Who dat? It’s New Orleans native Jon Batiste — soon to be onstage at the White House.
President Biden and first lady Jill Biden have tapped the singer, bandleader and melodica-player extraordinaire as the musical performer for their first official state dinner, the first lady’s press secretary, Vanessa Valdivia, told The Washington Post.
It means that when French President Emmanuel Macron and his wife, Brigitte, show up as the honored guests for a day of diplomacy, followed by a lavish dinner and dancing on Thursday, they’ll be in for a true New Orleans-style get down. No word yet on whether Batiste will hop on any tables, as he did to Billie Eilish’s delight at this year’s Grammys, but he probably will be serenading Macron with his hit song “Freedom” and a joyous parade of trumpets, tambourines and a mouth-piano.
“An artist who transcends generations, Jon Batiste’s music inspires and brings people together. We’re thrilled to have him perform at the White House for the first state dinner of the Biden-Harris Administration,” Valdivia told The Post.
Batiste’s boundless energy and raucous performances are fitting for a White House that is back into social activities after two years of battling covid, rising inflation and economic woes in a midterm election year — a background against which a glamorous dinner honoring a visiting head of state would have looked particularly gauche. Biden continues to face some criticism, however, for declaring in September that the “pandemic is over” even though hundreds continue to die each day and the public is growing weary of being vigilant against covid.
But the political mood is high right now. The midterms went better than expected for Democrats. This is the first year since Biden took office that the White House will have a full season of holiday parties — key for low-pressure get-togethers with press, allies and antagonists alike — and to show off the first lady’s holiday decorations, which will be unveiled Monday.
The couple is coming off hosting the pre-Thanksgiving wedding of their granddaughter Naomi Biden and fielding consternation from the White House press corps, which was prevented from covering it while Vogue was given an exclusive article and photo shoot.
The Biden administration is on track to have the fewest state dinners — typically planned by the first lady’s office — of any modern presidency. It will need to host merely one more to tie with former president Donald Trump, who had to cancel his third state dinner at the beginning of the pandemic.
Trump’s first state dinner was also with Macron. The previous president, however, perennially faced problems getting musical acts to perform for his events. For his Macron state dinner, the musical entertainment was the Washington National Opera. During his second state dinner, for then-Australian President Scott Morrison, bands for the U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines played.
During flusher times, former president Bill Clinton and first lady Hillary Clinton hosted 12 state dinners during his first term, and 29 overall, with musical guests such as Whitney Houston, Elton John and Stevie Wonder, Liza Minnelli and Earth, Wind & Fire. The Bushes followed with four in his first term (including one for Mexican President Vicente Fox just days before Sept. 11, 2001), and 13 overall, with acts such as country singer Kenny Chesney, violinist Itzhak Perlman and the cast of “The Lion King.”
Former president Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama undoubtedly had the hippest, most current musical guests over their 13 state dinners (six in that first year): Beyoncé, Janelle Monáe, Mumford and Sons, John Legend, Rodrigo y Gabriela, Ne-Yo, Demi Lovato, Gwen Stefani and more. Their first state dinner, for Indian President Manmohan Singh, had Jennifer Hudson performing, though a couple of apparent gate crashers got most of the media attention.
Batiste, at 36, is arguably the most acclaimed musician in the country right now. In April, he was nominated for 11 Grammys across seven categories — a first in Grammys history — and won five of them, including album of the year for “We Are.” Batiste has been known to hold second-line parades, with brass bands dancing in the streets, everywhere from New Orleans to New York.
Two years ago, he won the Oscar for best original score for Pixar’s “Soul,” which he wrote with fellow composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. He’s just the third Black composer in history, after jazz legend Herbie Hancock and pop star Prince, to win an Academy Award for composition.
Now he’s halfway to an EGOT — the term for winning all four major American entertainment awards (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony) — a coveted title that only 17 other people have won.
Batiste will be the first New Orleans act to play the White House since former president George W. Bush had the famed Preservation Hall Jazz Band play for Singh in 2005. Batiste left his gig as bandleader of “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” in August to focus on his other work.
There are many reasons for the Bidens to choose Batiste, a native son of New Orleans who’s from a family of musicians and grew up steeped in jazz, the one true American art form. But there’s also his connection to cancer, a disease that has affected the Bidens deeply and that the administration is working to eradicate.
In February, Batiste married his partner of eight years, Suleika Jaouad, a day before her bone marrow transplant for her second bout with leukemia. Jaouad, 33, who is undergoing chemotherapy and is the author of the best-selling cancer memoir, “Between Two Kingdoms,” met Batiste when they were teenagers in band camp.
They reconnected when, during her first bout with cancer, he showed up at the hospital with his entire band. “Every inch of the 25-room floor was filled with music,” Jaouad wrote then in a column for a New York Times blog. “Timidly at first, and then with jubilation, patients, nurses and other hospital workers began to dance and clap.”
They were married in the new home they had been designing for three years. The couple used bread ties around their fingers because they hadn’t had time to get rings. They did prank calls to make it through the first 72 hours after her transplant. The couple has two new dogs, one of whom harmonizes with Batiste as he plays piano.
She wore a pink wig to celebrate Batiste’s birthday in November, which turned into an “impromptu jam that went into the wee hours,” she wrote on Instagram.
Batiste has called their marriage “an act of defiance” and said the cancer is not interrupting the plans they have for their lives.
“That’s life,” Batiste told CBS News in April of the struggles that have come as he’s hit career highs. “That’s it. Strap in.”
Prepare for a second line at the White House.
A previous version of this article misstated the name of Suleika Jaouad’s memoir. It is ‘Between Two Kingdoms,’ not ‘Between Two Worlds.’ The article has been corrected.