Editor’s note: This article was originally published in 2019 when Jon Batiste performed in Rochester, but we’ve since republished it after his impressive showing at Sunday night’s Grammy Awards show.
ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — Jon Batiste made his way to Rochester for the Eastman Presents season opener this past Saturday. Batiste is best known as the charismatic bandleader of “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” but he is a bonafide superstar in the jazz world as a pianist and singer.
He played tunes from his most recent release, “Anatomy of Angels,” as well as his upcoming release, “Chronology of a Dream.” The band featured the “jazz cowboy” Stay Human percussionist Joe Saylor, Stay Human basist and founding member Phil Kuehn, and more talented (and some young) musicians.
Digital content reporter Dan Gross caught up with him after the show.
DJG: First time in Rochester? How did you like it?
JB: I loved it. It’s so great. It’s peaceful. It’s a really, really great place to play.
DJG: Why’s that?
JB: I think people can hear. They have a good music ear.
You can tell as a musician that’s played in front of audiences in different parts of the country, you can tell when the audience is musically-inclined. The difference between a good audience and a musically-inclined audience. A musically-inclined audience is one that is good, but they can go there.
We started the show out with a bass solo tonight. We started the show out with a bass solo. An acoustic double bass solo is usually the last thing you do when you’ve exhausted every other possibility. And from the first note, everybody was with us.
The third song was a drum solo. You can go to these places when the audience is ready. That just adds a layer of depth and nuance to your show. I could just tell from the first note that the audience had a certain level of understanding.
Because when you take that kind of risk, and they’re not there, you feel it, immediately. It’s like, “oh, well, we out here.”
DJG: Right at the beginning, you said you’re playing “celestial jazz.” You didn’t just do that musically, but you had different musicians occupying different parts of the concert hall, even in the audience. Talk to us about that.
JB: I think it’s important for people to experience music when they’re in a concert. And I think when we look at the great artists, in terms of pop artists, or the artists who play in the context of entertainment space. Which is not typically what you think of when you think of classical or jazz music.
We were talking about Travis Scott earlier, or Beyonce, it’s an experience. I think that’s important for a live show, because the audience is there together with you, and you can hear the music at home, alone, by yourself, or your friends around a table listening to a vinyl record with some great speakers, and a great cheese plate.
That experience will probably be better than being with 3,000 people in a hall, or 14,000, 15,000 people in a stadium, if you’re just there to listen.
The experience part of it is 50% of the reason why performers go and perform live. Even when we’re taping a television show, we’re doing the show for the audience at home, and there’s also an experience when you’re there in the theater, and I’m a strong believer in creating that for the audience when they come to see us.
DJG: A part of that I’m sure is from your upbringing. Part of the experience is being inches away from your audience.
JB: Yeah! I think that when you come from a place like New Orleans there’s certain things that you learn that are built into the culture of being a musician.
You learn how to play dance music, which I think is something that I feel like young jazz musicians and young musicians who are playing any form of music that they’re serious about, it’s an important skill to learn how to dance and play dance music. Because if you can’t play dance music, it’s really difficult to play complex forms and have them be interesting.
That’s the lowest common denominator. When you hear a groove, even a baby, they just start to move. Like my nephew who is four, and when he hears something on the radio, and he’s instinctively moving to it; it’s just a built-in part of our anatomy.
I also learned watching the elders. They carried on traditions from their elders of stage banter and stage etiquette that I think is really important.
Of course you reinvent it, and you make it your own, and you listen to what they say and you understand the intention of it, you don’t just mimic it.
That really helped me get my foot in the door in terms of being a young bandleader. I started leading my first band when I was 13 or 14. That was a really big thing to get over stage fright, and get over having to talk to the audience, because you so much, and you don’t go: “oh well I’m going out in front of thousands of people and convey to them why I’m standing up here playing.” You can’t just go up there and play without looking at them.
Batiste takes the party off the stage…
DJG: What I’m hearing is that through all of these influences and time you’ve spent as a bandleader… You’ve somehow been able to coalesce things that are very difficult to balance: which are keeping music sophisticated enough to keep people interested, help people laugh, help people cry, but then keep it all accessible. At only 32, how have you found a balance to do all that?
JB: It’s funny because I think about it as almost a form of pacing. I’ve taken my time.
I think that sometimes you can have opportunities come to you and you may not be ready for them. And if you take the opportunity, it can take you on a trajectory that may not be the best for your development.
I’ve always tried to be conscious and move forward with my artistic development, thinking about things I need to do to develop, and less about career choices, or trajectory. That’s actually served me in my career trajectory.
I’ve been able to go through a lot of different phases, and go through those phases without having the scrutiny of a larger platform. Even though there were larger opportunities – say signing a record deal, say it’s dropping out of Julliard and going on the road with Stay Human – that could have happened, and were on the table for me… There was a “true north” that was telling me I’m ready for that, or that it won’t yield the best results for me as an artist.
