When Stephen Colbert takes over the Late Show tonight on CBS, he'll have a new partner in crime on stage: pianist Jon Batiste.
Batiste falls into a long line of jazz musicians to lead bands on late-night television. But this particular fit has a lot of people talking: He and his band are known for their spirit and energy.
Bassist and composer Christian McBride, host of Jazz Night In America, recently spoke with All Things Considered's Audie Cornish about the pick.
"If you've ever seen Jon Batiste live, he's a born showman," McBride says. "He seems tailor-made for television. And every time I've ever seen him perform, he never fails to get the crowd very inspired and very much into what's happening."
At 28, Batiste is still considered quite young for a jazz musician — "the peak of his career is still in front of him," McBride says. Though he's only been on the national scene for six or seven years, he apprenticed in trumpeter Roy Hargrove's band, and established his own group, Stay Human.
Batiste enjoyed a breakthrough moment last year when he appeared on The Colbert Report and paraded out of the theater, leading the audience into the street.
"That joy of human interaction comes through in his music, and that's exactly why Colbert picked him to be his bandleader," McBride says.
There's long been a relationship between jazz and late-night comedy shows. The first host of NBC's Tonight Show, Steve Allen, was a jazz lover (and musician himself) who often featured jazz on the program. When Johnny Carson took over the show, the house band was a jazz orchestra led at first by pianist Skitch Henderson, and eventually trumpeter Doc Severinsen. Carson and Severinsen enjoyed a rapport beyond bumpers and theme music, as well — the bandleader was often called upon for segments.
It hasn't always worked perfectly. When the Tonight Show under Jay Leno hired saxophonist Branford Marsalis in 1992, it didn't last long. McBride, who says he considers Marsalis "very much a big brother," suspected it might not work out.
"We knew that being the bandleader of a talk show — you know, you have to be the butt of the star of the show's jokes," McBride says. "And just knowing Branford, his personality, we all went, 'Hmmm, I wonder how that's going to work.'"
So what does McBride expect in terms of rapport between Stephen Colbert and Batiste?
"I have no idea what to expect," he says. "Jon is such an effervescent spirit. And I know, just on general principle, he can't be that big of a shining star on the show. Colbert is the star, and Jonathan is going to have to be the Ed McMahon [the announcer for Johnny Carson].
"I don't think he's going to be able to come on there with those lime-green suits and canary-yellow suits. He might try it — I don't know! And if he doesn't, I'm sure Colbert will find a clever way to work it into the show."
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
When Stephen Colbert takes over for the "Late Show" on CBS, he'll have a partner in crime in bandleader Jon Batiste.
(SOUNDBITE OF STAY HUMAN SONG)
CORNISH: That's Batiste, a jazz pianist, playing the melodica there, actually, and hamming it up with members of his band, Stay Human, in a preview ad for the show. Batiste is from New Orleans, and here to talk about his style and the role of jazz in late night is Christian McBride, composer, bassist and host of NPR's Jazz Night in America. Welcome back, Christian.
CHRISTIAN MCBRIDE, BYLINE: How're you doing Audie?
CORNISH: Good. So tell us about Jon Batiste. His band is called Stay Human. What makes them a good fit for late-night?
MCBRIDE: Well, as you can hear from that clip you just played, they have so much spirit, they have so much energy. If you've ever seen Jon Batiste live, he's a born showman. He seems tailor-made for television. And every time I've ever seen him perform, he never fails to get the crowd very inspired and very much into what's happening.
CORNISH: He actually appeared on "The Colbert Report" in 2014, and actually took the audience out into the street, (laughter), which is pretty great.
CORNISH: We actually have a little clip of the song from his album, "Social Music." The song's called, "Express Yourself."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EXPRESS YOURSELF")
STAY HUMAN: (Singing) Come on everybody, express yourselves today. Oh yeah.
CORNISH: Christian, what are we hearing there? Kind of where is he in the world of jazz?
MCBRIDE: Well, Jonathan, I think, in the world of jazz, he's still in the early stages, you know what I mean? He's only 28, and Jonathan's only been on the scene for maybe about the last six or seven years, you know, played in Roy Hargrove's band for a while. So I think the peak of this career is still in front of him.
CORNISH: And he's really into the kind of audience interaction and call and response, which is very New Orleans.
MCBRIDE: Very much so. You mentioned that time when he performed on "The Colbert Report" and he took the audience outside. Lionel Hampton was known to do that, you know, back in the 1940s and early '50s. There's these great stories about how he took his band out of the Apollo Theater and went up and down 125th Street.
MCBRIDE: And now Jonathan is the only one that I know of who was - picked up that mantle to go that extra mile, literally and figuratively.
