Around the Institute

New “Late Show” Bandleader Jon Batiste Shares the History of Jazz

June 9, 2015  • Katherine Grygo, Guest Blogger

Above, watch musician Jon Batiste summarize the history of jazz and American popular music. Batiste was interviewed by Aspen Institute President and CEO Walter Isaacson at the 2014 Aspen Ideas Festival.

“The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” recently named gifted and charismatic New Orleans jazz musician Jon Batiste as bandleader. At the 2014 Aspen Ideas Festival, Batiste sat down with Aspen Institute President and CEO Walter Isaacson for a lively conversation that was part performance and part discussion (watch Batiste and Isaacson join in song at the 44:15 mark). They talked about the roots of jazz, their hometown of New Orleans, the importance of arts education, and the state and future of American musical traditions.

As a child, Batiste played percussion in his family’s band before taking up piano. He began performing in nightclubs at age 13 and produced his first album at 17. He went on to attend the famed Juilliard School, where he furthered his love for jazz. In conversation, Batiste described the flexibility of his favorite art form.

“The beauty of jazz is that it can accommodate all styles. You can take jazz and put rock in it and it’s still jazz. You can take jazz and put [the] blues in it and it’s still jazz. And you can take jazz and put any style of music in it and it keeps its integrity.”

Throughout his talk, Batiste demonstrated different influences in the evolution of jazz, performing traditional pieces and selections from greats like Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong. He also played his signature instrument — the melodica — a small keyboard with a mouthpiece.  

Batiste currently serves as the artistic director at-large for the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, New York. His band Stay Human will join Batiste on CBS when “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” launches in September 2015. The group’s most recent album, “Social Music,” topped Billboard’s Jazz Album chart. 

Batiste is scheduled to return to the Aspen Ideas Festival in 2015.