For Jon Batiste, the thought of playing at the White House was a dream. But even after he got the invitation from the first lady, he wasn’t sure that he would be able to accept. The primary consideration for the 36-year-old musician was whether his wife, Suleika Jaouad, could be by his side. She is going through chemotherapy to treat leukemia; her health was a major reason Batiste made the decision earlier this year to leave as bandleader on “Late Night with Stephen Colbert,” a post he held for nearly seven years. He wanted her with him for this big moment. In the end, the virtuosic bandleader was able to bring her as well nine other members of his extended family.
The event capped a momentous year for Batiste, which also saw him take home five Grammys, including album of the year, in April. On Thursday at the White House, French President Emmanuel Macron broke into a big grin when Batiste integrated the French national anthem into a jazz piano rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner.” And long after the C-SPAN cameras had been removed, Batiste led the world leaders in a second line, or New Orleans-style 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.
So, tell me how this 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 ties to public service in my family. My mother [Katherine Batiste] worked for the United States government as an environmentalist for close to four decades. And my grandfather [David Gautier] was an incredible activist. He led the Louisiana Postal Workers Union and he was the first wave to integrate 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 just so excited that she wanted to call me herself. I was like, “Oh, wow, hey Dr. Biden, Madam first lady.” I said in that first call that I wanted to bring all of my family and I had to call my mom to see if she could wrangle the crew, because it was 10 of us. So then I called Dr. Biden back. and I said, “You know what? We can all make it. Can you accommodate all of us at the dinner?”
Did the first lady say why they’d picked you? I can see the Franco-American nature of New Orleans, and you’re from a jazz family, which is an American art form.
Well, she mentioned that she was a fan first and that was nice. She was saying that, “I’m a huge fan of your music. I love what you represent beyond your music. And I think that you represent the country well.” That 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 of those connections in coming up with the set list and then talking to my grandfather about who built the White House.
By who built it, you mean enslaved Americans?
Yeah, we talked about his history of being a proud American and being someone who believes in the freedoms provided by democracy. All of that was super, super clearly put in the context when we were standing in the White House talking about it.
I thought it would be great to start with an impressionistic piano version of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” “Star Spangled Banner” and the French national anthem, all reimagined and in counterpoint to each other. I thought that would set the tone of this incredible possibility, but also speaking to the history of America and the coming together that we represent at our highest level.
We did “Sunny Side of the Street,” which is something that Louis Armstrong sung. It’s from the Great American Songbook and it’s also something that is played a lot in New Orleans and that Pops [Jon’s father, Michael Batiste] would play.
And we did, “Cry,” which is something that I composed and was on “We Are.” It’s the blues and it has that sort of weight of the times and feeling of heaviness that we’ve had in this time. You know, crying out in the blues tradition is a form of catharsis that I think is important for us. I did an arrangement for the “President’s Own” Marine Band. They had that chamber orchestra onstage playing all night, and they were killin’, man.
Then from there we went to finish the set with “Freedom.” That’s another song of mine. I told the audience, “We definitely can’t stay seated for the rest of this performance.”
I jumped into the crowd. And I went over to Stephen [Colbert], and Stephen and I, we just did our thing. And then Julia Louis-Dreyfus was there and she was already dancing. So then that turned into a dance party.
And then I snuck in another one. I was looking at President Joe Biden. I was saying, “Sorry, Mr. President, I gotta play ‘Saints Go Marching In.'” Because we just have so many folks from Louisiana in the house. And they broke out the handkerchiefs and second line.
The “Saints” was kind of an audible. My father sang with us. I had that set up with the “President’s Own” Marine Band. They had the arrangement but I didn’t know if I was gonna be able to get it in there.
You just gave President Biden a look to get the go-ahead for a second line?
When we were done with “Freedom,” I looked at him and I shrugged, because he was about to come up to wrap up and conclude the evening. Folks had already whipped out the handkerchief, which is traditional for the New Orleans second line to put your handkerchief in the air. And he saw that at his table and he was like, “Well, go ahead.” Thumbs up.
Did he join the second line?
Yeah! I jumped into the crowd again. I went over there and I gave him a high-five and he was doing his thing. He didn’t have a handkerchief, but he was definitely a 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 picked him up during the second line. And then after the second line was over, he put him onstage, because he’s 7 so he couldn’t see over everybody. That was a great moment.
Suleika said this was her first public outing in a year, since her bone marrow transplant. Is she still going through chemo?
Yes, still going through chemo. I mean, if you would have seen where we were at in February, and to see her in that dress. … It was incredible for me to witness. I learn so much from her — she’s a superhero.
I mentioned [to Dr. Biden] that we had to have Kristen, who’s Suleika’s nurse, and Julian from my team there. They were making sure that every step of the way — in the car, I have my drivers tested and wearing the mask. And we’re wearing masks everywhere except for when we’re in the dinner and in the hotel. Even folks at Four Seasons were looped into what we needed in terms of room service and precautions there.
What was going through your head as you left the White House?
I was just so excited about what we had accomplished. Musically, I feel that we presented American musical culture, and also paid a great deal of respect and homage to the French influence and New Orleans culture, which is just embedded in everything that I do. Then just from the perspective 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 upon the things that our ancestors left us — that was also really heavy on me.
And I also felt it was a huge accomplishment for our family on a number of 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 10, 20 years down the road.
That was a lot. I’m so exhausted.
This interview has been edited and condensed for space and clarity.