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.