Martin Luther King Jr. led civil rights movement, but millions of everyday folks had to follow And other generations of unnamed and unsung people bore the burden before him

Today we honor Martin Luther King Jr.

Born on this date in 1929, Martin was a towering figure. There is no way to tell America’s story without stopping to read the chapters the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize winner helped write. Before Martin was assassinated in 1968, the modern civil rights moment he led waved the American flag in a most majestic way.

With his marches and protests, and the eloquence of his words, he helped America take halting steps toward becoming the nation promised in Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

We could talk about Martin all day today and write about him all night tomorrow and still only scratch the surface of his significance to America and to the world.

But as we stop to honor Martin, let’s also remember all the unnamed and unsung people, the little people, who went before Martin. They bore the lash. They wore the chains. They ran away from bondage.

Later, others marched with Martin, a mighty wind at his back. They prayed with him and for him. They made small contributions at their houses of worship to further Martin’s cause, the cause of freedom.

They inked the protest placards. They stood against the blasts of the water hoses, their spirits unbowed. They endured the dog bites and the blows of the clubs, the assaults upon their humanity. They went to jail.

And when the night grew darkest, they sang triumphant songs, illuminating a brighter future:

“Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around
Turn me around, turn me around
Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around
Keep on a-walkin’, keep on a-talkin’
Gonna build a brand new world …”

Martin and the little people saw that brand new world coming. And because of their strength, courage and determination, more and more of us live in that world. It’s a world that no longer spins upon an axis of white supremacy, no matter how many wish that it still did.

The new world scares some people, scares them so much that they seek to retreat into a mythical past, a time when they imagine that America was greater just because the number of different kinds of people who had to be respected as citizens and as human beings was smaller, by law and by tradition.

Laws and traditions come and go.

But the moral truths endure, and the giants who championed them live on in the spirit of a changing nation. On his birthday, let’s remember that Martin lives in the lives of every American who is willing to celebrate the here and now while fighting for a better tomorrow. On Monday, let’s remember one of the giants of American history. But let’s honor the little people, unnamed yet unbowed, unknown yet undefeated.

This is their day too.

Kendrick Lamar makes history at CFP National Championship The decorated rapper’s involvement was a long time coming with ESPN

ATLANTA — “Humble yourself.”

Those were the words that Georgia linebacker Davin Bellamy shouted at Oklahoma’s Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Baker Mayfield a week before the Bulldogs fell in a 26-23 overtime loss to Alabama in Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Monday night. The Bulldogs learned that lesson the hard way, regarding the College Football Playoff National Championship.

“Sit down. Be humble.”

Those were the words Kendrick Lamar rapped in front of a crowd of nearly 3,000 who braved the cold weather at Centennial Park, at halftime of said football game. No one sat down, but they learned their lesson in the best way possible.

It wasn’t just that it also happened to be televised to millions across the nation, solidifying Lamar’s place as the most marketable pop artist in America in 2018. It wasn’t just that one of his hit songs that won six MTV Video Music Awards last year had the entire crowd moving in unison in near-freezing temperatures.

It wasn’t just that it preceded his set finale, “All the Stars,” a collaboration with his Top Dawg Entertainment labelmate SZA off the soundtrack for Marvel’s Black Panther, a project produced and curated by Lamar and his TDE squad that is set for release on Feb. 16. (The latest Black Panther trailer aired right after his performance.) It wasn’t just that it happened on the day that the president of the United States made an on-field appearance and clearly did not know the words to “The Star-Spangled Banner” before leaving the game at halftime.

It was that during the most important game of the year, in a sport largely controlled by white men, while young black men risk life and limb for no pay, a rapper from Compton, California, who often tells tales of revolution and resistance, was tapped to entertain the nation, and it all made sense. While Georgia and Alabama, two states with no shortage of history in the antebellum South and steeped in football tradition, battled it out on the field, a West Coaster dressed in a parka was easily the star of the show.

“It went very, very well,” CFP executive director Bill Hancock said. “As we had hoped, we had the best of both worlds: the traditional halftime show by those two great marching bands plus a world-class performance by Kendrick Lamar. The visuals were tremendous, and it was obvious that the folks in the park were having a terrific time.”

Perhaps most bizarrely, few people ever really blinked. If you wanted to, you could have drawn a straight line from Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake’s “controversial” Super Bowl performance in 2004 to Monday night. It was an event that drastically changed not just the way that halftime shows were programmed but also how the broadcast industry made its rules. Jackson took all the heat in that scenario. Now, Timberlake’s got a new album out in which he’s apparently embracing his “roots,” a far cry from his days as the funky white boy and, shocker, he’ll be performing the next Super Bowl halftime show in February.

