Jon Batiste on His Best, Funniest, and Most Prophetic Music

Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photo by Nina Westervelt/The New York Times/Redux

Jon Batiste has no interest in fitting neatly into categories. The lifelong musician instead is engaged in what he calls a broader “humanist” project — to be as multifaceted and expressive a creator as possible, be that as a recording artist, an Oscar-winning film composer, or a bandleader for The Late Show With Stephen Colbert. Born into a New Orleans musical institution, Batiste began performing in the Batiste Brothers Band at age 8 and later juggled studying jazz at Juilliard and touring with his band, Stay Human. Their 2014 performance on The Colbert Report earned them the gig as the Late Show house band before Batiste had even turned 30. His eighth album, 2021’s We Are, is a document of virtuosity blending R&B, jazz, hip-hop, and rock, sometimes in the same song. The risk paid off: He is nominated for 11 Grammys, a near record. A more personal win is his history-making number of nominations across fields in a single year, appearing in the R&B, American Roots, Classical, Music Video, and general categories for We Are, along with Jazz and Visual Media for his soundtrack to Pixar’s Soul. He welcomes the hard-won attention while keeping his focus on craft, just as he would if the accolades had never arrived.


Quickest song to make on We Are

“Movement 11’ ” was made in the length of time that it took for me to play it. The first take on the song feels like you’re communicating something beyond comprehension. Composers such as Beethoven, Chopin, Bach — three of my favorites — there’s so many stories of them improvising movements or impromptus or fantasies, where they would create something on the spot and then go back and refine it by putting it onto a score. That’s what I did with this piece: I channeled the feeling of the moment in streams of consciousness that come on the piano.


Song that sounds like New Orleans

“Boy Hood” speaks to my upbringing in detail. Its collaborators, Trombone Shorty and PJ Morton, were there in New Orleans with me. PJ’s verse talks about his experience growing up there, as does mine; Troy plays his solo and you hear what his experience was being 3, 4 years old, marching in parades and second lines. Even the production and the beat — we borrowed from the sounds of New Orleans hip-hop and all that stuff that we grew up listening to, whether it was the Hot Boys and Cash Money or No Limit with Master P and the crew. Troy and PJ didn’t need to be in the room with me to get it. We lived it.


Album that foretold his artistic vision

2013’s Social Music (with Stay Human) is an amazing thing to have captured for me as an artist at that time because it’s really We Are 1.0. It speaks to all of the same themes that have since only become more and more political and divisive but are really rooted in humanism. This ability to blend all of the genres acts as an allegory for how human beings can coexist on this planet. Social Music predates We Are almost by ten years, but it was the beginning of refining that vision.


Most political song

“Tell the Truth” is so, so powerful in the sense of it being a mandate from my parents — my dad in particular — when I left New Orleans for New York. “Tell the truth” is the mandate that I would give to everybody in a position of power. The things that we march about, we just want transparency. Everybody wants to know what’s what and not be manipulated. There’s a very, very political message in “Cry” as well. It’s even political, as a Black artist, to be nominated in American Roots for this song. At the end, the lyric says, “For the struggle of the immigrants / For the wrongful imprisonment / For the loss of our innocence.” Each song on the album has a counterpart. “Cry” and “Tell the Truth” are brother and sister, and are the most political, both spiritually and directly.


Best song from Soul to introduce someone to jazz

I try to make everything that I do one piece unto itself, and everything that exists within that piece is essential to it. But “Bigger Than Us” is really special because it shows you the magic of jazz. And “Looking at Life” shows you the childlike element of what jazz can be. The innocence of it gets lost when we think about jazz ’cause it has such a sensual, intellectual quality to it and it’s grown-folk music. And you think, Wow, I have to live some life to get it. But a lot of the things that I make when I think about jazz have the element of purity — as if you’re a child or a new soul being introduced to life. When you listen to it, it opens your mind and your soul in ways that other forms of music don’t, because it’s made to do that.


Funniest Late Show moment

The first year being on the show I did a musical duet with Kermit the Frog. I remember seeing the Muppets on ice when I was a kid. So that moment was funny and also just cool and full-circle. Things like that, now having been a guest on Sesame Street and done things that I never would’ve thought I would do as a kid — to have done them, for them to have brought people joy, it’s wild. I never thought I’d be in this kind of situation in my life.

In 2018, Dua Lipa came on the show and we talked about doing a bit together. We came up with this silly elevator bit where we would ride the elevator and whoever would come into the elevator, we would make up a song in the moment about them. I had an accordion on, in an elevator, with Dua Lipa, singing to random people. And it was just like, Okay, why did we end up here?


Biggest lesson from The Late Show

I started on the front end of my career. I just graduated from college three or four years prior to starting. And I was really just getting my vision of Social Music and my vision of my artistry clear. Then I had this incredible opportunity. I remember I sat down and I talked with everybody, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, Paul Shaffer, and Kevin Eubanks, within the first week of getting the offer. They were all in different positions in their life and careers when they decided to do it.

I got a master’s, so it’s almost been like getting a doctorate these last seven years in the intersection of entertainment, culture, and politics. And also having this regularity with the band and being in front of the camera, as a performer, it’s taught me all these different ways of communicating from the stage. I’ve really dialed into this level that, whenever my time at the show is done, I have so many experiences and new tools meshed into Jon Batiste. I think I’m gonna have to take some time off to let it all settle in and figure out, What am I gonna point this laser beam at next? Imma have to get a download from the Creator to figure out all of the stuff that I done gathered along these seven years. I remember Ahmir was telling me this was his retirement gig after the Roots. They were like, We just wanna ride off into the sunset. Little did he know that it was gonna propel them even further. And Paul, this was his dream. For me, I wasn’t even pursuing it. Now I feel like it was obviously ordained for me to be, and to do what I’ve done thus far.


Most meaningful Grammy nomination

Of course I believe in albums and in artists being presented in the fullness of who they are and not being marginalized because maybe they identify differently. All of those things are irrelevant when it comes to making music and art. So I love the general categories. I’m very proud of Album of the Year because it’s not about “He’s this guy who makes R&B or classical music or jazz” or whatever. It’s “He made this body of expression, and we believe that it’s worth being recognized.” I love the fact that you got folks like Tony Bennett, who is in his 90s, nominated and it’s not about age. It’s not about race, it’s not about gender. Being nominated in Classical is also meaningful and humbling because you don’t have people like me in that space. I did go to Juilliard, and I did represent classical music, in particular, as a huge part of my development and upbringing. But I never saw folks like me, so it’s cool to now be that person in that space for people to see.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Batiste moved to New York City in 2004 to attend Juilliard, where he studied jazz and earned a Bachelor of Music and Master of Music. After he first met Colbert on The Colbert Report in 2014, Batiste stayed in touch with the host and eventually got the offer to lead his Late Show band. Batiste was 28 when he began working on the show.
Jon Batiste on His Best, Funniest, and Most Prophetic Music