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Interview: Jon Batiste

The Late Show bandleader returns to New Orleans



For Kenner native Jon Batiste, Jazz Fest is old hat.

  "I can remember going since I was about 7 years old, so any year I can play is beautiful," he says, recalling annual trips to watch his father and uncles perform in the Batiste Brothers Band.

  Batiste attended New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts and Juilliard. But like Branford Marsalis, his introduction to many non-jazz fans came through late night TV.

  Shortly after the bandleader, pianist and melodica player last appeared at Jazz Fest in 2014, he and his band Stay Human made an impression on Stephen Colbert's Comedy Central show The Colbert Report. That performance helped the musician land his current job as bandleader on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. This Jazz Fest, Jon Batiste and Stay Human have a more prominent spot in the festival lineup.

  "Coming back at this point, it shows I'm on a long journey," Batiste says. "Hopefully it's still the beginning."

  The band made its Late Show debut last fall and proved it's an infectiously likable act that can bounce from hip-hop to traditional jazz to soul. Batiste believes the varied and ever-changing demands of the nightly show forced the band to improve, even in familiar settings.

  "Playing The Late Show is like running with weights on," he says. "Although what we're doing is very structured, it allows us to really practice in scenarios you're almost never facing in a live show or festival. There are cameras, things that change in the script at a moment's notice and an audience watching all of this. So when we're playing just for the audience at an event, it's liberating. Performing outside of the show, the band is extremely tight. We're able to improvise and change directions on a dime."

  Batiste takes inspiration everywhere from Neutral Milk Hotel's "Holland, 1945" to Bud Powell tunes. The band loves to engage its audience — part of what Batiste dubs its "social music" ethos (also the name of the band's 2013 album). The group has incited the Late Show audience to parade in the studio, and it recorded an entire album in New York City's subways. At the Newport Jazz Festival, the band bookended a performance with parades on and off stage.

  "(Social music) will always be a part of New Orleans culture, interacting with the audience and engaging with them in a way that is joyous and uplifting," Batiste says. "One of the pillars of social music is to interact and make the audience feel as if they're part of the band. So not to give away too much, but I will definitely create that atmosphere and environment in our set."

Jon Batiste and Stay Human also perform at The Civic Theatre at 10 p.m. April 30.

Thursday, April 28
Friday, April 29
Saturday, April 30
Sunday, May 1

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• Jon Batiste

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