"Late Show"'s Jon Batiste on his reinterpretation of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic"

Jon Batiste

JOHN DICKERSON:  We talk a lot about politics on Face the Nation, today we decided to look at the relationship between politics and music.  (Baptiste playing waltz) Jon Batiste is the bandleader for The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. We spoke with him about his reinterpretation of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, a project for The Atlantic's podcast Radio Atlantic.

JON BATISTE:  This song has that thing about it that makes us have a sense of reverence for it. And, without even studying the history, you know that. When you hear that melody. (Batiste hums Battle Hymn of the Republic). So, for me, I like to keep that essence, and then let my subconscious mind go. Free association with things that I'm listening to at the time, something that I may have been working on several years back will come up. And there's no intention other to, you know,  follow that stream of consciousness.

John Dickerson interviews Jon Batiste

JOHN DICKERSON: What's in this essence? What's a part of it?

JON BATISTE: Well, what came out is a blend of things, which I think highly signifies the American experiment. You have the blend of African rhythms, you have this almost choral-like chant going on in the music mixed with the gospel chorales-style, the way I'm singing. It's just a blend of everything that I think -- if we at our best -- the ideal of American life at its best is everything coexisting and the great compromise of every element being here and living as one. And that's what the piece represents.

JOHN DICKERSON: Is there a line that speaks to you very strongly out of that piece?

JON BATISTE: Wow, um. "His truth is marching on." It, it sounds the way that a march sounds. (Batiste sings out measures to the song). Something about that melody. It's like one foot after the other. I like that. This victory is not just a victory of now. This is a victory of all generations after us and an eternal victory, there's so many layers in that one line.

JOHN DICKERSON:  We're in a moment now where people say, "Truth maybe is up for grabs."

Extended interview: Jon Batiste

JON BATISTE: Yes. Absolutely. Well, there's something about the idea of developing your philosophy and worldview that I approached this song with. Truth being up for grabs is something that you think of, but I really think that comes from people not actually being in the same room enough to say, "Okay. You're just like me." We maybe have different things going on culturally or in our upbringing, but we're all just here together.

JOHN DICKERSON: You've tried to do that with your music more broadly.

JON BATISTE: Absolutely.

JOHN DICKERSON: You use it and, so, take it from this song and what you've been able to see music be able to do in your work, or just in general, to create those bridges. Because right now, we're in a place where people don't feel like there are bridges.

JON BATISTE: Music will always be a bridge depending upon who's using it. I think music has the power to get people into the room together that may not come into the room together if it were not for the musical experience. And, it's pretty hard to hate the person next to you when you're laughing and dancing next to each other.

JOHN DICKERSON: Do you have musical reactions to events, whether you see something on the street or whether it's an event in the news? Does it, do you react in music?

JON BATISTE: I react when I see something on the news from a place of empathy. I try to practice empathy. Empathy, I think, leads to music if that makes any sense. Empathy is something that when you put it into practice, your response becomes less verbal and less physical, and it becomes more emotional because you have to sit back and reflect for a while before you act.

JOHN DICKERSON:  Let me ask you about the idea of restraint, we in public don't have a lot of restraint in the way a lot of people behave. But I think it was Thelonious Monk, who in his notes to his band talked about how you don't have to play every note.

JON BATISTE: Woooh, John. Woooh, yes, restraint is, restraint is the beauty we cannot see. When you listen to music, and you hear someone's tone on the instrument or a beautiful voice or the sound of the bass resonating with the sound of the cymbals and all of these things coming together, it's like the universe. And then when there's space, it allows you to appreciate what you just heard and to understand it and to process it. So, space is important in that dialogue. And I think we could learn a lot from jazz in our dialogue right now as a nation. We have a lot of sides going like this and we have these two predominant sides really pushing like this. And there's no space. It's only my perspective, no my perspective, no my perspective. No listening. No questions really. Just constantly. And to me, that always leads to more conflict. And I'm not saying that I don't have hope for our nation, but I am saying there's something that we can learn. And sooner or later, we'll be forced to learn it.

See more of the full conversation with Jon Batiste at FaceTheNation.com