Welcome to our series of conversations with curious, clever, and captivating people—in other words, the kind you’d like to sit next to for an hour or two.
I didn’t actually set out to play the tuba. I wanted to play the saxophone.
A week or two before middle school started, I went to band tryouts and they had all the instruments lined up. I went right to the saxophone—alto sax—that's what I wanted to play. And I tried to make a sound on it but I couldn't. Since I was tall, they were just like, "He can probably carry this. Here’s a tuba. Try it." And that was it. But if it were another instrument, I probably would have tried to get good at that, and you know, had a lot less shit to carry around.
I didn’t plan on becoming a musician. I was always really into medicine. I wanted to go the pre-med route. The first book report I ever wrote was about Ben Carson. He was my first hero growing up, and now I'm like, "Oh, this dude's crazy!" There were a couple colleges like Northwestern and Johns Hopkins that had five-year dual-degrees in music and medicine. I had applied to them, and I remember telling my dad, "Hey, I just wanna apply to Juilliard," kind of to gauge how far I'd come, musically, since middle school. I’d had a couple of musical experiences senior year that made me think, "Ah, man, I need to be doing this."
There was this NPR show called From the Top that showcases classical musicians —college, middle school, whatever— and I got the opportunity to be on the show a couple of times in high school. They were doing a PBS mini-series at Carnegie Hall and they asked me to take part and play in a brass quintet with members of the New York Philharmonic brass section. It was just an amazing experience. It was a pivotal moment of realizing "I need to be doing this right now."
I’m still friends with a bunch of people in the organization and I've told them many times, "I'm doing music now because of you."
I hate the idea of extremes—of denying yourself and being so militant about it.
The acceptance letters from Johns Hopkins and Juilliard came within a day or two of each other, and eventually I said I wanted to go to Juilliard. It was a whole thing in the family. They've always been extremely supportive of my musical pursuits, and medicine wasn't something they necessarily pushed me towards, but they were like, "Wait, what are you talking about?"
I've always kind of fallen into different musical situations. I've never considered myself belonging to a particular genre or anything. I went to Julliard to study classical music, and then I met Jon Batiste and the rest of those guys and they were all in the jazz division. And I was like, "Oh, I like the music that they're making." So, I started making music with them.
Once everybody graduated, we toured around the States and Europe for a few years. I’d taken a summer off when I got an email from Jon’s manager at the time being like, "Hey, are you free a week from today? There's a possibility of us playing on The Colbert Report." That was the summer before the show ended. I don't really get excited for too many gigs ‘cause I've been fortunate to do a lot of different things, but I'd been watching the show since it came out so I was like, "Oh my god! This is it!" The performance went really well and that's kind of how the whole Late Show thing came to be.
Sometimes you have to just shut up and stand there and be comfortable with the fact that you’re not filling up space with words.
I grew up in Athens, Georgia. My folks are from Tanzania and they moved here in the '80s. Two of my siblings were born in Tanzania, and then me and my other brother were born in Hampton, Virginia, because my dad is a retired comp lit professor and was teaching there for a few years.
My mom is a really awesome cook, so I like to steal her recipes. The first season of the show I wasn't cooking at all. I was going out to eat every night. We were doing almost 12-hour days, five days a week. But then after a while it seemed like a lot of money to spend on something that I could make just as well, if not better. Unless I'm going to some really nice restaurant, I feel like I can make something that good, for a fraction of the price.
My mom cooks mostly Tanzanian food. She’ll use some type of grain like chapati, which is like naan or rice and some vegetables and beans and some sort of meat. I have all these recipes that my mom made, but the last few months I've been trying to figure out vegan versions of them. I'm like a pseudo-vegan. If something's gonna taste better with butter on it, then I'm like, "Okay!"
I went to Prime Meats recently; it was the first time I had a burger in a month. And it was fucking glorious. I just hate the idea of extremes—of denying yourself and being so militant about it. It just doesn't make any sort of sense to me. Most healthy things that I do in my life are not because they're necessarily good things to do, but because they make my body feel good.
It's important to take moments to be okay doing nothing.
In New York, everyone's always running around like crazy. I think it's really important to take moments to be okay with doing nothing, or sitting in a bar with a book—stuff that's normal to people that don't live in big cities.
