‘Uncle’ Lionel Batiste dies
16th July 2012 · 0 Comments
By Geraldine Wyckoff
Lionel Batiste wasn’t crowned with prestigious titles like King, Duke, Prince or Professor like many musicians. His handle was of a warmer sort that reflected his wonderfully amiable personality. Everybody called him uncle. The beloved Uncle Lionel, the bass drummer and assistant leader of the Tremé Brass Band, vocalist, dancer, grand marshal, raconteur, and perfect gentleman died on July 8, 2012. He was 80.
Gray-haired women would open their screen doors to hail him with a chipper, “Hey Uncle Lionel,” as he strolled through the Tremé neighborhood where he was born, raised and lived for most of his life. Little children knew him too and would gather around him yelling a friendly, “Hey Unc!” In turn, the always-dapper Batiste called his many followers and friends his little nieces and nephews.
As Benny Jones, the leader and snare drummer of the Tremé Brass Band and Batiste’s life-long friend once explained, “Oh, he’s always been the same – always jolly.”
Batiste was born in an upstairs apartment or, as he once said, “close to heaven” at 1931 St. Philip Street. Growing up in the musical environs of the Tremé as one of 11 children who all played instruments, Batiste lived the music. His first instrument was a galvanized tub that he beat on with a hammer like a steel drum. When it came time to march, he simply turned it on its side and used a stick with a rubber ball on the end as a mallet. On Carnival Day, he and his family would march around the neighborhood playing with the Dirty Dozen Kazoo Band, a precursor to the Dirty Dozen Brass Band.
Batiste considered his first professional job as a bass drummer playing with Harold Dejan’s Olympia Brass Band in the 1950s. Many brass bands have called on his talents including the Chosen Few, the Liberty, the Tuxedo, the O’Howard and others.
Batiste became a huge influence to up-and-coming brass band musicians and his unique, bouncy drum technique of “double clutching” can be heard in the next generation of bass drum players. Trumpeter Kermit Ruffins, who played with the Tremé band as a teenager at spots such as the noted Ruth’s Cozy Corner, explained that Batiste played quick-paced eighth and sixteenth notes rather than whole and quarter notes like other bass drummers. “He just danced with the drum,” says Ruffins, who credits his elder and mentor for teaching him a ton of old songs some of which have entered the trumpeter’s repertoire like the chestnut, “Let Me Call You Sweetheart.”
“He played very relaxed and easy,” master drummer Herlin Riley offers. “He really understood the cadence of the music and placed the accents in the correct place. Uncle Lionel was a testament to the spirit of New Orleans.”
On the scene in every aspect from playing for social aid and pleasure club parades, at club dates, sitting in at spots like the Palm Court, Vaughn’s, Donna’s or wherever his constant wanderings took him, Batiste was also on hand to give youngsters advice on music and life. “He talked with us,” says Phil Frazier, leader and tuba man with the ReBirth Brass Band. “He told us to play music and be happy and to know what you’re doing. He played from the heart.”
Uncle Lionel recorded three albums with the Tremé Brass Band, I Got a Big Fat Woman, Gimme My Money Back and the self-titled The Tremé Brass Band. Singing has always been among Batiste’s many talents and his voice would be featured on numbers with the Tremé Brass Band, including the ever-popular “Food Stamp Blues.” In 2001, his wonderfully warm vocals on those old tunes that he loved so much were spotlighted on the CD Lars Edegran Presents Uncle Lionel. It includes such beauties as “On a Coconut Island” and “Careless Love.” Batiste once remembered how, as a youngster, he would team with his neighborhood pals to earn a little money by singing at neighborhood stores and barbershops. He also sang in church choirs.
A different aspect of Batiste would be revealed when he led a band as grand marshal for a jazz funeral. He learned the style, skills and austere demeanor that were required for the esteemed position from watching legends like Matthew “Fats” Houston. Strutting to a slow dirge, Batiste held himself straight and proud with no trace of the smile that usually brightened his face.
Throughout his life, Batiste held down many jobs and was particularly noted as a shoeshine man, an occupation he returned to many times. As can be attested to by his own immaculate footwear, he was meticulous at the task. His last shoeshine stand stood in front of Joe’s Cozy Corner on North Robertson Street in the Tremé.
Following Hurricane Katrina, Batiste moved to the Christopher Inn Apartments in the heart of the Frenchmen Street entertainment district. There he charmed a whole new crowd of younger people heading to the clubs and tourists who were lucky enough to encounter this sharply dressed New Orleans icon, whose bling included a watch on his hand rather than on his wrist. “I have time on my hands,” he would explain with a laugh. Nobody was a stranger to Uncle Lionel.
“I always did like to entertain,” Batiste once said with a twinkle in his eye and a grin on his face. He did just that from stages around the world to back-of-town streets. His likeness adorned the 2010 Congo Square Jazz Fest poster and he appeared on the HBO series “Treme.”
Uncle Lionel was given royal treatment when he made his last public appearance at the d.b.a. club where the Tremé Brass Band played its regular Tuesday night gig. He sat smiling while his loyal subjects surrounded him with their love. Following the announcement of his death, brass bands have regularly led second lines in his honor and he was remembered at gatherings at Kermit Ruffins Speakeasy, the Candle Light Lounge and Sweet Lorraine’s.
The legend and memory of Uncle Lionel Batiste will live on in the hearts of the thousands of people whose lives he touched. His presence will especially remain on the those corners of his beloved Tremé where he spread his joy with music and laughter. “Hey, Unc!”
This article was originally published in the July 16, 2012 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper