ACL Interview: The Broad, Brilliant, Beautiful Musical Universe of Jon Batiste

"We take you on a journey through Black American music history, ragtime to trap."


Batiste at his ACL Live taping in July (Photo by Gary Miller)

This July, on break from The Late Show With Stephen Colbert as its house band leader, Jon Batiste jetted here to tape Austin City Limits. Airing on Oct. 16 during the local PBS concert constant’s 47th season, the New Orleans legacy staged a roots ceremony inside ACL Live at the Moody Theater, compressing his entire state’s musical universe into a contemporary revue reminiscent of Prince, Pharrell Williams, and Stevie Wonder. Double drums, dual guitar leads, three harmony sirens, and Batiste manning a boxy Bo Diddley guitar, alto sax, and main instrument the piano cast the same spell as genre forefathers dating back to the beginning of R&B.

“MAN OHHHHH MANNNN,” he recalled of the occasion via email. “What a time! Man, the energy was unbelievable. When I think of the show, I imagine it as a call back to the essence of old school entertainment. We embraced the spirits of our ancestors: Fats Domino, Ray Charles, Allen Toussaint, Bo Diddley, and Chuck Berry, to name a few.

“[Our presentation] is rooted in Black culture honoring the Southern Black experience, from singing and dancing to fashion. We take you on a journey through Black American music history, ragtime to trap. It’s so free!

“[That ACL show] is a must-watch. People were hollering!”

So will you, whether watching it on television or live one-time-only at ACL Fest. Both pivot on January’s We Are for jazz giant Verve, an LP born of its anthemic title song, a Black Lives Matter moment as ascendant as the 5th Dimension’s “Age of Aquarius.” James Brown tickling “Tell the Truth,” Neville Brothers voodoo in Bayou lament “Cry,” and “I Need You,” skipping a doo-wop vocal atop trademark Toussaint pop and a soft rap ready-made for PBS, signal a new superstar alongside Texan Leon Bridges.

“I spent some time in Texas following Hurricane Katrina,” writes Batiste, scion of a Crescent City jazz institution. “My audition for Juilliard was over the phone on a hotel lobby piano. They heard me over the phone because I couldn’t be there in person.

“I flew from Texas to New York with only the clothes I had taken from our house to flee from Katrina. [Later,] Texas became home for my family for some time and, in fact, some relatives have been there since. Many of my closest friends and inspired musical collaborations came from Texas: Gary Clark Jr., Roy Hargrove, and Leon Bridges.”

Sunday, 7:30pm, T-Mobile stage

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Jon Batiste, Stephen Colbert, ACL Fest 2021

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