Interview by Deparis
Jon Batiste is an American virtuoso pianist, bandleader, composer, record producer, educator and actor. As a teenager, he began self-producing and releasing his music on the internet, as well as performing internationally. His major label debut “Hollywood Africans” was nominated for a GRAMonarch magazineY award for Best American Roots Performance in 2019 and, along with his band Stay Human, he is featured nightly on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. His music is featured in the 2020 Disney Pixar film Soul, and his composing and songwriting will be featured in his large scale, genre-melding symphonic work “American Symphony,” set to be performed at Carnegie Hall in 2021.
Born into a long lineage of Louisiana musicians, Batiste received both his undergraduate and masters degrees in piano from the Juilliard School. He is currently the Music Director of The Atlantic, the Co-Artistic Director of the National Jazz Museum in Harlem and is on the board of Sing For Hope.
A Forbes 30 under 30 honoree, Jon balances a demanding performance schedule—which often includes his signature ‘love riot’ street parades— with public speaking engagements, master classes, brand partnerships and acting roles. He played himself on the HBO series Tremé and appeared in director Spike Lee’s Red Hook Summer.
Jon has been featured in ad campaigns for Chase Bank, the Apple Watch, Lincoln Continental and numerous fashion brands including Coach, Polo Ralph Lauren Black Label, Frye, Kate Spade, Jack Spade Barneys, Nordstrom and H&M. He has worked with, among others, Bruce Weber and Annie Leibowitz and his personal style has been profiled in numerous fashion publications including GQ, Vanity Fair, CR Fashion Book, Esquire and Vogue.
Jon is committed to the education and mentorship of young musicians. He has led his own Social Music Residency and Mentoring Program sponsored by Chase, as well as master classes throughout the world. He has also led several cultural exchanges, beginning in 2006, while still a teen, with the Netherlands Trust, which brought students from the USA and Holland to perform with him at both The Royal Concert Gebouw and Carnegie Hall.
Monarch magazine: Growing up how would you describe yourself as a child?
Jon Batiste: I was frequently performing concerts in places that I shouldn’t have legally been allowed into. Being a talented kid afforded me many opportunities to people watch and I took advantage of it. I stayed quiet and took a lot of information in. I was always deeply introverted with a rich internal life. Imaginative!
One day at school after taking an aptitude assessment test I was pulled out of my homeroom class and strongly encouraged to study visual art as an added part of my curriculum, which was an opportunity afforded to only a few students. I felt special and ended up doing that for a few years before moving onto other things. My older cousin Travis is an incredible artist and musician but decided to do other things. My father is an incredible musician and also knows how to take apart and rebuild anything. I never felt that just because you had a talent in something that it means you have to do it for money. As a kid my mother was always introducing me to new things to study so I was constantly engaged with learning. I’ve always planned to revisit my talent with visual arts but haven’t gotten around to it yet. In fact I have all these empty canvases that just sit around in my house. Shame! As a kid I read a lot, played a lot of chess, TONS of video games and I wasn’t very social until I got into sports and music. The social aspect of both hobbies helped me to come into my own. I played point guard for one of the teams in my city and eventually was on an AAU national team. We won a championship and that taught me a lot about hustle, team hierarchy and ego. In retrospect that experience has helped me be a bandleader. I was a pretty good ball player but found more of my calling to be in music. Since I was 8 or 9 I was in all kinds of bands from afro cuban bands, funk bands, rock and roll bands and then around 12 years old I got into jazz. Before that I competed in of classical piano competitions and studied Bach and Beethoven’s music. In general I’d say I was very curious and observed everything.
Monarch magazine: You are multi-instrumental, what caused you to land on piano?
Jon Batiste: We are soul mates. Flow state!
Monarch magazine: We are aware that Monk is one of your hero’s, who are some of other musical influences and why?
Jon Batiste: Fred Rogers and Solange Knowles for the worlds they make. Toni Morrison is a huge musical influence. So is Michelle Obama. My dad. He’s playing bass on my next album. Yoko Shimura and Nobou Uematsu scored my childhood. William Daghlian helped me to deepen my hearing.
