It’s around midnight on Friday when Jon Batiste and his band Stay Human take the stage at the McKittrick Hotel. Somewhere on another floor, guests in masks are being led into dark corners by the staff of noir theatre act “Sleep No More,” and above, on the rooftop, Pimm’s cocktails are being served among the famous foliage of Gallow Green. But in the dining room at the The Heath, under strings of soft globe lights, an audience holding many Old Fashioneds is gathering around a low stage where a commotion is taking place.
But the commotion is what we’re all here to see, as it’s what Jon Batiste has become known for bringing about in any given space—subways, hotel bars, street corners, dance clubs—and most habitually at 11:35pm every week night on Stephen Colbert’s The Late Show. At 29, Jon Batiste is Colbert’s prolific young bandleader, who helms Stay Human, a troop of gangly, post-Juilliard jazz musicians in Converse sneakers, cowboy hats and suit coats. By way of interactive performances that rarely stay put on the stage, Batiste and the band have evangelized an act that is as improvisational as the jazz it accompanies, and they’re calling “social music.”
Still, love of all things social aside, midnight has been a little past bedtime since The Late Show launched in September. “We’ve been adjusting to the show,” Batiste says, “so Fridays we usually just eat dinner somewhere and then go to sleep. But now that we’re five or six months in we can do more.”
Case in point, this secret pop-up show at The Heath is a celebration of their newly released EP, The Late Show, which features six tracks (one featuring a guest appearance by Colbert) that extemporize rambunctiously on the neon, nocturnal and urban nostalgia that late night talk shows continue to tease out of viewers across the country.
“The EP came about because we wanted to show our fans what we’re up to,” Batiste says. “It has a lot of live cuts as well as stuff that was composed for The Late Show, because when you watch us on TV you only get a taste of it.”
Playing music on national television five nights a week is not exactly a standard career choice, so Batiste considers himself lucky to have some mentors in the small pool of bandleaders that came before him.
“I had a chance to get to know Paul Shaffer a little bit,” he says, “and Quest Love is actually one of my good friends. We got acquainted back in 2011 before I was even thinking about doing this gig, but he was already four or five years into The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. He’s somebody I’ve really taken from in terms of balancing the schedule, and Paul more so about the process of coming up with music and rehearsing with the band. But honestly, those are the only things I could really take from them simply because our situation is so different—Stephen is different and I’m different. The combination of the two of us in this format has a completely different result than Dave [Letterman] and Paul, or Jimmy and The Roots.”
Undeniably this is true, as a pure jazz band is a very uncommon choice for a late night host, and Colbert runs a very different show than his contemporaries. But Batiste says it all fell into place in a way that felt something like fate.
“He’s got a good way with people,” he says, “He has a love. We had a four-hour conversation where he told me his vision for the show, and it was scary, just eerie how much it aligned with Stay Human. It was kind of a no brainer that I would take the gig. He’s given us complete artistic freedom and control on the music side; we could play stuff from Stephen Foster to Stevie Wonder to Beethoven. It’s just really rare that you’re given that kind of trust… and we’re actually the youngest band to ever have this sort of job.”
As Batiste takes his melodica to the floor—literally, he’s on his knees on the floor now—and the crowd rushes in to get on his level, one thing becomes clear: the longer we have him around, the better.