Soda City Chronicles

Weekday Lawyer, Weekend Jazz DJ

Pioneering Attorney Luther Battiste Hosts Local Jazz Show

By Otis R. Taylor Jr.
Wednesday, January 8, 2014
Luther Battiste in the DJ booth | courtesy photo

Wearing jeans and trendy, fresh-out-the-box Beats by Dre headphones, Luther J. Battiste III nods his head to the post-bop of the Kenny Barron Trio’s “Lemuria.” Battiste, one of the rotating hosts of Jazz in the City, a Sunday-morning show on The Palm 92.1 (WWNU-FM), is lost within the euphonious interaction of pianist Barron, bassist Ray Drummond and drummer Ben Riley.

“Luther,” says Staci Cosby, the show’s producer, in an attempt to stir Battiste, whose eyes are closed.

Promoting the drift-away ambience, a lavender- and vanilla-scented candle burns in the dimly lit studio.

This is the casual side of Battiste, a respected trial lawyer and managing shareholder of the law firm Johnson, Toal & Battiste. The former Columbia
City Councilman is currently serving as president of the Columbia Museum of Art’s board of trustees and board chairman at the Capital City Club. He is the first black person to hold the positions.

Cosby pulls Battiste back; it’s time to talk. Battiste has his words typed out on paper.

“The great Ben Riley killing it on the drums,” he says.

That wasn’t part of the script.

“I improvised that,” he says. “That was just the flow of the music.”

The playlist for every show Battiste hosts is culled from his collection. On a late December show, he plays Herbie Hancock and Christina Aguilera’s “Song for You” and Wayne Shorter’s “Speak No Evil.”

“It’s something I’ve always wanted to do,” says Battiste, who doesn’t get paid to DJ. “I’m sharing the music I’ve collected over a long period of time.” 
His next show is this Sunday at 11 a.m. Once the Carolina Panthers’ NFL season is done, the show moves to two hours. 

Jazz in the City, started by John Baker, also rotates Woody Jones, a Papa Jazz Record Shoppe employee, and Jeryl Salmond, a financial adviser and minister, behind the mic.

Battiste, 64, began listening to jazz in grade school, influenced by an uncle who lived with the Battiste family in Orangeburg while attending South Carolina State University.

Jazz remains a family affair. Battiste’s wife, Judy, a member of Township Auditorium’s board of trustees, initiated Summer Sets, a jazz program. The venue will host Columbia Winter Jazz Fest on Jan. 18.

“I love jazz because at its essence, it is pure, unpretentious and invites the listener to be a part of it,” Judy Battiste says. “We are really more alike than different. Jazz helps promote this concept, which is appealing to me.”

Judy Battiste, 62, also grew up in a home where music was appreciated, and she spent every summer through college in Detroit during the Motown years. An advocate for more local programming and for using nontraditional spaces for performances, she was involved in Jazz at the Cottage, a series held on the porch of the Mann-Simons Cottage in the late ‘80s.

Luther Battiste has been a fixture at Skipp Pearson’s Thursday night jazz residency at Hunter-Gatherer for 15 years. (Mark Rouse is running it during
Pearson’s health-related absence.) After introducing Jazz Crusaders’ “A Healing Coming On,” a song that features pianist Joe Sample, off-air Battiste shares with a visitor a time when Sample, in town for a 2008 Auntie Karen Foundation concert, made a surprise appearance at the south Main Street brewpub.

“I was walking out and he was walking in,” Battiste says. “I turned back around.”

Battiste signs off by reminding listeners that “jazz lives.”

As Battiste takes off his headphones, his daughter Jade, who’s skipped church to join him for the show, grabs a box of candles. (He and Judy also have a son, Justin.) Cosby, the producer, makes the candles.

“I buy candles every time I’m on the air,” Battiste says.

Every time Jazz in the City is on the air, the genre breathes a little bit easier.

SCC is a column about interesting people in and around Columbia.

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