Jean-Michel Basquiat is a huge musical influence I’m still unpacking. I’ve gotten close with his family and I’m currently writing a musical based on his life and work. It’s about layers and insinuation that can compound your art a give it richer meaning. His work brings into the focus the power of filtering seemingly incongruent things through your personal experience as a means of making a cogent yet cryptic artistic statement.
Obviously any of the lineage of piano player composer—bandleaders within the Afro-American popular idiom such as Duke Ellington, Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Ray Charles and more.
I feel aligned with them and relate to manifesting art from that place on many different levels.
My top 5 songwriters are Kanye West, Paul McCartney, Dorothy Fields, Bruce Springsteen and Andy Razaf.
For divine joy plus world-beating musical excellence and innovation it’s Louis Armstrong.
Right now my top 5 favorite pianists besides Monk are Guiomar Novaes, James Booker and my friends Sullivan Fortner, Eric Lewis and Wynton Marsalis on piano.
God is my ultimate inspiration. When the Holy Spirit moves during the creative process it’s unstoppable. We have many gifts and it’s all to glorify the Father, the ultimate Creator.
It’s really deep. Jesus had all these amazing gifts but it wasn’t about Him. He was there to show people something even greater. It’s a cycle.
Also all of New Orleans. And Bach!
Monarch magazine: How would you describe your sound and creative approach?
Jon Batiste: I mostly just create. First an idea is born but then you have to raise it. The more I absorb influences from new sources the sooner the ideas are born. Influences include being in new locations, getting new equipment, reading or writing and even having limitations. I also harbor an internal dialogue that is always evolving and readily available to be excavated in the creative process. That internal dialogue is often the best material an artist has to offer but the hardest to translate into art.
This is why my sound is always changing and evolving. It’s because I’m always growing and evolving and my influences are always changing.
Monarch magazine: Your band “Stay Human” what is the meaning behind the name?
Jon Batiste: It’s a way of being and remembering that we are all in this together. Human connection and love is the intention of why I created that band. That is our greatest inspiration. Human beings are created in the image of God and when we’re at our best is when we are in union with the Creator. He has a master plan for our lives, he knew us before we were born and all that hairs of our head are accounted for. Pretty dope! Although sometime we try, we don’t need to be anything else other than what we are. There is strength in numbers, and “Stay Human” is a call for us to connect and to “be” together as we were made.
My vision for the band was built on seeing the gifts and beautiful quirks in others and encouraging them to lean into it those gifts in the spirit of togetherness and EXCELLENCE. Every member of Stay Human had to be a virtuoso and more to do what we did. I always pushed us to deepen our virtuosity with compassion. It wasn’t about what they believed in, it was more about if they we’re willing to share their abilities and be together in such a way that embraces differences and creates community. For example we used to play every night for free on the subways in NYC just to share music with people and get better at playing together as a band. Ibanda Ruhumbika, a genius of the tuba, developed the ability to play while balancing his instrument on a moving subway train.
During the early stages of the band I would meet so many talented musicians at Juilliard who blew me away. I’d go on to recruit them for Stay Human. This is also a largely Ellingtonian conception of bandleading.
Monarch magazine: What is it like being on the Stephen Colbert Show?
Jon Batiste: It’s an accelerated course study in multiple areas. World events, culture, politics, entertainment, TV production and obviously comedy. The music is such a minimal part of it all for me. That part comes easy and it’s definitely fun to play for so many people across the world. I compose 100 new compositions before each season of the show. The band is a well oiled machine now which allows me to focus on the other aspects of the show and soak up tons of information. It’s really been fascinating. I’ve grown in way that I can’t even fully comprehend yet.
It’s also a true joy to work with STC. He is an absolutely incredible performer.
Monarch magazine: How did you get involved on the show?
Jon Batiste: In 2014 was a guest on his show the Colbert Report and we hit it off. The interview clip of when we first met is probably still online . He interviewed me for a segment and then Stay Human and I performed a Love Riot on the show. The rest is history. I’d graduated from The Juilliard School in 2011 and up until then I was on the road touring and had released several self produced/released albums. On Colbert’s show we were promoting “Social Music” which was the number one jazz album at the time. I was having a great time on the road making music on my own terms. I had no plans at all of being on the Late Show but God had another plan.