You could think about where this country has come since then. President Barack Obama. Police brutality and the murders of unarmed black people becoming what felt like nightly appearances on the national news. A non-insignificant resurfacing of a movement to compensate college athletes for their work. A Beyoncé Super Bowl halftime show that many people took offense to, as an ode to the Black Panther Party. A massive “recorrect” by America in electing a reality show star to the White House. None of us had any reason to believe that King Kenny, or anyone like him, would grace a stage like this, in this setting, in the near future. Except for the people who made it happen.

Speaking with two ESPN senior officials who organized the event, this wasn’t some random pick out of the sky. Three years ago, they wanted to increase ratings at halftime for the CFP because they noticed that it’s the highest-rated period at the Super Bowl but was the lowest for CFP. And they wanted more casual fans to expand the brand and just be as relevant as possible, not simply cash in huge on the regionality of the game’s followers.

That’s where their relationship with Interscope Records comes into play. Imagine Dragons did a special remix. Lauren Alaina, a country artist, was in the mix. Videos with X Ambassadors. This season, they hit it big with 30 Seconds to Mars. You know the song well. Alabama did win this fight tonight.

As for Lamar, his love for the Los Angeles Lakers really helped out early on. TDE is an imprint of Interscope, of course. You might recall Lamar’s ode “Kobe Bryant: Fade to Black.” He’s a huge Kobe fan, something we’ve seen proved over time. Last year, “Humble” dropped, the NBA playoffs started, he did voice work for promos and it all worked out.

Mind you, when it was time to make choices for the halftime show, Interscope’s line is vicious. Maroon 5 is on their roster. This was no easy choice. But once they knew Lamar was involved with Black Panther, it was a wrap. It had to happen.

“We know music is probably the second-biggest passion that college football fans have,” said ESPN vice president of sports marketing Emeka Ofodile. “Let’s build a music strategy, let’s go deep with a label and let’s try to create moments.”

The goal was to create a cultural moment, be it controversial or not. To get past the regional histories of college football, they needed to go big. Lamar was a no-brainer, controversy be damned. They can’t control what people think about the president. Or what he chooses to do. It didn’t change their mission. They wanted it to be different. They didn’t want to just recreate a Super Bowl experience. They wanted real fans of both football and Lamar to be there. And that they were. The cheers for the game (being shown on the big screens at the park) leading up to halftime were as healthy as anything I’d heard all day.

Their overall goal? To make it the hottest stage in the game. They’re off to a great start.

As for the larger picture, it’s still kind of hard to believe it happened. They might let us have a hit show or two on cable. A few of us will break through. But they’ll still call us names. Yet rarely do we get to infiltrate the oldest practices in the book. To see it go down on a such a grand stage is a real testament to who Lamar has grown to become. It’s easy to call Lamar transcendent. But, like so many others who grew out of their original solitary genres as artists to become megastars, he’s in fact black as hell.

On the night in which he could have made a scene and directed the ire of so many fans of his in the direction of the commander-in-chief, or made an obvious political statement with everyone watching, he didn’t. Because he didn’t have to. His existence in that space alone was enough of a statement, and just being himself was plenty. He didn’t have to allow himself to be defined by the moment — he defined it himself. Which is what he does and is exactly why even when the leader of the free world is right next door, Lamar comes out on top.

What Had Happened Was: 12/20/17 Our blogs are joining together

In the beginning, there was the All Day blog and What Had Happened Was. With the morning sun, readers could catch up with all they may have missed the previous day, thanks to WHHW, and could turn to AD to keep up with events as the day went on.

The two existed in perfect harmony for the last year and a half, and now they’ve finally decided to tie the knot. Just kidding, but we here at The Undefeated have decided to combine the two blog formats in an effort to be a voice as news breaks or we see something that is of interest to our readership.

One of the best parts of AD and WHHW was the snack-size recounts of what was going on in the world, so you, our readers, knew what was up, and if you wanted further information, we were only a click away.

Now, we combine the tidbit news items with up-to-the-minute reporting, so y’all always know what the tea is.

As we say on WHHW: Oh, you didn’t know? We got you.

Daily Dose: 12/19/17 Kendrick Lamar is about to rock the college football world

All right, kiddos. All good things must come to an end. This is the last day of Daily Dose. I’ll be switching gears to a different role involving some new things. It’s been a fun ride, y’all. See you on the radio.

Look at that, the House Republicans got something done. What did they do, you ask? Well, they passed a massive tax reform bill that’s going to benefit businesses and rich people. They’re referring to it as a legislative victory, which, depending on what side of Uncle Sam you reside, could be construed as a mischaracterization. It’s the largest overhaul of the tax code in 30 years, which I guess on some level is an accomplishment in itself? The devil, of course, is in the details.

So, I have a lot of feelings about Star Wars: The Last Jedi. For various reasons. One, I’m an uber fan, so there’s that. Secondly, I write about these sort of things for a living now, so I take it extremely seriously. Monday, I went on a very long tweet rant about the latest flick, so if you don’t want spoilers, don’t read that. But if you’ve seen the film and are looking for some more analysis of the latest episode, VICE has you covered. To be clear, this person did not like the film at all.