MCBRIDE: That joy of human interaction comes through in his music, and I think that's exactly why Colbert picked him to be his bandleader.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
STAY HUMAN: (Singing) I feel good. I feel free. I feel fine just being me. I feel good today.
CORNISH: You know, Batiste is joining another tradition, and that is the kind of jazz bandleader on the late-night show, right, being the house band. There's always been this relationship between jazz and comedy, but when did the role of bandleader go from, like, bumpers and theme music to really having to be part of the program, right, along with the host?
MCBRIDE: Well, if you look at the history of late-night television, you could actually start with Steve Allen because when Steve Allen became a late-night talk show host, he was very well-known to be a jazz lover. He himself played piano. He always had people like Miles Davis on the show. But then when Johnny Carson took over the "Tonight Show" from Jack Paar in 1962, Carson, himself a drummer, was always in love with jazz. His original bandleader was the pianist Skitch Henderson, and Doc Severinsen was the trumpeter in the band. So when Skitch Henderson left the show, Doc Severinsen took over. And that was probably the most popular example of bandleader-slash-straight man, you know, in the history of late-night television.
CORNISH: And I want to play a clip from that time. This is from 1979, and here the two were just chatting about Thanksgiving. It's, like, on the eve of Thanksgiving.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE LATE SHOW WITH JOHNNY CARSON")
JOHNNY CARSON: Can you give me whatever you're taking tonight?
MCBRIDE: I know this clip. (Laughter).
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE LATE SHOW WITH JOHNNY CARSON")
CARSON: You want to give me a hit on that, whatever it is?
DOC SEVERINSEN: I can't give you any. But I'll sell you some.
CORNISH: Now, I didn't give people a lot of context there because the thing is the laughter, right? Like, the chemistry and the laughter. Carson is genuinely entertained by him, and that was a bigger role for a bandleader.
MCBRIDE: Well, Carson of course, his chief second for his entire career was Ed McMahon. But there were many times when Ed McMahon wasn't on the show and Doc Severinsen would kind of slip in as - I won't say Ed's substitute, but now he became the main straight man.
CORNISH: So can you give us an example of a pairing that didn't really work out?
MCBRIDE: Well, probably the most popular example of two personalities not exactly working is Jay Leno and Branford Marsalis. Now, I've been good friends with Branford for many, many years. He's very much like a big brother to me. And when he first took over the show in 1982, I think that most of us were - we were surprised because we knew that being the bandleader of a talk show, you know, you have to be the butt of the star of the show's jokes. And just knowing Branford and his personality, we all went, hmm, I wonder how that's going to work, you know?
CORNISH: You actually sent us a clip that may reveal a little bit of what was going on.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE LATE SHOW WITH JAY LENO")
BRANFORD MARSALIS: When we want to relax we just go down to the band lodge, you know.
JAY LENO: The band what?
MARSALIS: The band lodge. It's not like a really...
LENO: Lodge or lounge?
MARSALIS: L-O-D-G-E. Lodge.
LENO: It's the band lounge.
MARSALIS: Yeah, the band lounge.
LENO: What happens when you come into rehearsal at quarter to 5...
CORNISH: There's that little dig at the end - when you show up to rehearsal late, (laughter), and Marsalis says something about reading the cue cards, and, you know...
MCBRIDE: Oh, boy.
CORNISH: ...It just - when you look at it, it's even a little bit more awkward seeing their faces.
MCBRIDE: Yeah. Well, you know, hey, sometimes it just doesn't work and it's all good. You know, Branford wound up resuming his career away from television, and he's been such a major success and inspiration to many people. And Kevin Eubanks took over, and he had an amazing run as the bandleader and Jay's chief second. So it all worked out in the end.
CORNISH: So what will you be looking for tonight? What will you be looking for in terms of rapport between Colbert and Batiste?
MCBRIDE: I have no idea what to expect, you know? Jon is such an effervescent spirit, and I know just on general principle he can't be that big of a shining star on this show, you know what I mean? Colbert's the star and Jonathan is going to have to be the Ed McMahon. So I'm very curious to see how that's going to all work.
CORNISH: Yes, just even the choice of suit color alone. I feel like I've seen Jon Batiste in many a primary color.
MCBRIDE: That's right. I don't think he's going to be able to come on there with those lime-green suits and the canary-yellow suits, you know?
CORNISH: You never know. You never know.
MCBRIDE: He might try it. I don't know.
MCBRIDE: And if he does it, I'm sure Colbert will find a clever way to work it into the show.
CORNISH: Well, Christian McBride, thank you so much for talking with us.
MCBRIDE: Always a pleasure talking with you.
CORNISH: That's jazz bassist Christian McBride, host of NPR's Jazz Night in America. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.