WBGO Blog
  • Jon Batiste And The Legacy Of Jazz On Late-Night TV

    September 8, 2015

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    Jon Batiste, seen here at the 2014 Newport Jazz Festival, will take on a new gig as the bandleader for CBS' Late Show With Stephen Colbert. (Image Credit: Adam Kissick for NPR)

    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."

    Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

  • All About That Bass, But Give The Drummer Some

    August 28, 2015

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    Bassist Christian McBride syncs up with drummer Lewis Nash in 2011. (Image Credit: Simon Russell/Getty Images)

    Here's a duo that's at the foundation of music itself, but which isn't always noticed: the musical interplay between the bass and the drum.

    "You know, in any sort of music, the bass and drums should work as one instrument," Christian McBride says. "It determines whether it's funk or jazz or country or rock 'n' roll. It all depends on what rhythms are coming from the bass and the drums that make a particular music what it is."

    McBride, a celebrated bassist and host of NPR's Jazz Night In America, knows a little something about how this works. He helped break down the dynamic during his latest chat with All Things Considered host Audie Cornish.

    First up: a James Brown tune. Specifically, the hookup between bassist Bootsy Collins and drummer John "Jabo" Starks in "Talkin' Loud And Sayin' Nothing."

    At the time of the recording, Collins was an 18-year-old hotshot with all the latest pedal tricks and effects in his bag. Starks came from a more traditional blues background.

    "So it was a really great example of an old-schooler kind of having to confront the new school, and a new-schooler having to blend with the older style," McBride says. "And look what happened."

    So what does McBride look for in a drummer? He says he looks for drummers who are good listeners, who respond well to the rest of the band — sort of like a basketball point guard who inadvertently controls a game.

    "I love a drummer who is sensitive and lets the person who's soloing navigate where the song is going," he says.

    The right drummer, especially in a modern jazz context, can shape the feel of a performance to be more "flexible" or "elastic." McBride is quick to explain that this isn't the same thing as keeping time poorly.

    "But I think people can tell," he says. "They may not be able to express it in musicians' terms, but they know something's not right because their toe is not tapping. Instead, their eyebrows are raised. 'Oh, I guess this is that part of jazz that I'm supposed to understand, but don't, so therefore I'm going to say I like it so I'm cool.' "

    He pulled out an example of a bass-drums hookup that feels "right in the middle": bassist Sam Jones and drummer Louis Hayes, in Cannonball Adderley's version of "Straight No Chaser" (from the In San Francisco album).

    "Nobody's rushing, nobody's dragging — the time's not particularly flexible," McBride says. "It's just right in the pocket ... Sam Jones and Louis Hayes, every record they made with Cannonball Adderley, they sound like they're having fun. They sound like they're enjoying themselves. They sound like they're literally dancing."

    That sense of deep groove is important to McBride. Growing up in Philadelphia around funk, soul and R&B, he says he's "actually a funk bassist that plays jazz."

    "So I tend to play — even subconsciously, even when I'm playing jazz, even when I'm playing the most elastic or esoteric sort of music, I can somehow still feel that groove real subtle underneath," he says. "It's just my DNA — I can't help it."

    Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

  • Joey Alexander And Jazz Prodigies Through The Years

    August 13, 2015

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    Joey Alexander. (Image Credit: Signe Roderick/Courtesy of the artist)

    Sometimes, musical talent emerges at an astoundingly early age. Jazz is no stranger to teenage phenoms — or even pre-teen wonders — but the improviser faces creative challenges that other performers don't. How can a young student sing the blues if he hardly knows what it means to feel them?

    Jazz Night In America explores prodigies through different eras, like pianist Joey Alexander — who was 11 when he performed the music heard in this episode at Jazz at Lincoln Center.

    Copyright 2015 WBGO and Jazz At Lincoln Center. To see more, visit .

  • Jimmy Greene Remembers A 'Beautiful Life'

    June 30, 2015

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    Jimmy Greene. (Image Credit: Jimmy Katz/Courtesy of the artist)

    Saxophonist Jimmy Greene's newest album, Beautiful Life, is dedicated to the memory of his 6-year-old daughter. Ana Márquez-Greene was killed in the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. Greene paid tribute to his daughter by composing and arranging a genre-spanning album to reflect the way she lived. A portion of the proceeds of the album will go to selected charities and a scholarship in Ana's name.

    Jazz Night in America captured Greene's quartet presenting this music live at Jazz at Lincoln Center.

    Copyright 2015 WBGO and Jazz At Lincoln Center. To see more, visit .