Tavis Smiley is officially wilding out. The longtime PBS talk show host is not only vehemently defending his position in light of multiple sexual misconduct allegations, he’s actively spouting his reasoning for said defense in an awful way. His rationale is basically “my game is tight.” He clearly has zero understanding of the relationship between power and coercion, never mind how that can affect an environment like a newsroom. He did an interview with Tucker Carlson of all people Monday night, and it did not go well.

Y’all aren’t really ready for Kendrick Lamar. King Kenny is continuing his amazing run at the College Football Playoff National Championship game in Atlanta, where he’ll be performing the halftime show. This is dope not just because it’s K. Dot but also because it’s the first time this has happened for this event. It’s going to be a free show in Olympic Park, which promises to be a banger, no questions asked. There’s an argument that it might end up being more popular than the game itself.

Free Food

Coffee Break: If you don’t know who Dapper Dan is, you should. His groundbreaking work dating to the ’80s is a pillar in the hip-hop fashion community. His roll was slowed when major fashion houses shut him down based on copyright laws, but now he’s back. And in full force.

Snack Time: For the second time in a month, a plane has been grounded so the passengers can use the bathroom after a malfunction; 2018 can’t get here fast enough.

Dessert: It’s been fun y’all. I’m reupping this Black Thought heater because it’s just a great note to end on.

 

Daily Dose: 12/18/17 Diddy wants to buy the ‘North’ Carolina Panthers

Well, what a day. Our president, John Skipper, stepped down, noting his own substance abuse issues as the reason. The Undefeated does not exist without Skipper, which is a plain fact. Going to miss that guy.

Tavis Smiley is fighting back. The longtime PBS host, who has built a career being one of the most prominent black faces in media, was suspended for allegations of sexual misconduct, which we’ve obviously seen a lot of in recent months. Now he’s attempting to defend himself in the public eye, but it appears he doesn’t fundamentally understand the nature of the problem. To claim that you have cards and letters that prove your relationships over the years were consensual, well, that’s not really the point here.

Prayers go out to Seattle. Earlier today, an Amtrak train derailed, killing multiple people. Perhaps as important, though, the optics of a train dangling off a bridge in a relatively big city in America, with seemingly no relief in sight, is really disheartening. How we feel about American infrastructure efforts is very much regulated by what we can see, and this is not good. The stories of what happened to the people actually on the train are extremely harrowing and worth a read.

George Zimmerman is back on his bull#!@. Now that Jay-Z is making a docuseries about the night that Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin, an incident that sparked a revival in the attention on the deaths of unarmed black people, particularly at the hands of people in positions of authority. Reminder: Zimmerman was a self-appointed neighborhood watch person. Not some officially appointed guy. Now he’s throwing shade at Jay, like he wants to get in a confrontation with him too. Yeah, that’s gross.

The situation with the Carolina Panthers is bad news. Owner Jerry Richardson has been accused of a whole lot of really foul things, including openly telling women to turn around so he could look at their behinds and allegedly requesting that a black employee apply suntan lotion to his face. Now, in an attempt to get away from it, he’s selling the team. Tina Becker is now running the team, and Diddy has said he wants to buy the squad, but he doesn’t know their name (he called them the “North Carolina Panthers” in a video) and he has no idea who the quarterback is.

Free Food

Coffee Break: There’s a new novel from Zora Neale Hurston coming out, and I could not possibly be happier about this. The legendary writer has long since left us, so the notion of new work coming from one of the best minds in human history is really exciting.

Snack Time: If you haven’t seen Star Wars: The Last Jedi, what are you doing with yourself? In all seriousness, though, check out this story of Kelly Marie Tran, who is the breakout star from the film.

Dessert: If you need something to zap your productivity, here you go.

Daily Dose: 12/14/17 Omarosa has officially left the building

What’s up, gang? I’m still in Bristol, Connecticut, where it snowed, so that was fun. It’s also another TV day, so be sure to tune in to Around the Horn at 5 p.m. EST on ESPN.

The White House has officially gotten Omarosa Manigault Newman out of the paint. The onetime reality TV star, who then was given a job at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. that nobody could ever really define, was apparently escorted out of the building in D.C. recently, which is about as awkward an exit as you can muster. They say they just deactivated her pass, which is another hilarious move in the world of passive-aggressive power plays. But she’s got a story to tell, and it’s most likely going to be a fun one. Not shedding many tears.

Welp, say goodbye to net neutrality. The Federal Communications Commission voted Thursday to strip what are commonly known as net neutrality rules, meaning that depending on what an internet service provider wants to do, it can speed or slow your service, or really do anything it wants based on content. This matters because it allows the providers to become de facto content regulators, which is a dangerous precedent, many believe. If you’re wondering, yes, the politics within the FCC definitely matter in this scenario.

