Is Oscar-winning, Juilliard-educated musician Jon Batiste telepathic? It seems likely, especially after he explained to me how he landed his coveted gig as the bandleader on “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert.”
During our “Renaissance Man” interview, he said he had performed on Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report” back in 2014 and that one thing was apparent.
“We had a good chemistry,” he told me. “And then we did a performance in the performance. We just took the whole audience outside and we marched the whole audience and me and Stephen were dancing. And it was just this whole celebration.”
Colbert kept inviting Batiste back, and when Colbert landed Letterman’s spot, people in Batiste’s world said, “Call him up. Write and tell him that you want to do this new show with him. And I was like, ‘Man, I don’t know,’” said Batiste, who was at a crossroads in his career. With a No. 1 record on the Billboard charts and numerous deals on the table, he made a bold decision.
“I was going to call him and just give him the whole spiel.” But he never had to make that call. Instead, Colbert picked up the phone that very day and dialed his number. The comedian said everyone had been telling him that he should hire Jon Batiste and he agreed. The rest is late-night history.
“So that kind of clarified for me, that was my path … A record deal can wait, going on the road again can wait. I’ll get back to it. This is what I’m supposed to be doing right now.”
The universe has had a funny way of guiding his career. Batiste teamed up with Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross of Nine Inch Nails to make the music for the charming, life-affirming Pixar movie “Soul” about a jazz musician. Then, the pandemic hit.
“By the time it came out, we were bummed out because it wasn’t going to be in theaters. We had all these things going on.” But “Soul” was thought-provoking and smile-inducing: exactly what audiences craved during lockdown. He won an Oscar and a Golden Globe for best original score, which he chalks up to God because of how the timing worked out.
“It was just it was meant to be. And we just put our heart and soul into it, literally, no pun intended.”
The movie also helped plant the seed of jazz appreciation in a whole new generation.
“And I’m just like, ‘Man, this is this is exactly what I’ve been dreaming of.’ I wanted to
share my love of music with so many people. And this is another vehicle to do it.”
Born and raised in the greater New Orleans area, Batiste didn’t need to learn about music from movies. He was literally born into a musical dynasty. And, I assume, very loud family gatherings.
“My dad really started as my first musical mentor while playing records for me. He’s a bass player. He’s the middle child of seven brothers and they had a family band together and they started the band when they were in high school,” he said. “So by the time I came along, it was about 30 cousins and all my uncles in the band together.”
A classical pianist, he approaches his art form from a completely different plane.
“I really like that everything can be classical music. If Beethoven was alive today, he would make music using jazz and hip-hop and video game music. He would use all of the influences, and I feel that way about what I do,” said Batiste.
Batiste has the body of work to back that up. In addition to performing with his band Stay Human, he’s played with musicians across all the genres — Stevie Wonder, Ed Sheeran, Willie Nelson, Madonna and Lenny Kravitz, to name a few. He’d still love to collaborate on a movie score with Radiohead.
“It would be out of this world,” said Batiste, who also knows how to cut a natty figure. He favors Pyer Moss, in case you’re all wondering.
More importantly, what is on his playlist? Everything, apparently, but there are artists in regular rotation.
“I always come back to Marvin [Gaye]. I always come back to Miles Davis. I always come back to Nina Simone. I listen a lot to Kendrick [Lamar]. I always come back to a lot of jazz records that I grew up with in New Orleans, hip-hop records that I grew up with.” He’s a fan of Jay Electronica, Kanye West and Brazilian folk music.
I know Batiste is a performer, but I also consider him a teacher. A bridge between genres and eras. And I wanted to know: Which classical composers would he like to see in a Verzuz battle? He didn’t even hesitate to say Duke Ellington, who is the embodiment of American classical music. And Bach, who was prolific.
“I put them together because they represent two different sides of the coin. And I love the idea of putting people together who are of the same level of greatness but coming from different perspectives,” he said.
This is what I would call really old school. And, suddenly, I’m intrigued. Mostly about the trash talk that would go on. But that’s Jon Batiste: always making your mind twist and expand.
Detroit native Jalen Rose is a member of the University of Michigan’s iconoclastic Fab Five, who shook up the college hoops world in the early ’90s. He played 13 seasons in the NBA, before transitioning into a media personality. Rose is currently an analyst for “NBA Countdown” and “Get Up,” and co-host of “Jalen & Jacoby.” He executive produced “The Fab Five” for ESPN’s “30 for 30” series, is the author of the best-selling book, “Got To Give the People What They Want,” a fashion tastemaker, and co-founded the Jalen Rose Leadership Academy, a public charter school in his hometown.