On election night in November, the duo hosted a Showtime special that didn’t quite go as planned. For starters, Donald Trump won, and the script they’d prepared ahead of time was no longer usable. “Wait, we were nominated for writing, for the election night special?” Colbert joked in a recent promo for the Emmys, which he will be hosting on Sep. 17. “They know I never did any of the scripts that we wrote, right? We kind of made everything up as we went along ― through our tears.”
Improvisation has been key to the success of “The Late Show” ever since. And, luckily, that’s where Batiste, leader of the house band, shines.
“When [musicians] improvise it can literally crash and burn, and if it does, you have to figure out a way to keep everybody on board and on that journey,” Batiste told HuffPost. He likens Colbert’s talent to that of a musician’s, too. Colbert, of course, has a long history with improv himself. “He’s figured out a way to deal with awkwardness and make it performative. Beautiful, ugly beauty like Thelonious Monk.”
That’s particularly high praise from Batiste, who’s said that, in the past, he’s taken a lot of inspiration for his new career from that particular jazz pianist. In 2014, before he got the “Late Show” gig, Batiste told “The Third Story” podcast that Monk taught him to embrace humor in art. Now he’s learning similar things from Colbert, who shares many of the same values as Batiste, from a belief in Christianity to an innate desire to bring people together.
Together, they are the heart of a late-night franchise more popular now than ever.
“It doesn’t feel forced because it’s not,” Batiste said of his relationship with Colbert. Speaking of both his “Late Show” house band, Stay Human, and Colbert’s staff, Batiste added, “It feels like family up there, basically.”
And it’s a family that wants to bring you in, regardless of your ideology ― a feat Colbert and Batiste seem poised to achieve in 2017, two years after they launched the show. This year, “The Late Show” reigns as the number one program in late night, finally pulling ahead of rival Jimmy Fallon’s “Tonight Show” in the early months of this year. Their desire to unite has certainly been tested by Trump’s election, though. In having to respond nightly to presidential decrees they strongly disagree with, the show has inevitably courted more liberals than Trump-supporting conservatives. It’s a phenomenon the duo is still struggling to figure out.
How can they welcome fans across party lines, while still upholding their show’s defiant tone? Batiste thinks he might have the key.
“When we first started, [inclusivity] was a goal. Stephen and I had a conversation about that,” Batiste said. “And that’s kind of what it’s always been about. It’s just that, the times have changed so drastically within the last nine or 10 months, and I think with the times changing like that, it transformed not just the show, but the world. And energy in the world right now is a lot more divisive.”
There’s certainly a feeling that Democrats and Republicans are even more separated than before (and evidence to back that claim up). President Trump is both a cause and effect of this reality, and his recent comments about “both sides” of the political spectrum haven’t helped. To some, Colbert’s penchant for mocking the president has made the show seem biased.
“As much as people think it’s a one-sided show, I think what we’re trying to do is not to divide people or be divisive, but kind of just be a voice for truth out there,” Batiste countered. “We don’t really try to be divisive.”
In fact, former Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush was a guest on the very first episode of “The Late Show.” For Colbert ― once host of “The Colbert Report” and a correspondent on “The Daily Show” ― giving President George W. Bush’s brother a platform to campaign was an objectively bipartisan move. Colbert ribbed the younger Bush, to be sure, but he didn’t just mock him. He let him speak his beliefs.
Of course, the interviews are Colbert’s domain. With his own platform as band leader, Batiste believes that his unique position on the show can help keep conservatives from changing the channel. He argues, strongly, that music can be the thing that brings people together, even when comedy is more divisive. When Colbert speaks out, Batiste and Stay Human can keep people in their seats.
“I think discussion and critique and calling out things that are dishonest, all of that is very important,” Batiste said. “And I think just as important are the people that are on the artistic lines of battle that are trying to bring people together no matter what our differences are. So those are like the two sides of the coin that I think have to happen simultaneously. And I kind of see my role on the side that brings people together.”
Batiste’s job is to provide the soundtrack for unity, he added. “And be the rainbow in that equation.”
“Given that it’s such a politically driven show, I’ve seen that music has kind of served as the balm and the thing that kind of heals the divide,” Batiste said. “I don’t really feel that music separates when it’s at it’s best. It brings people together.”
Born on Nov. 11, 1986, in a suburb of New Orleans, Louisiana, Batiste is the youngest bandleader ever to take on his late-night job. (His 30th birthday was just days after Trump’s win.) Coming from a famous family of musicians, Batiste excelled at it quickly, perhaps because of a combination of his family’s musical pedigree and his experience with the historically celebratory style of New Orleans performance.
On “The Late Show,” Batiste aims to combine his respect for tradition with a flare for innovation. The most literal example of this is his onstage use of the often maligned melodica (or “face piano” as Colbert allegedly calls it). The instrument is small, allowing Batiste to be mobile while playing songs more often played on a piano. He would famously play the melodica through the halls of Juilliard, the music conservatory where he got both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in jazz studies.
Batiste calls his method of making art “social music.” To him, this means creating music that is essentially of the people and for the people. It can involve an act as practical as blending Bach with Drake during a performance, but the philosophy also encompasses a desire to break down the fourth wall and engage his audiences in real ways. To do this, Batiste says he wants to to start speaking up more on “The Late Show,” joining Colbert on the other side of the coin to talk about issues that speak to his own experiences.
“There’s so many different ways of speaking to what’s happening in the world right now, in terms of race and division and talking about things that I’ve gone through, that I think can help people out there,” Batiste said.
Batiste has also thought long and hard about how he presents himself on the show. Onstage, he’ll usually wear colorful suits and fancy patterned shirts. Going forward, he wants to start toying with his style.
“Just thinking about fashion and how we present ourself can be deceiving, especially if you think about a black male,” he said. “I’m always dressed in a certain way, but some days I go out and I wear a hoodie and people don’t recognize me. Things aren’t always the same as when I’m wearing a blazer.”
Of course, black celebrities frequently face distinct obstacles when it comes to speaking out. Like Colin Kaepernick, who, after his much-publicized protests during the 2016 NFL season and subsequent departure from the 49ers, remains unattached to a football team today.
“I think what’s important is to speak truth the way that you see it and, for me, what I feel like is important is really making music that moves people and brings them into the room to a song or tune that they may not be familiar with or may not have thought about or have seen in that light and kind of just reinvent their perspective on the culture,” Batiste said. “Because we’ve created a culture here in America that is all about celebration of individuality and celebration of everybody’s experiences and coming together and compromise. Whether we agree or not, you know, we can create something new that works for both of us.”
“That’s what the greatest ideals of American music are,” he added, “and that’s kind of what I try to represent and hopefully, subconsciously, that vibration will affect people.”
Being a rainbow in 2017, in Trump’s America, will continue to be an ambitious, but worthwhile dream.
See Jon Batiste at the 69th Primetime Emmy Awards on Sept. 17, 2017, hosted by Stephen Colbert.