There are parts of the world where Santa Claus is not a white guy. Don’t ask Megyn Kelly about that, but I digress. For example, I remember when I grew up, Prince George’s (County) Plaza in Maryland was the place where you knew Black Santa was a thing. Parents from all around the region would bring their children to give them a positive experience of what Christmas is. But what is it really like being a black Santa Claus? Is Kris Kringle racism really something that has to be dealt with? Well, now you’ve got answers.

Scottie Pippen is tremendous. Am I saying that partially because I got to meet him this week at ESPN? Yes. Am I saying that because he still throws shade at Michael Jordan every now and again? Yes. Am I saying that because he was involved in a completely stupid feud with Future and came out looking like a classy person? Absolutely. He was on First Take on Thursday and basically said that LeBron James is better than Michael Jordan statistically. First off, we all knew that. But there’s something particularly terrific about Scottie saying it.

Free Food

Coffee Break: When it comes to journalism movies, I don’t play. As someone who’s worked in quite a few newsrooms over the years, getting that dynamic down is not an easy task, but it’s an important one. The fact that this list of great journalism movies doesn’t include The Paper is an outright travesty. Seriously, how?

Snack Time: Tavis Smiley is the latest powerful on-air news personality to have his reputation and career brought down by allegations of sexual misconduct. Alas.

Dessert: If you care about the media business, this is a huge deal.

 

Daily Dose: 12/13/17 A sad tale of two firsts in San Francisco

What’s up gang? I’m in Bristol on Wednesday for an all-talent meeting. I got to catch up with friends and meet some people I hadn’t met whom I respect quite a bit. Here’s a recap.

It’s a sad day in San Francisco. Popular Mayor Ed Lee died this week after a heart attack while grocery shopping put him in the hospital. He was the city’s first Asian-American mayor and never particularly wanted the job, but was urged to run when the slot opened up. But in the aftermath of his death, a replacement has been named. Her name is London Breed, and she is San Francisco’s first black female mayor. So, after one first comes another, through tragedy. What a bittersweet story.

We’ve all had some pretty wild Uber rides. Whether it was a driver who got lost, thus sending you on a ride you both wanted to forget, or the ride that ended in tears, or maybe the time your friends ordered an SUV and a party limo showed up, drastically changing the course of the night. Hey, it happens. But for one guy who took a trip to the hospital in Toronto, the bill added up real quick. Like, $20K quick. We’re still not really sure how this happened, but thing is, the guy was visiting a sick friend, not even helping himself.

The NFL Network is in the news for the wrong reasons. A couple of former league players are the latest to be brought down by sexual misconduct allegations with details that will disturb many. Three players were suspended by the channel after they were named in a lawsuit by a former wardrobe stylist who says that she was subjected to years of abuse. She is also alleging that she was fired because of age discrimination, which in itself isn’t easy to prove. Two of the ex-players involved are now at ESPN and have been suspended as well.

Free Food

Coffee Break: If you’ve ever heard me on the radio, you know my love for The Bachelor. But it’s season 22, and the new cast is out. Yes, the guy playing The Bachelor is still a white guy, which means that The Bachelorette is the only brand in the business making real progress.

Snack Time: The Golden Globe nominations are out, and there are always snubs. Jada Pinkett Smith took to Twitter to defend Tiffany Haddish and Girls Trip, which got no love.

Dessert: In case you didn’t know this, it might rock your world.

 

Daily Dose: 12/11/17 NYC avoids terrorist attack

What’s up, kiddos? Hope your weekends went well. I’m coming to you live from Florida, where I’m at Major League Baseball’s winter meetings. It’s quite the experience, to say the least. We’ll see if any real news happens.

New York is again under attack. Happening at an-ever alarming clip, another attempted terrorist incident hit the city on Monday, this time near Times Square. Someone tried to detonate an explosive device inside the subway, which instantly caused a massive panic, understandably. The thing about New York is that ever since 9/11 you’ve sort of always got to assume you could potentially be in a dangerous situation. But then again, you’ve also got to live your life, so it is what it is. Thankfully, only a few people were hurt.

Hannibal Buress is a very funny dude. He’s also good because his regular-guy appeal is something that draws a whole lot of fans. When he first broke Bill Cosby off about his rapey ways, it resonated with a lot of people because of Buress’ casual delivery. So when I heard that he was arrested in Miami during Art Basel, I assumed it would be a case of mistaken identity. Instead, it was just a case of police being jerks because a famous person was drunk and doing too much.

The president’s job is a pretty intense one. He’s responsible for public policy for one of the most powerful nations in the world and therefore must always be on point to handle pressing issues. Meetings with important advisers, large decision-making sessions, etc. Surely he’s constantly studying documents and statistics, doing what he can to make the world a better place. Right? Nope, homey is basically sitting around watching television and drinking Diet Cokes nonstop. His eating habits are legit gross for someone who has a choice in the matter.

