Jon Batiste’s World Is Wonderful, but Flawed ~ NYT

Jon Batiste spoke about the way New Orleans and New York had molded his career and musical aesthetic. Credi tMike Cohen for The New York Times

By Doug MacCash

NEW ORLEANS — Discussing his views on music’s role in a city’s culture, the jazz keyboardist Jon Batiste, who is the band leader on “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert,” told a panel in New Orleans that music has a unique power to inspire action.

Music has always been the soundtrack of movements, he said.

Mr. Batiste, 32, who hails from the nearby suburb of Kenner, spoke with Marc Lacey, the national editor of The New York Times, then concluded by stepping to the piano and playing a stark, somewhat melancholy rendition of “What a Wonderful World,” a tune made famous by Louis Armstrong.

The performance was perfect, as the lyrics seemed to reflect Mr. Batiste’s inherent optimism, while his contemplative execution communicated the musician’s awareness of social inequity that permeated the Armstrong era and beyond. Mr. Batiste, the final panelist at the Cities for Tomorrow conference, talked about how his career and musical aesthetic were molded by two dynamic cities.

In New Orleans, he was steeped in jazz culture, both as a member of one of the city’s premier musical families and as a student at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts. When, at age 17, his talent took him to the Juilliard School in New York, he absorbed the kinetic nature of the metropolis, where he and his band played mini concerts for subway riders.

Jon Batiste’s performances on the Colbert show are superb, his talents multi cultural from jazz to classical to ‘improv’, but they are all too brief. I long for him & his band ‘Stay Human’ to be given a full time slot of his own which the live audience enjoys during the commercial breaks but the TV audience does not. More Jon Batiste, please!

Earlier panelists had discussed how the rise in population and economic vitality in many cities had exacerbated inequity. Mr. Batiste’s view of music’s role in city culture reflected his resistance to urban unfairness. When Mr. Lacey asked if music could be part of “the actual lifting up of cities,” Mr. Batiste responded in activist terms.

Music can inspire action, he said. “Music has always been a way for people to endure hardship and figure out how to really connect to their humanity or affirm their humanity when everything around them is trying to squash their humanity,” he said.

Jon Batiste Performs ‘What a Wonderful World’ Credit Video by The New York Times Conferences
Marc Lacey, left, with Mr. Batiste.CreditMike Cohen for The New York Times

The importance of music, he added, goes beyond entertainment. “In any situation, music can be used as a reprieve or a balm.”

Not all of Mr. Batiste’s comments on music and its impact on city lifestyle were as weighty.

He confessed that he liked to play his piano loudly, which irks his neighbors in tight New York apartment buildings. Or, at least it used to. As he explained, when he became a television personality, the reproachful notes and the pounding on his floor from the room below magically ceased.

Reflecting on his instant upsurge in prestige upon taking the “Late Show” job, he said, “TV is crazy.”

In addition to his TV duties, Mr. Batiste is working on the score for a Broadway musical based on the life of the late 1980s art superstar Jean-Michel Basquiat.

The title of Mr. Batiste’s most recent album, “Hollywood Africans,” was taken from a 1983 Basquiat painting. The album includes his gorgeously ironic “What a Wonderful World.”

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