And the result now is that I’m 32, and have had so many different phases, like different lives as a musician, and it’s been on my own terms. I’ve been able to develop what I want to say and who am I as an artist, and what it’s all about for me, and what I what I want my show to be like, what kind of musicians I want to play with, learning from musicians that I’ve looked up to, reaching out to people who have mentored me.
Now, it’s just like an open road. It feels like I’m just starting, actually.
It’s interesting because I want to figure out the next phase, and there’s so many options because of the way I’ve done it thus far.
And into the streets:
DJG: What’s a feeling or thought you want your audience to leave with after seeing your show?
JB: That’s a great way of phrasing it. A friend of mine, he’s in a music space, his name’s Punch, and he has a record label – Top Dawg Entertainment – which is Kendrick Lamar‘s label. He’s a musician, but he’s a CEO.
You’re the only other person I heard say it like that, which he said to me once, which stuck with me, which is the idea that every artist is presenting one or two ideas, max. In everything they do.
It clarifies for him what to do next in his musical endeavors because it’s all focused around his artists and the different emotions they bring to the table, and the spectrum of all of them together, it creates this presentation.
I think for me, I’m not part of a great collective officially, but I see myself as filling a void in our generation. People who play a certain style of music, people who come from a certain upbringing, which is not only to do it with excellence, but to present joy.
Joy is different to happiness. Happiness is a fleeting thing, you can be happy about something. But there’s a gravitas to joy, there’s a depth to it.
In everything that I do, I want to have that inner sense of joy, and that momentum that comes with from that. I think that’s missing in a lot of music’ there’s a lot of great musicians, a lot of serious musicians, but in our collective, that’s part of my role, is to present that at the highest level of virtuosity, excellence, and artistry.
Batiste in Hatch Hall talking video game music:
DJG: Three big questions for you. I know that you’ve mentioned that your trumpet player hasn’t even graduated college yet, but of any artist today who is younger than you, who inspires you the most to continue to be excellent, who would it be?
JB: The guys in the band. The saxophone player, Patrick Bartley, Giveton Gelin hasn’t graduated yet, Patrick just recently graduated, he may be six or seven years younger than I am.
Now I’m 32, so I’m old enough to have people who are 18, 19, 20 in the band. I remember when I was that kid in the band, so it’s cool to have that transferred to me. It’s blessing, and that inspires me.
But the people who are around the world; the Internet inspires me, because I find…
There’s a trumpet player and she’s in Ecuador, that’s inspiring.
Matt Whitaker is a pianist I’ve been mentoring since he was 11, and now he’s eighteen, and he’s just started playing at Julliard. He plays organ and piano. He’s visually impaired, but his ears are like eyes. You can play something for him one time and he’ll remember it for the rest of his life. He’s got such a great soul and heart, and he’s got such a great family.
There’s so many younger musicians, so I just like to discover them through the Internet.
DJG: If you could accomplish one thing in your musical career and be happy knowing you accomplished it, what would it be?
JB: I want to do a huge concert, that feels like most of the concerts that I play. When I say “huge,” I mean like a Guinness World Record Book…
I want to do a long concert that’s at least 100,000 people in one space, and streamed across every part of the world. Just to remote corners of the world. I just want to transfer this energy.
I really do think I’ve been blessed with a certain energy, like a life force, and I’ve figured out over the past ten years how to use it really well. There’s going to come a time when I can project it in a way that can really bless a lot of people.
I’m going to figure out how to do it. But I pace myself. It doesn’t have to be tomorrow, it can be 20 years from now. I’m not in a rush. I’m not trying to be super-famous to do that in a certain way. Everything happens in the right way.
It’s not like a goal that I want to play in Madison Square Garden. It could be in a field somewhere but that’s what I want to do.
DJG: Finally, do you have any advice for aspiring artists?
JB: Wow. Hmm. Have faith in something. For me, I have faith in God. That grounds me, and helps me understand my purpose.
If you don’t have purpose, you don’t have anything. Because you can be great, the greatest, but without purpose or intention, it becomes meaningless, to you. Not even talking to the audience, because you can fool the audience sometimes … At some point you can’t fool the audience, but it’s a long time depending on how much talent you have fooling the audience before they catch on.
But, it’s even worse to do that, because you’re fooling yourself, and that’s the worst part about not having purpose, because purpose, it’s like a lie detector.
If I go on stage and I play something that doesn’t align with my purpose, I feel it. Even days after, and nobody can live with that for too long without something negative happening.
So that’s the one thing I tell every artist. When I teach, I ask, “why you play? Why?” Because you can be good, but you can do it as a hobby, you can do it to bring your family joy, you can do it to teach your kids, you can go to do it for people in nursing homes… Figure out why.