Speaking of baseball, being here in Orlando has been an experience. All sorts of characters are milling around, trying to get closer to players, execs or whoever wants to act like they’ve got some inside skinny on baseball news. It’s quite a scene. A perfect example of this kind of thing just happened Sunday. Someone paid over $100K for the original scouting report of Derek Jeter. Why on earth anyone would want that to begin with, never mind pay a healthy yearly salary for it, is beyond me.

Free Food

Coffee Break: I’ve been hesitant to write about the story of Daniel Shaver because it’s so scary. You’ve seen it by now. A man begging for his life in front of an officer who is literally toying with a person suspected of carrying a gun. In the end, he kills him. He also ends up walking free. The whole thing is truly despicable.

Snack Time: J Dilla never has and probably never will get enough credit for his work in hip-hop. Dude is a legend whom we lost way too early. Check out this mini-doc about him and his MPC.

Dessert: The Pentagon ain’t playing. Even if the president is talking trash.

Daily Dose: 12/8/17 John Lewis will not attend civil rights museum opening

What’s up, gang? The week’s finally coming to an end, and it’s been a doozy on the news front. This is going to be a serious weekend of self-care for quite a few of us. Also, it’s snowing across a lot of America, so that’s fun too.

I used to work in local news. It’s a cutthroat business that involves sometimes covering the most mundane of topics that just might interest a small pocket of people. But there are some staples in the industry that never change. Car accidents, store openings and, of course, house fires. That’s where we catch up with Rhoda Young. She’s apparently a citizen reporter in Norfolk, Virginia. And when she came upon one such blaze, she covered it the way she knows how. This is genuinely the best fire coverage you’re going to see all year.

So, not only is Roy Moore allegedly a sexual miscreant, he’s also apparently a racist. The guy running for Senate in Alabama has had numerous women go public with the fact that he tried to or did date them when he was an adult and they were in high school. He was banned from a local shopping mall back in the day for this. His campaign has been a pretty slimy one, and now it’s come to light that he’s got some pretty wild views on slavery. Views like, America was better when we had it.

John Lewis is not here for the nonsense. The civil rights icon and Georgia congressman is not planning on attending the opening of a civil rights museum in Jackson, Mississippi, because President Donald Trump will be there. I can’t imagine how Lewis feels about this in his heart of hearts. He worked his whole life to make sure that black folks have had the same rights as the rest of America, and here comes this guy trying to swoop in late — in Jackson, of all places. That’s got to hurt.

Shohei Ohtani is yet to set foot in a big-league batter’s box, but his presence is already making waves around the majors. If you don’t know who he is, he’s a two-way guy who some scouts think could both pitch and play the field if any franchise would let him. That’s unlikely, as the novelty of said deal would probably not be worth the risk from an injury/wear-and-tear standpoint, but it still could prove to be an interesting situation. Anyway, the negotiations for his bidding have been hotly intense, and MLB is definitely watching closely.

Free Food

Coffee Break: I’ve never been to Boston. Not because I’ve avoided it for any particular reason, but I’m also in no rush to go. Haven’t ever really heard anything good about it, whatsoever, particularly when it comes to black folks. Now, the Boston Globe is taking a look at racism in the city.

Snack Time: If you ever find yourself in a situation with an armed robber and you could keep your composure the way this dude working at Walgreens did, then more power to you. Icy.

Dessert: Need new music? Big Sean and Metro Boomin got you covered.

Backstage at ‘The Late Show’ with Jon Batiste The musical director and former point guard on why it’s important to keep score

On a recent Wednesday afternoon, Jon Batiste reached over to the Crosley record player in his dressing room at the Ed Sullivan Theater. He lifted the needle so that Stevie Wonder’s In Square Circle could provide a little background music while he talked in the dim glow of what once was Carol Burnett’s dressing room. Old-fashioned showbiz lights still frame the vanity’s mirror, although the vanity itself is covered with books, hats, records and a speaker. A couple of paintings lean against the mirror.

The musical director of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert was quiet and relaxed, possibly the most subdued he’d been all day.

Batiste, 31, rarely stays still, which is the only way a person can hold down his Late Show gig while also acting as artistic director at the National Jazz Museum of Harlem, recording new music, promoting a Christmas album, reimagining “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” collaborating with Wynton Marsalis, writing op-eds for The New York Times and constructing a tribute to dancer Carmen de Lavallade for the 2017 Kennedy Center Honors. Batiste is arguably the country’s most visible preservationist and celebrator of jazz. He and Stay Human, The Late Show’s house band, reach roughly 3 million people each night through their televisions.

Full Track

Jon Batiste’s fingers glide across the keys of a Steinway & Sons piano in the Stay Human rehearsal space ahead of a live taping at The Ed Sullivan Theater in New York City.

Melissa Bunni Elian for The Undefeated

The Late Show has recently vaulted to the top of the late-night ratings on the wings of host Stephen Colbert. Monday through Friday he provides a wry yet sunny accounting of how the world is descending into a morass of fear, uncertainty and, lately, how it’s being pushed there by famous men who can’t keep their hands to themselves. Batiste sets off the monologues with a tinkle of piano keys, a laugh or a quip. He’s the amen corner for Colbert’s sharpest jabs.

