A Tribute to “Uncle Lionel Batiste”

Uncle Lionel playing the drum

Treme Brass Band

As everybody in New Orleans knows by now, “Uncle” Lionel Batiste, bass drummer for Treme’ Brass Band in New Orleans, 81, died on Sunday, July 8 after a brief bout with prostate cancer.  “Uncle” Lionel had become a poster boy for the resurgent New Orleans music scene in the last few years since Hurricane Katrina.  Long, lean, dapper, perpetually snappily dressed with a trademark gold cross and wristwatch worn over his knuckles, “Uncle” Lionel sauntered around the French Quarter and Frenchmen Street.  He was the face on the New York City Times Square banner for Spike Lee’s Hurricane Katrina documentary, “If God is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise.”  His image graced the 2010 Congo Square poster for New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival presented by Shell, and of course, for the historic Treme’ neighborhood bicentennial poster. It’s 200 years in 2012 since the country’s oldest historic African-American neighborhood was founded.

But more than becoming a visual icon of New Orleans, “Uncle” Lionel was a consummate musician and mentor to many younger musicians.  The Treme’ Brass Band’s weekly gig on Wednesdays at the Candlelight Lounge in Treme’ became a hipster and tourist destination after HBO’s “Treme’” TV show began running in 2009,  but there was nothing touristy about the music, or the joy that the music brought.  “Uncle” Lionel was a direct link to an earlier time in New Orleans, when traditional brass band music wasn’t even especially well-known outside of New Orleans.  It grew out of the neighborhoods, and it was handed down in the old-school way, by the “older” guys teaching the younger ones.  If you want to hear “Uncle” Lionel playing and singing, Treme’ Brass Band records are available at Louisiana Music Factory, 210 Decatur St. in New Orleans, and for download at www.locobop.com.   Sound of New Orleans, www.soundofneworleans.com,  recently re-released its 1980s recording of Treme’ Brass Band, “I Got a Big Fat Woman,” and it’s about as authentic as you can get.

The number of musical tributes and second lines to “Uncle” Lionel seems endless.  The love keeps pouring out.  Since he died on July 8, there’s been the send-off at Kermit Ruffins’ Treme’ Speakeasy on Treme’ Avenue, that very afternoon, with the Rebirth Brass Band. There was a spontaneous party on Frenchmen Street later that evening.  Yet another second line, by the Treme’ Brass Band before its Candlelight Lounge gig on Tuesday, meandered through the French Quarter and even made a stop at Preservation Hall.  Another event at Sweet Lorraine’s on St. Claude, with various local greats like Deacon John, Michael Ward and Kermit Ruffins, sprang up on Friday, July 13.

Treme’ Brass Band had another regular gig at D.B.A. on Frenchmen Street on Tuesdays, and “Uncle” Lionel managed to get to that the Tuesday before he died, sitting in a wheelchair in the nightclub and signing memorabilia presented to him as he held court.  Always the gentleman, he took care of the people who loved him, even when he knew he couldn’t make it to the next gig.  Didn’t he ramble.

The final viewing of Lionel Batiste will be on Thursday,  at the Charbonnet Funeral Home, located at 1615 St. Philip St. between 10AM and 5PM.  His funeral will take place Friday, July 20, at the Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Performing Arts, 805 N. Rampart St., in Armstrong Park .  Viewing is from 9 to 11AM, and the funeral at 11AM.  And, of course, a traditional jazz funeral procession beginning at Mahalia Jackson, continuing to the Mount Olivet Cemetery, 4100 Norman Mayer Blvd.

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