Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Uncle Lionel Batiste Enters Into Heaven


Uncle Lionel at a Second Line in 2002 © Breton Littlehales

 [BASS DRUM BEATEN LOUDLY]

Booth led boldly with his big bass drum— 
(Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?) 
The Saints smiled gravely and they said: “He’s come.” 
(Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?) 

-Vachel Lindsay, General William Booth Enters Into Heaven


Uncle Lionel bass drummer, ladies man, spirit figure and congenial eccentric/ ambassador, died Sunday, July 8th, 2012. He was eighty, or eighty- one according to some sources. (I used to speculate on his age- it was difficult to tell.) Cancer had ravaged his already whip- thin body but he still made it to dba , the Frenchman Street music venue, on June 26th for one last show. Seated in his wheelchair, surrounded by family members and beautiful women, he requested songs as he sipped a cool drink. As always he was, as they say, dressed to the nines.

© Jerry Moran
Uncle (everyone, including myself, called him Uncle) played bass drum with the Treme Brass Band, a New Orleans fixture. In a town where everyone is an eccentric, Uncle stood out- he wore his watch on his hand, not his wrist, and he always wore sunglasses, especially at night. He dressed elegantly at all times and wore his status as "the coolest man in New Orleans" easily as if to say, "Of course."

© Carolyn Kaster
He began playing bass drum at the age of eleven, and his story is the story of black New Orleans: born in a house in the Treme later demolished to make room for a city project, parading as a child with a social aid and pleasure club, shining shoes on Bourbon Street outside the Dream Room in the Sharkey Bonano heydays. He was even in a kid's kazoo band: they paraded every time Joe Louis won a fight.

When I made my fateful trip to New Orleans or America's Greatest City as it is known here in "L by L" land, in December of 2005, I was looking everywhere for confirmation that the city was not dying and that, somehow, everything would be okay, someday. Here's a link to an earlier blog: http://bretlittlehales.blogspot.com/2010/01/toussaint-on-corner-and-see-you-later.html


During that visit I went with my friends, the Freeland- Archers, to a dance at the Cafe Brazil, searching for what passes as normalcy in a devastated city where normal is a very disputable term at best. There, on the dance floor, like a cafe au lait Fred Astaire was Uncle Lionel, gliding and sliding to the music of Lionel Ferbos (yes, another Lionel!) squiring a parade of the most attractive women in the crowded club.

I can't even begin to describe the emotional impact this had on me. How bad could things get, I wondered, if Uncle Lionel is here, and still dancing.

What I didn't know was that he had just recently returned to AGC after losing his home in the Lafitte project and gone through a terrible depression. Perhaps he persevered because he was aware how important he was, how symbolic he had become.

Spike Lee featured him in the documentary "If God Is Willing and the Creek Don't Rise", his follow up to "When the Levees Broke", the 2006 Katrina film. He was seen in an episode of of HBO's Treme, and his likeness was used on countless ads and promotions for AGC.


Keith Spera, Times- Picayune

Actor Wendell Pierce who plays Antoine Batiste, the hard- luck trombone player on Treme, was walking on the banks of the Seine in Paris Sunday night when he heard brass band music. A French group was playing tunes from New Orleans, Pierce's home town. "It just shows you the impact of musicians like Uncle Lionel... his legacy will be felt not just in New Orleans but the world over."

That warm evening at dba, at the end, they wheeled Uncle Lionel out of the club. Everyone stood and applauded. Everyone said goodbye. He beamed, smiled his trademark grin and waved, surrounded by family and friends.

Then, last Sunday, he entered Heaven like General William Booth, beating on his big bass drum once again.

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