On the gray, overcast day after a terrorist plowed into a bike path in New York, killing eight people, Batiste strode into his eighth-floor office. When he crossed the threshold to find a stranger waiting for him, he held out his hand and let out one of his trademark “Yeeeeeeeeeeeaaaaaahs.”

His buoyant, irrepressible happiness might seem inappropriate for the day after a tragedy, even for a man who comes from the land where people give you a parade when you die. (He grew up in Kenner, Louisiana, about 20 minutes from New Orleans, before moving to New York as a teen to attend The Juilliard School.) Nevertheless, he was humming, scatting and upbeat. Batiste considers transmitting that energy to be part of his job.

“It’s an interesting line to thread, to find a joyous sound that also matches the tone of the material in the show,” Batiste said. “That’s the real challenge every day, is finding out, OK, how do we find that thing that’s gonna push the energy that we want forward but not come across as insensitive or not come across as kitsch or out of taste? And that’s what I enjoy. I love these artistic challenges.”

He’d been listening to The Commodores on the way to work, and he sat down on the small gray couch in his office, barely able to contain his humming until I joined him in the chorus of “Lady (You Bring Me Up).”

Admittedly, it’s hard not to bop your head once you hear the lively strings and driving beat of “Lady.” The Commodores are part of a playlist that Batiste made for 2017. At the beginning of every year, he compiles a mix of songs, a sort of aural lookbook for the next 365 days. This year’s mishmash included contemporary Bob Dylan, 1920s and ’30s Louis Armstrong, Peggy Lee and Michael Jackson’s Dangerous album.

The yearly mix provides a thematic foundation for what Batiste wants to reference in the show. About a week after we spoke, Batiste and Stay Human played an arrangement of “Lady” during a Late Show commercial break. It’s evidence of the thoughtfulness that defines his tenure as Late Show bandleader.

“I like putting stuff into the machine and then seeing what comes out of the machine. The brain, that’s like our processing machine,” Batiste said. “So for me, I like to just make a list of all the stuff that I want to digest and assimilate and then I just live with it.”


Batiste has had years of experience putting music into his “processing machine.” He began playing with his father, Michael, in the family’s Batiste Brothers Band when he was about 6 or 7.

The Batistes are one of New Orleans’ most respected and legendary jazz clans, and they’ve often worked side by side with the Marsalis family. Both Batiste and his mentor, Wynton Marsalis, attended high school at New Orleans Center for Creative Arts. Wynton’s father, pianist Ellis Marsalis Jr., headed the jazz department there and was succeeded by clarinetist Alvin Batiste, a distant cousin of Jon’s.

“Him and Alvin and Clyde Kerr and Kidd Jordan, they were like the four village elders who taught everybody in New Orleans music from the last 40 years,” Batiste said. His upbringing in a family of jazz musicians and his experiences playing point guard, both in school (where he was part of a state championship-winning squad) and for an AAU team, gave Batiste his energy, his musical acumen and his constant all-American drive for self-improvement.

Jon Batiste is an avid dresser, usually opting for suits with bold colors or prints paired with custom made sneakers.

Melissa Bunni Elian for ESPN

“It’s a discipline to achieve whatever your desired end result is,” Batiste explained. “In sports, there’s a score. There’s statistics, and there’s a winner and a loser and a championship, and there is one team that gets it. It’s just very clear-cut.

“I think, in order to get better at being a musician and a bandleader and a composer and all these different things, you have to create things that are that clear-cut, because the competition that you’re up against is yourself. So it’s harder, if you’re not willing to look into the mirror, to define what the end result is. It’s very easy to get to a certain level and to just coast, and to not push yourself to be better, because nobody is really keeping score.”

That constant pushing isn’t just what Batiste expects of himself. He expects it of his bandmates in Stay Human too.

It’s important to get “the team to where’s there’s a built-in camaraderie and built-in sense of purpose, that you’re OK passing your guy the ball to take the shot when it counts in the fourth quarter,” Batiste said, again likening the job to running a basketball team. “It’s not always going to be you that gets to take that shot. You may have to trust your sixth man, or your 2 guard. You’re running point, and I played a lot of point. You’re going to have to trust … I’m not going to be able to take this shot. This is not a smart shot for me to take.”


Batiste comes to work after lunch — this time, he raved about the meatball sandwich at a spot on 53rd Street and Ninth Avenue — usually taking a car from his apartment in midtown Manhattan. His office is filled with sunlight, although the view is basically of a construction crane, thanks to New York’s never-ending real estate development. He’s got two keyboards, a Mac, an amp, a drum set, an electric bass and a Mason & Hamlin baby grand piano. An unopened bottle of Dom Pérignon still in the box, sits on his windowsill — he doesn’t drink.