Outside of doing work-study in college, I'd never had an actual office job [before The Late Show]. So that was definitely a shift. But now that I’m used to the flow, it's great. We usually tape six weeks and then we take 10 days off. During those 10 days, I try to go somewhere or visit someone. I buy a ticket and crash with a friend for a few days, just to see places.
Throughout college I never traveled for the sake of traveling. I’d be on tour in a country or in a town for a day or two, maybe, with my tuba, and I always felt like I needed to be practicing. But now I'm more, "I'm just gonna go be a dude," because I hear that's fun and enjoyable. So work your ass off when you're working your ass off, and then relax when you're deciding to relax. Just really embrace that.
The healing effects of comedy—it's like an injection of positivity that's even more immediate than music.
I recently did a 10-day silent Vipassana meditation retreat in Japan. Which wasn't actually that great.
You pretty much just sit. I mean, there's more to it, but you sit for long periods of time and then you start scanning your body for different sensations. And over time you learn to accept those sensations—whether they're pleasant or unpleasant. They're just a sensation. That's supposed to help you rewire your subconscious, so that when unpleasant things happen to you in the real world, it’s "that is just a thing that happened to me," as opposed to "that is an unpleasant thing and I want to feel angry, I want to feel upset about it." But a lot of that—the goals of that particular practice—I was already doing in my life through yoga or, I guess, through my general temperament.
But I stuck it out, and even though I didn’t really enjoy doing it, I was glad I did it. There's always a lesson to be learned from things.
From the second or third day, though, I was fantasizing about cussing. I'm a very verbal person in my day-to-day life. When you’re going through a trying experience, you forget the power of being able to say "shit" or "fuck.'" So after a while it started to build up and the first thing I did, when we could talk in the last half of the last day, I found some little grassy knoll all by myself and I spent five minutes just cussing. It felt so good! I was like, "Wow! Yes!"
Being in a band with Jon Batiste and all those guys is an amazing learning experience. There's great value in that. For a while I didn't necessarily know what I wanted to be doing with my free time, what sort of projects or things I wanted to be pursuing. But now that I have a clearer idea, all sorts of things have come into focus. It's kind of like stepping out of the shadows of things you've been a part of. I think I’ll always be playing music with those guys, but I'm entering a season of really figuring out my own shit, what I wanna get into after this.
Comedy is something I've been exploring in the last little while. I've been writing some jokes and stuff. Ever since I was a kid, stand-up has been as important to me as music. Because the healing effects of comedy—it's like an injection of positivity that's even more immediate than music. You can see a concert and maybe within five or ten minutes you'll have a feeling, you'll be like, "Oh man, that was great!" But a joke is pretty instant. I love that ability to bring some positivity to people.
It's been cool becoming friends with the writers and seeing Stephen [Colbert]'s process. That has definitely been one of the best learning experiences from being at the show, outside of the music stuff. Just seeing how they think about things—it's been great to get that insight. Jon Stewart is an EP on the show, so he usually comes by once a month. He's been learning drums, so the first thing he usually does is hop on the bandstand and start playing.
I haven’t done any actual stand-up yet, though. I’ve been getting a set together and going to a bunch of clubs and really just writing a whole bunch of stuff. And then starting to narrow it down.
With any sort of public speaking things you just have to train yourself to get used to it before even doing it. But there's nothing like the real thing. I got certified as a yoga teacher back in April and we had to do all these practice courses teaching in front of people. I remember the feeling of 25 people just staring at you, waiting for you to say something. You learn how to swim within the awkwardness or the uncertainty. Sometimes you have to just shut up and stand there and be comfortable with the fact that you’re not filling up the space with words, but that it’s okay, because that's what's needed right now.
Same with music: sometimes less is more. It's kind of like a dance. If I’m onstage, and music is happening and I think there's something I can contribute to it that'll make it better, then I'll jump in with that. But in reverse, if there's something I'm not completely fine with, I'm just gonna lay out and let the music be what it needs to be right now. And not all musicians do that, and that's when the music ends up not being as great as it could be.
You have to remove your ego from it, ‘cause you're there to serve the music. You're not there to serve yourself. Just do what's in the best interest of making some good music. You can't really go wrong with that.