Behind the Scenes with Jon Batiste, Stephen Colbert’s Off-the-Wall Bandleader


Read on

Monday. 1:52 p.m. Jon Batiste is backstage at the Ed Sullivan Theater, behind a drum kit in his shoebox of a rehearsal room, with four hours to go before tonight’s taping of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. He smiles and nods hello to a visiting stranger but never stops banging out his shuffle beat—a second-line beat. Various members of Batiste’s band, Stay Human, trickle in and grab tambourines, and now it sounds like a full drumline, albeit one built on the clink of a dozen Salvation Army Santas. Batiste leaps up on the kick drum. Then he’s over at the upright piano. A vein in his neck bulges as he solos on his melodica, the thing that looks more like a kid’s toy than a serious instrument. His saxophonist blows a little flourish. “Yeah! Whoa! What was that?” Batiste yells. “Eyyyyooo-bahhhhh!” he screams back at the sax. He squints and scats a wheezy, high-pitched whine. Now he’s up off the bench, shaking his hips, pounding the keys, his deltoids flexing. In some other part of the building, Colbert’s writers are furiously finishing tonight’s script. But there’s no visible sheet music in this room. Batiste is calling out what he hears in his head and, moments later, it exists as sound. “It’s goin’ off!” he yells.

Batiste calls his style of jazz “social music,” and from his earlier days as a New Orleans jazz prodigy and Juilliard student to his first three months as Late Show bandleader, he’s been known for blowing up the line between performer and audience. “I wanted to figure out how to fill the studio with music in a way that reminds me of a street parade in New Orleans,” Batiste says. (More than thirty members of Batiste’s extended family play jazz in and around New Orleans.)

Unlike Shaffer and Letterman, Batiste and his boss don’t really banter; unlike the Roots across town at The Tonight Show, Stay Human doesn’t really play covers. Batiste is not there for set dressing—he’s there to do his thing: improvise. “When I first spoke with Stephen, his vibe was joy and love and uplifting feelings, and not necessarily about the type of music that you play,” Batiste says. For Batiste, that type of music is jazz—unequivocally American and notoriously inaccessible, yet it’s improv that binds him and Colbert together. “Stephen comes from a comedic art form of improvisational theater, and I’m coming from the musical art form of jazz.”

Batiste is a year shy of thirty. Miles Davis was thirty-three when he recorded Kind of Blue.Coltrane was thirty-eight when he cut A Love Supreme. Does Batiste feel young or old? “I feel like I’m just on time.” Back in the rehearsal room, the jam reaches its apex as one band member smashes his tambourine on the floor. Its wood frame splinters and silver fasteners explode all over the carpet. The room hollers. Batiste smiles. Then everyone picks up and starts playing again.