He catches up on the news and tries to get an idea of what the show will address. Because Colbert riffs on the day’s news for his nightly monologue, things at The Late Show are often in flux right up until it’s time to tape the show. That means Batiste finds himself flipping through the musical library in his head on deadline and making last-minute changes at sound check.

“Picking music for TV is so specific,” Batiste said. “It has a mystery to it until you pick that right song, play that right beat, and then it’s like, ‘Oh, of course I should have been doing that.’ So it’s a mystery until then. You gotta crack the code.”

The code-cracking continues in the Stay Human rehearsal space, which is about the size of a McMansion bathroom.

Jon Batiste, left, reacts to the music while practicing new material with his band, Stay Human, a few hours ahead of a live taping at The Ed Sullivan Theater in New York City.

Melissa Bunni Elian for The Undefeated

The Late Show tapes four days a week. So Monday through Thursday, 10-plus people cram into the space with their instruments, including a tuba and a drum set, and jam.

Batiste’s assistant squeezes into a chair next to the upright Steinway and plays a song from her phone through the Marshall speaker that sits on the piano. Gradually, the band picks up the groove and joins in. There’s little to no sheet music.

Batiste and the band rehearse for roughly an hour, their choices guided by that night’s guests and notes from a morning production meeting that his assistant attends. Then he’s off to comedy rehearsal with Colbert, where the two go through Colbert’s proposed monologue. A small gathering of crew makes up the audience for the rehearsal, which was kept so off-limits that not only could I not watch, I couldn’t even be in the building while it was taking place.

All those little riffs and interjections that feel natural and spontaneous when you watch Colbert’s monologue? They’ve been rehearsed.

After comedy rehearsal, Colbert and his staff make script changes and Batiste refines his music selections. Then there’s a sound check on the stage with the whole band. This time, Batiste was working through a song with Jonathan Groff, who played King George in Hamilton and now stars on the Netflix series Mindhunter. The two fumbled around to find the right key for a jokey promotional duet for Mindhunter that Groff sang with Colbert.

While everyone ventured off to hair and makeup, Late Show staff members shepherded the night’s audience into their seats. They were treated to a bawdy warm-up act by comedian Paul Mecurio. Batiste and Stay Human played a 15-minute concert, and Colbert came out, introduced himself to the audience and took questions.

Finally, they make the television that shows up after the local news five nights a week.


Duke Ellington favored natty suits and a top hat. Cab Calloway rarely performed without his conductor’s baton, white waistcoat and tails.

While Colbert sticks to a uniform of sober suits and dress shoes, his bandleader favors blazers from Mr. Turk and fresh Jordans. Batiste is a consummate sneakerhead, and while he sat and talked on his sofa, he casually dribbled a basketball between his feet.

Now Batiste has access to an entire collection of covetous footwear, an actual binder full of sneakers, via The Late Show’s stylist. He’s an admirer of Russell Westbrook’s sartorial boundary-pushing, and though his loyalties are not wedded to one particular NBA team, he casually follows Oklahoma City.

Unlike Calloway, Batiste doesn’t come out in a zoot suit every night. But there’s a special element of showmanship involved in being a bandleader. It’s a skill, one that Batiste, who swears he used to be shy, had to learn. And his personal style, which he began to cultivate after moving to New York, is part of it. Presentation, he insists, is separate from being a skillful musician.

Jon Batiste is an avid dresser, usually opting for suits with bold colors or prints paired with custom made sneakers.

Melissa Bunni Elian for The Undefeated

“I think it really is important to think of them as different things,” Batiste said. “It requires a certain understanding of yourself and your comfort zone, and then stepping outside that and expanding your comfort zone. I actually didn’t see a connection with the two. Also, when I was growing up, it was more the older family members who took that role of presenting the band and everything like that. … That’s always a shock to people who I’ve known for a long time, to see how both those things have developed. It’s a surprise, almost, like a different person has emerged.”


Batiste interprets the world through the youthful ears of a wizened soul. His workspaces at The Late Show are a cornucopia of old and new. Crosley and Marshall are companies that specialize in making music equipment that draws on vintage aesthetics but benefits from modern technological innovation. It’s a theme that recurs throughout Batiste’s working life — he began playing for vocalist Cassandra Wilson, now 61, when he was just 22. He’s a jazz musician whose instrument of choice is the melodica, a contraption that looks like a small hand keyboard with a mouthpiece and sounds like a harmonica.

“A lot of people think that this instrument, you know, is like a child’s toy,” Batiste said, but he loves it. He recounted how he showed it to Stevie Wonder the first time they met, when Batiste was still a student at Juilliard.

“Man, you ever played one of these?” Batiste asked Wonder.

Wonder took the instrument, played it, then gave it back.

“Yeah, I used to play them, but I would get so much spit in them, I stopped,” Wonder told him.

“Oh, you got jokes!” was Batiste’s retort.

