Jon Batiste talks about performing at the White House


For Jon Batiste, the idea of ​​playing in the White House was a dream. But even after receiving the first lady’s invitation, he wasn’t sure he could accept. The main consideration for the 36-year-old musician was whether his wife, Suleika Jaouad, could be by his side. She is undergoing chemotherapy to treat leukemia; his health was one of the main reasons Batiste made the decision earlier this year to leave as bandleader on ‘Late Night with Stephen Colbert,’ a position he held for nearly seven years. . He wanted her by his side for this great moment. In the end, the virtuoso conductor was able to bring him also nine other members of his extended family.

The event capped a momentous year for Batiste, which also saw him win five Grammys, including album of the year, in April. On Thursday at the White House, French President Emmanuel Macron flashed a big smile when Batiste incorporated the French national anthem into a jazz piano rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner.” And long after the launch of the C-SPAN cameras, Batiste led world leaders in a Second Line, or New Orleans Street Party, through the Glass Pavilion on the South Lawn. Over the weekend, he spoke with The Post about his set list and what it meant to perform at the White House.

At state dinner, Biden and Macron stand ‘shoulder to shoulder’

So tell me how it started. What was your reaction when you got the call to perform the state dinner?

Oh, I was so excited because I have so many public service ties in my family. My mother [Katherine Batiste] worked for the United States government as an environmentalist for almost four decades. And my grandfather [David Gautier] was an incredible activist. He led the Louisiana Postal Workers Union and was the first wave to join the Navy during the Korean War during the Truman era. So I called them immediately.

My wife was with me in the living room when Dr. Biden called. She was getting on a plane and she was so excited that she wanted to call me herself. I was like, “Oh, wow, hey Dr. Biden, Madam First Lady.” I said on that first call that I wanted to bring my whole family and I had to call my mom to see if she could argue with the crew because there were 10 of us. So I called Dr Biden back. and I said, “You know what? We can all do this. Can you welcome us all to dinner?”

Did the first lady say why they chose you? I can see the French-American nature of New Orleans, and you come from a jazz family, which is an American art form.

Well, she mentioned that she was a fan first and that was good. She said, “I’m a big fan of your music. I like what you represent beyond your music. And I think you represent the country well. It was special to hear.

How did you decide what you were going to play? The White House only let the press stay for the first song and a half.

Oh man! Well, I thought about all those connections when putting together the set list and then talking to my grandfather about who built the White House.

Who built it, you mean enslaved Americans?

Yes, we talked about his story of being a proud American and being someone who believes in the freedoms provided by democracy. It was all great, super clearly put into context when we were in the White House talking about it.

I thought it would be great to start with an impressionistic version for piano of “Lift Every Voice and Sing”, “Star Spangled Banner” and the French national anthem, all reinvented and in counterpoint to each other. I thought that would set the tone for this incredible possibility, but also talk about America’s history and the coming together that we represent at our highest level.

We did “Sunny Side of the Street”, which is something that Louis Armstrong sang. It’s from the Great American Songbook and it’s also something that’s played a lot in New Orleans and Pop [Jon’s father, Michael Batiste] would like to play.

And we did “Cry”, which is something that I wrote that was on “We Are”. It’s the blues and it has that kind of period weight and heavy feeling that we had in those days. You know, screaming in the blues tradition is a form of catharsis that I think is important to us. I made an arrangement for the President’s Marine Band. They had this chamber orchestra on stage playing all night, and they were killing, man.

Then from there we went to end the set with “Freedom”. It’s another one of my songs. I said to the audience, “We certainly can’t sit still for the rest of this performance.

I jumped into the crowd. And I went to see Stephen [Colbert] and Stephen and I, we just did our thing. And then Julia Louis-Dreyfus was there and she was already dancing. So it turned into a dance party.

And then I slipped another one. I was watching President Joe Biden. I was like, “Sorry, Mr. President, I have to play ‘Saints Go Marching In.’ Because we have so many people from Louisiana in the house. And they took out the handkerchiefs and the second line.

The “Saints” were kind of audible. My father sang with us. I had it set up with the President’s own Marine Band. They had the arrangement, but I didn’t know if I was going to be able to put it in there.

Did you just take a look at President Biden to get the green light for a second line?

When we were done with “Freedom”, I looked at him and shrugged because he was about to go up to wrap up and wrap up the night. People had already taken out the handkerchief, which is traditional for the New Orleans second line to put your handkerchief in the air. And he saw this at his table and he thought, “Well, go ahead.” Thumbs up.

Has he joined the second line?

Yeah! I jumped into the crowd again. I went over there and gave him a high-five and he was doing his thing. He didn’t have a handkerchief, but he was definitely part of the second line.

And Emmanuel Macron and Dr Biden and Brigitte Macron?

Oh yeah. Emmanuel Macron is so, so cool. He grabbed my nephew, Brennan, who’s 7, and he caught him on the second line. And then after the end of the second line, he put it on stage, because he’s 7 years old so he couldn’t see everyone. It was a great moment.

Suleika said it was her first public outing in a year since her bone marrow transplant. Is she still on chemo?

Yes, still in chemo. I mean, if you had seen where we were in February, and to see her in that dress… It was amazing for me to witness. I learn so much from her – she’s a superhero.

I mentioned [to Dr. Biden] that we should have Kristen, who is Suleika’s nurse, and Julian from my team there. They made sure that every step of the way – in the car, I have my drivers tested and I wear the mask. And we wear masks everywhere except when we are at dinner and in the hotel. Even the folks at the Four Seasons were aware of what we needed in terms of room service and precautions.

What was going through your mind leaving the White House?

I was so excited about what we had accomplished. Musically, I feel like we showcased American musical culture, and also paid a lot of respect and homage to the French influence and New Orleans culture, which is just ingrained in everything I’m doing. Then just from the point of view of our country, and what it means to be an artist and to be a person who represents the culture and what we mean when we say “the culture” and how to continually improve things that our ancestors left us – it was also very heavy for me.

And I also felt it was a huge accomplishment for our family on so many levels. You know, my grandfather and my mother, and even seeing my nephews Braeden and Brennan, and just thinking about what this moment will mean to them in 10, 20 years.

It was a lot. I am so exhausted.

This interview has been edited and condensed for space and clarity.

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