It’s a rare talent that can get a crowd of adults on their feet, singing along to “If You’re Happy And You Know It,” just moments after impressing that same crowd with an original jazz composition.
But that's just what Jonathan Batiste, who will soon debut as bandleader on the highly anticipated “Late Show With Stephen Colbert,” accomplished this summer at the Newport Jazz Festival. Lyrical passages, flowing from the piano, gave way to a boisterous New Orleans party, which then transitioned into Batiste grabbing a melodica and leading his band, Pied Piper style, into the crowd to perform that ridiculous, but joyful, children’s song. When the musicians segued into “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” the crowd erupted spontaneously.
This radiant charisma and uncanny ability to collapse the distance between a jazz band and skeptical, uninitiated audience make the 30 year-old artist the ideal figure to bring new life to late-night television.
“I’m from New Orleans, which is all about direct engagement out in the street with all the parades and Mardi Gras Indians and jazz funerals,” Batiste said in an interview conducted at Newport. “I’m trying to take that and put it into my generation, a group that doesn’t have enough joy and celebration in their lives. I like the energy the crowd gives you and I want to feel it by being at the center of it. Sometimes even being on stage is too far away.”
Batiste, drummer Joe Saylor and alto saxophonist Eddie Barbash—soon to be the core of the band on Colbert's new show—met when they were all students at the Juilliard School. To counter the ivory-tower syndrome of academia, the band began taking their instruments onto subway cars in 2010-2011. At first the other riders avoided eye contact for fear of being asked for money, but when the musicians kept playing without passing the hat, the listeners relaxed and then got swept as familiar tunes were turned inside out into ebullient reinventions. Batiste realized that jazz could connect with non-jazz audiences if it met them halfway.
“It’s all about making the moment have an energy that people want to share,” he explained. “In a live performance, it’s a collaboration with the audience; you ride the ebb and flow of the crowd's energy. On television, you don’t have that. So the question is, ‘How do I make a moment that if I were at home watching it on TV I would want to be there too?’ You have to send that energy out there through the cameras and have faith that it's engaging the audience.”
How, in other words, do you turn millions of widely dispersed TV viewers into the delirious dancers at the Newport Jazz Festival or the startled riders on a New York subway car? Not by memorizing a song or a routine but by trusting in one’s instincts as an improviser. Only if you’re creating something new in the moment, he argued, can you maintain an energy level high enough to command an audience's wandering attention. Batiste got a taste of this in the supporting role of the pianist in the fictional trumpeter Delmond Lambreaux’s band on the HBO series “Treme.” But the true epiphany came during his first appearance on “The Colbert Report” in 2014.
“If you check out that first interview,” said Batiste, “you can see the energy flowing between us. Halfway through the interview, he threw away the cue cards and came up close to my face and there was really a back and forth. It was one of the most fun interviews I’ve ever done.”
“Stephen did his interviews in character, where he basically pretended he’s a total idiot. [Colbert will abandon that persona on his new show.] A lot of people didn’t know how to respond to that; maybe they didn’t know he’s in character or maybe they didn’t know how to respond to a character. But I could tell he was asking me these really deep questions but framing them as if he were an idiot, so I responded to the deepness rather than idiocy. Once he threw the cue cards away, we were improvising.”
And improvisation, Batiste insisted, is essentially the same whether it's happening in music, comedy, dance or daily life. Whether you’re a jazz pianist, a stand-up comic or a parent trying to shepherd three kids to a store, you have a general goal in mind but you’re making up the details as you go—the only difference is the materials employed: notes, words or parental instinct. Batiste believes that if you really are creating something new in front of people, they will respond whether they are jazz fans or not, young kids or jaded adults.
“We performed on the subway to reach people who might not otherwise have access to this music,” Batiste added. “The subway in New York is a great social experiment; there are so many races and ways of life sitting together on each car. I guess that’s similar to TV, where you have millions of people of all races and cultures, and they may not have access to jazz either, because it’s certainly not on TV now. And what I learned from the subway is that if you want to reach across whatever separates us as people, you have to be totally in the moment.”