of success because of his popularity in New Orleans. “I put out an album, was riding high and thought I launched out of New Orleans into the big city,” he says. “I felt like I was gonna take it by storm. It’s not really how it happened.” Batiste would play residencies at now defunct West Village clubs The Garage and Sweet Rhythm to empty rooms. “We’d play every week for months and would barely get people to come in there,” he reminisces. After grinding in New York, Batiste began building his and Stay Human’s fan base across the world on tour after having a number one jazz album with 2013’s Social Music. He’d even land gigs on HBO’s Treme and in Spike Lee’s Red Hook Summer and collaborations with Questlove, Prince, The Soul Rebels and Lenny Kravitz.
Although his talent has taken him throughout the arts spectrum, the Louisiana native has currently found himself thriving in New York City as the bandleader of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. After the success of Batiste’s album Social Music, he was invited as a guest on The Stephen Colbert Show. “I had an appreciation for him and he had and appreciation for me,” Batiste notes. “We had contrasting, but kindred spirits, which I think is what makes us click.” That was the first time they met, and from then on they became friends, and Batiste a returning guest on the show. When Colbert announced his move to the Late Show, there was no band announcement. Colbert called up Batiste right around that time. “I didn’t audition — he just asked if I wanted to do the gig with me,” says Batiste. Since 2015, Batiste has become a dynamic part of the late night series, for both his music and rapport with Colbert himself. (And, in case you were wondering their friendship is tender and real.)
Batiste’s captivating qualities come not only from his music, but from his style as well. In fact, they seem to complement each other perfectly when he describes his look as “traditional with a twist.” “The twist is something that highlights my personality with me and my upbringing,” he says. “If you don’t know me, then it adds a different twist to a traditional outfit like a suit or blazer that could be interesting.” It follows form with his elegant yet edgy arrangements, something that can be seen on his festive album Christmas with Jon Batiste. “It has a few new compositions and it’s classics, but it’s not a classic album,” he says of the record. “It’s similar to the style I was describing in my fashion sensibilities. You’ll recognize classic Christmas songs but done in a completely new way.” He made complex arrangements of “Winter Wonderland” and “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” that fulfill that sentiment.
What makes Batiste stand out is that his love for music goes beyond a career or hobby: he truly wants to make a difference with it. Whether you believe it will be successful or not, it's impossible to deny Batiste's honorable intentions. Back in September, the multidimensional artist said he wanted to use the power of music to help Colbert reach beyond the scope of the show’s audience, and he stands by it. “I think anything is possible if it’s done in the spirit of love and empathy,” he says. “I think you have to really find a way to bridge the gap whether you want to or not.” Batiste sees the way Colbert’s empathy affects viewers, but also in the way that his own performances have translated since being a part of the show. “There have been a lot of people who aren’t your New York-liberal audience that have been surprised by the love we show them: the kindness and the generosity,” he adds. “I think we’ve made a difference in some people’s lives and I think that’s all you can hope for.” Together, he credits his and Colbert’s teamwork for making even the slightest difference in our political climate. “He speaks, I soundtrack it, and it seems to bring people together,” he says. And in just over three decades on Earth, Batiste’s gift has been given a higher power. Just like that.