Unlike many of his earliest predecessors in jazz, Batiste boasts formal musical training besides everything he learned in his family’s band. He earned a master’s degree from Juilliard.

“I feel like it connects me to the ancestors more, the kind of founding fathers of the music,” Batiste said of his musical education. “Mothers and fathers, because women were a big part of it as well. There’s a lot of female artists that I think are still actually becoming recognized that we don’t even know about. The training just gives me another tool. Nothing can hurt you in pursuit of knowledge, the pursuit of your craft.

“You know, there were great musicians who were the most erudite, studied, and they knew everything there was to know even before there were all these schools. And there were also musicians who didn’t know all that stuff, but they knew it in their own way. So, in my mind, I don’t even think about it like I’m educated more so than a musician who didn’t go to a conservatory. It’s just I know the terminology. But the person who knows it is the one who experiences it. So, if somebody is playing it on their instrument, they know it. … Whether they call it a C scale or dominant seventh chord or they just know it by whatever they know in their mind, when they play, it’s there.”

In Batiste’s office there’s a poster of Mavis Staples, one of his many heroes.

“She’s not just a musician now, she’s bigger than music,” Batiste said. “[Her involvement] in the civil rights movement and being a force for goodwill and a force of peace and a force for faith and a force in all kinds of ways. It’s amazing.”

Staples represents what he wants to achieve, Batiste said, “just what kind of energy I want to have as a performer and a celebrity. Somebody that’s authentic and is very real and also accomplished and all that, at the same time.”

In marrying youth with tradition, drawing a line from zoot suits to Jordans, Batiste has become a vehicle for advocating and communicating about jazz. He’s reverential, but not stuffy, and always repping New Orleans. (When it comes to gumbo, Batiste prefers filé to okra as a thickener for the city’s signature stew — that’s how his mama makes it.)

For decades, there’s been a panic that jazz, born in Louisiana and spread via the Great Migration, radio and vinyl, is dying. As once-booming jazz corridors in cities such as Washington, D.C., and Kansas City have shrunk or transformed, those changes are accompanied by understandable worries that no one’s interested in carrying on the genre’s traditions, that a uniquely American art form is going underappreciated outside of Lincoln Center, the Kennedy Center and rich people’s wedding receptions. Damien Chazelle won an Academy Award for directing a movie around that theme.

But there’s always a young, handsome, passionate and charismatic ambassador keeping the legacies of Bird and Miles and Satchmo alive. In the ’90s, it was Batiste’s mentor, Wynton Marsalis. Now Batiste has picked up the torch, along with the requisite fedora and porkpie hat — he’s got a stack of them in his dressing room and more in his office. As for the next generation? Well, Batiste turned 31 in November. He celebrated by traveling to see his 8-year-old nephew’s piano recital. The culture is in safe hands.

No matter if it’s a rehearsal or an actual performance, Batiste and his band member play full out, laughing and having fun with each note they play.

Melissa Bunni Elian for The Undefeated

“I don’t expect that jazz is always going to be on top like it was in the ’20s, for example,” said jazz pianist and bandleader Herbie Hancock. “The music is always evolving and constantly changing, and it’s very difficult for a lot of listeners to keep up with that.”

But he’s optimistic about Batiste’s work on The Late Show. “That experience is incredible because you’re challenged in a lot of new ways, doing that type of TV show,” Hancock said. “Because of the kind of talent he has and his experience in jazz, he’s able to more easily adapt and include new ways of dealing with the music for that kind of show than if he had not had it.”


As darkness began to settle over Manhattan, it was time for a show.

Batiste sprinted onstage to greet the show’s live audience. Joined by Stay Human, they pumped up the crowd with James Brown’s “Get Up, Get Into It, Get Involved” and an arrangement of Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” modeled after Tito Puente’s salsa-fied version.

One of Colbert’s guests was writer and Aspen Institute president Walter Isaacson, who was there to promote his new biography of Leonardo da Vinci. To introduce Isaacson, the band played an up-tempo rendition of “Oh! Didn’t He Ramble,” a New Orleans ditty from 1902 later popularized by Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong.

“I grew up with his whole family,” Isaacson explained to Colbert. “The wonderful Batiste family of New Orleans.” Isaacson gestured toward Batiste. “He’s a great man.”

When the interview concluded, Isaacson walked over for a hug, thrilled that Batiste had chosen to pay musical homage to their shared roots.

Later, Colbert said goodbye and the band exited. While the audience made its way to the lobby, stopping for pictures with cardboard cutouts of Colbert, Batiste huddled with the host for a post-mortem of the night’s show.

The process of assembling and putting out a newspaper used to be known as the Daily Miracle. Making late-night television involves many of the same pressures related to accuracy, tone and intellect. On top of that, it’s got to be funny, and it’s done in front of a live audience.

No wonder The Late Show tapes smack in the middle of Broadway. With Colbert and Batiste at the helm, it’s clear that’s exactly where it belongs.