Stephen Colbert’s Bandleader on Creating a Vibe, Leading Love Riots, and Listening to Oprah

Let’s just say Jon Batiste wears a lot of hats. New York.

By: Tara Gonzalez
Styling: Noah Lehava, Tara Gonzalez

Jon Batiste’s personality is best summed up not by words, but a single punctuation mark—! When we met him backstage at the Ed Sullivan Theater in NYC, he walked through the door snapping his fingers, his torso bent over his knees. We heard him before we saw him, belting out the first chorus to a song we couldn’t quite decipher. 

As Stephen Colbert’s bandleader, Batiste is enthusiasm incarnate. “That’s a vibe!” were the first three words that came out of his mouth after he stopped singing, and afterwards, he picked up a melodica, jumped on the couch, and started singing again—only this time with his eyes closed and legs kicking in the air. We heard two songs before he introduced himself. But at that point, who really needs an introduction? Not Jon Batiste.

As the youngest bandleader in The Late Show’s history, 30-year-old Batiste has accomplished quite a bit. He graduated from Juilliard, is the artistic director at large at the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, and has his own band, Stay Human, which is best known for their New Orleans-style musical processions. Batiste calls them “Love Riots,” and when he first met Colbert, he told him those were the types of performances he wanted to do on the show. 

Today, Batiste and his band are a cornerstone of The Late Show, often performing on the sidewalk outside of the theater during commercial breaks. The gig has given Batiste the opportunity to perform with artists he looks up to, including Stevie Wonder and Yo-Yo Ma, and he even got an opportunity to rub elbows with Oprah when he joined the show shortly after turning 28. “Oprah was like, ‘That’s about the age that I got into my flow state too!,’” he recalls of their conversation. “When you’re in your flow state, you have to do something really, really stupid to mess it up. Otherwise it’s inevitable.”

The only thing that seems inevitable is Jon Batiste breaking into song for the third time. Seated at his piano, he arches his back and knocks a hat off the bookshelf. He doesn’t miss a beat as he throws it on his head.

Evidently, his stage wardrobe consists of as many hats as his professional life does, which he pairs with suits and ties and jeans and t-shirts. He switches between casual and formal as swiftly as he moves between keys, instruments, and songs. “It’s like we were trying to create Heaven on Earth right now,” he says of his work alongside Colbert and his band. “We don’t really know if it’s there. You don’t worry about all of that. Just love! Create!”

And with that, he’s singing again. Now, that’s a vibe.

Click through to read what it’s like to work on a late-night TV show during the current state of American politics, why you should always listen to Oprah, and what makes Stephen Colbert the best gift-giver.