  • New Documentary Finds Nina Simone 'In Between The Black And White Keys'

    June 24, 2015. Posted by WBGO.

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    The documentary What Happened, Miss Simone? explores Nina Simone's rich and complicated life. (Image Credit: Courtesy of Peter Rodis/Netflix)

    Even those who didn't live through Nina Simone's heyday can recognize her songs, or at least her voice. Born Eunice Waymon, the passionate performer and activist died in 2003, and today her recordings still loom larger than the rest of her story.

    In the new documentary What Happened, Miss Simone?, filmmaker Liz Garbus goes looking for the details that have slipped through the cracks. She recently discussed the film with NPR special correspondent Michele Norris; hear their conversation at the audio link and read an edited version below.

    Michele Norris: Who was the Nina Simone that you knew when you started this project?

    Liz Garbus: I knew the music — I didn't know the woman. So, here's a young girl who grows up in the church; her mother is both a housekeeper and a minister. People quickly realize that this is a young girl with extraordinary musical talent. The town comes together, black and white — and this is the Jim Crow South, this is North Carolina — and raises a fund for her to study classical music. She studies with a Russian immigrant named Ms. Massinovitch, and young Nina, whose name is actually Eunice Waymon, falls in love with Bach. I didn't know that Nina was a classically trained pianist who had gone to Juilliard. When you start to understand that part of her upbringing and her training, you start to be able to deconstruct, as you listen, the way that she infuses a jazz standard with classical counterpoint and blues and soul. Her musical talent and training is evident in every bar.

    She talked about herself sort of as existing in between the white and the black keys of the piano, and that's how she grew up: this child-prodigy treasure, living on the other side of the tracks, and of course facing racism when she performed. When she was 12 years old, at a classical recital, her parents were asked to sit in the back of the room. Nina refused to play if they were in the back of the room. She was always living in opposition — sometimes dangerous opposition.

    Why did she change her name?

    So Nina's at Juilliard, and the money the townsfolk had collected for her has run out. She applies to Curtis [Institute of Music], where, if she was accepted, tuition would be paid for by the institute itself. She's rejected from Curtis, and she ends up starting to play in the bars of Atlantic City in order to support herself. Her whole family had moved north to be around her while she was studying, and she was ashamed that she was playing in bars. She had come up in a very religious family, playing church music and classical music, and here she was in the bars and nightclubs where people were drinking, and she was providing entertainment. She changed her name to avoid being on her mother's radar.

    In your film, some of the hardest scenes to watch are when Simone's adult daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly, looks back on her childhood.

    I think Lisa had spent a long time trying to set the record straight about her mom, and that's a very hard task, because the record about her mom isn't straight. Her mom had a life with many rough edges. There are a lot of people out there who don't have nice things to say about Nina Simone. She occupies that space that people call "a difficult woman." That's a term laden with a lot of sexism, as many male performers could get away with some of the stuff that Nina would pull.

    Nina truly did have difficulty in her life. She did, I think, suffer from an undiagnosed mental illness for most of her 20s and 30s. So this was Lisa's mother: a woman who was in an abusive marriage, who could be abusive herself, who was in turmoil about her career, though totally dedicated to it. Setting that record straight for Lisa is no easy task, and Lisa feels now that her mother's story has been told and that she doesn't have to correct the record.

    Nina Simone was known as an activist. Do people understand fully the price she paid for that?

    I don't think it's understood how different Nina was from some of the entertainers of the time. Of course, there are many great contemporaries of Nina — Harry Belafonte, Aretha Franklin — who were able to participate in the movement and nurture the commercial side of their career, and Nina really wasn't able to do that.

    In 1963, after the Birmingham church bombing, that's when Nina first identifies herself becoming involved with the movement. That's when she sat down and in 20 minutes wrote one of the most important songs of the Civil Rights Movement, "Mississippi Goddam," where she let her anger and rage and sadness pour out of her. As her career progressed, she wrote some of the greatest anthems of the Civil Rights Movement: "To Be Young, Gifted and Black," "Backlash Blues." She surrounded herself with a community of intellectuals and radicals like Lorraine Hansberry, James Baldwin, Langston Hughes and Miriam Makeba. She was radicalized.

    There's an interview with Nina in the early 1990s by Ebony magazine, and they say to her, "Do you regret having been involved with the Civil Rights Movement?" — because she was saying that the industry punished her for her involvement. And she says, well, she'd probably do the whole thing over again, but that she does regret it because her music has no relevance anymore. And I think we can see today that she was wrong there. Her music is so relevant.

    Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.