Monarch magazine: Being the bandleader, I would imagine keeps you on your musical toes, what is a night like at Stephen Colbert show, how do you keep it new each night?
Jon Batiste: When I die I want to leave behind a huge body of work and the Late Show gives me an amazing opportunity to add to my composition book. I write new music for each season of the show. We also have a few regular songs in the rotation that we like to reinvent from time to time. Some nights we have guests in the band such as Elle King, Stevie Wonder, Yo Yo Ma, PJ Morton and many, many more. I also invite many younger musicians that I mentor into the band from time to time. Whenever I release new music, and sometimes just for fun, we’ll present music on the show as the musical guest. I also do comedy bits and many more things. It’s actually quite a lot.
Monarch magazine: With so many artists performing what is the daily preparation for Stephen Colbert show?
Jon Batiste: I don’t prepare. Besides our daily soundcheck I don’t like to prepare. I aim to be present in the moment and trust that all the prep I’ve done for my entire is enough to meet the demands of the day. Besides, no matter how much you prepare, its a very unpredictable form and takes a lot of improvisation to make it work. When I’m not set I have several other things I’m focusing on and usually don’t have the bandwidth to approach it any other way. For instance, my new album was made while I was simultaneously writing two musicals, a symphony and a film score amongst other one off events, performances and speeches. It’s insane!
Monarch magazine: Has this experience effected your musical evolution?
Jon Batiste: It’s taught me how to be better at balancing my time and splitting my focus so to deliver a consistently high level of quality. I’m learning how to get right to the core of things and be great right away. No time for second guessing. Now, the problem is that this fast paced life style is not sustainable so eventually I’m going to have to slow down. Life moves in seasons so I don’t have a problem with that.
Monarch magazine: What can we expect with this new project, new direction, mood sound or all of the above?
Jon Batiste: It’s truly expansive. Nothing is like it in the world. It’s not at all like “Hollywood Africans” and it’s not at all a Stay Human album either— although it has elements of both and then some. People will be pleasantly shocked. It’s all original songs, no covers. I had a vision for this project and brought together many of my favorite collaborators to craft it. It is sonically my most diverse album with contributions from producers like POMO (Mac Miller, Anderson .Paak), Ricky Reed (Lizzo, Maroon 5) and Jahaan Sweet (Drake, Kehlani). I executive produced the project with my longtime friend and collaborator Ryan Lynn. He doesn’t even work in the music industry but he’s a genius and get’s my vision. Russ Elevado was also key in capturing the sound of the project. He’s a master. So was Manny Marroquin who also help craft the album sonically. A lot of the initial songs that were considered for the album we’re crafted in sessions with Autumn Rowe and Kizzo (Pitbull, Ludacris). We had some really fire sessions in my dressing room at the Late Show in between shows tapings, touring, appointments and all. In 5 days we had written 10 songs. Also did some sessions with Steve McEwan who writes a lot of country hits out of Nashville. We work together a lot over the last 6-7 years and have a good thing going on. James Gadson, who played drums with Bill Withers, plays drums on the album. The legend Mavis Staples, Emily King, Hot 8 Brass Band, Endea Owens and many more. The band is killer. It’s is transcendent, anthemic music. The music is very deep rooted and draws on so much of my life story. My high school marching band is on it. My Dad, nephews and granddad are all on the album. Check out my NPR Tiny Desk performance for a taste of the new music. With all the collaborators I had come into this project, I really had to take the lead in the creation of this album, funneling all of these influences into a extremely personal narrative and weaving together all of my influences. It has so much infused into it but it’s all true to who I am.
Monarch magazine: How is the up-coming project different than previous albums?
Jon Batiste: A lot of my talents get showcased here more so than usual. I sing, I rap, I play several different instruments, I compose and wrote lyrics as well as producing, arranging and even engineering some of it. When people hear it they will learn a lot more about where I’m coming from. I actually played 4 of the unfinished songs on NPR Tiny Desk. They really weren’t even done yet. I love doing that. It doesn’t matter if they change, I like hearing an artists work as it’s in progress.
Monarch magazine: What distinguishes you from other jazz artist? And what do you believe you bring different to the jazz community?
Jon Batiste: I am me. That’s it. I am not a jazz artist. I’m Jon Batiste.