When he died on the morning of Sunday, July 8, 2012, Treme Brass Band drummer “Uncle” Lionel Batiste was an octogenarian, but he didn’t look a day under 103. He was reluctantly buried yesterday, two weeks and a day following his death.
A lifelong resident of New Orleans, Batiste began working at the age of 11, playing drums at the Square Deal Social & Pleasure Club. He enjoyed drink and he enjoyed women, both in significant quantities. Batiste obtained the nickname “Uncle Lionel” because he was a ubiquitous presence around town for decades — he knew everyone and everyone knew him. He was your uncle, even though he wasn’t really, and those who knew him personally referred to him simply as “Uncle” — dropping the Lionel. Those who were the closest to him took it a step further and called him “Unc” — dropping the “le.” Conversely, Batiste commonly referred to people who were not blood relatives of his as “my niece” or “my nephew.”
Meanwhile, Uncle Lionel fathered over a dozen children (the exact number seems to be in dispute) with multiple women and worked countless odd jobs on the side over the years — adventures in labor that, among other things, led to him shining shoes, embalming the dead, repairing gramophones, delivering pralines, laying bricks and manually setting pins in a bowling alley — to make ends meet.
If you saw Uncle Lionel around town in recent years you’d recognize him by his brass band cap, white shirt accompanied by a tie underneath a jacket, its pocket always filled with a kazoo, and a wristwatch worn across his hand, not his wrist, so that he could always have, in his words, “time on my hands.”
He was painfully wiry, to the point where it was hard not to marvel at his ability to spend his days marching around a town with a tropical climate with a bass drum strapped to his impossibly frail body. For years, despite being of sharp mind and spry step, it was hard not to look at Uncle Lionel and think, “Gee, he looks like he could die any day now.”
When a thief stole his beloved drum, one Batiste had crafted with his own bony hands, in 2010, even some of New Orleans’ most liberal residents called for the brazen bandit’s blood. It was later returned anonymously.
In a recent interview with Food Republic, Sean McCusker, a French Quarter restauranteur, described the culture of celebrity in his city thusly: “New Orleans doesn’t give a shit about pop culture…but it still has culture…The celebrities in New Orleans are the chefs and the (musicians). Not the Kardashians or some lame band.”
Thus, the intervening time between the moment Batiste took his last breath and the moment he was lowered into the ground was nothing short of an orgy of posthumous celebration. Even by New Orleans’ renowned standards, the sendoff the city’s residents gave Uncle Lionel was excessive, bordering on obnoxious, just as he likely hoped it would be — and New Orleans certainly wouldn’t have had it any other way. In addition to requesting that his funeral be held in a venue large enough to seat thousands, Uncle Lionel had another dying wish he conveyed to one of his daughters before passing: “No dark colors and no crying.”
New Orleans wasted no time getting the party for Uncle Lionel started.
On the afternoon of the day he died, just as the sun was was beginning to make its decent, an impromptu crowd formed outside a bar in the Treme bearing the name of celebrated local trumpet player Kermit Ruffins, one of the countless New Orleans musicians for whom Batiste served as a mentor, to honor Uncle Lionel with a second line parade. He’d died just a few hours earlier, but a small mob ventured out on a hot Sunday afternoon in the rain to take part in the first of what would be the first of many impromptu celebrations of Batiste’s life over the next week. A massive fried chicken dinner was prepared to feed the celebrants, and fans bearing Uncle Lionel’s image were distributed to help everyone keep somewhat cool. Apparently, a local printer took a hiatus from his summer vacation and opened his shop on a Sunday so that the fans could be made.
A middle-aged couple obviously from someplace not named New Orleans happened upon the procession through the Treme led by the Rebirth Brass Band — they stopped this writer to inquire about what all the commotion going on in the street was about. “It’s a second line for Uncle Lionel,” I informed them. The couple turned to each other, presumably to see if either recognized the name, and replied “Who?” in unison. Their ignorance of Uncle Lionel served to only fuel their bewilderment and astonishment over the spontaneous spectacle they were witnessing.
A week or so later, a bigger second line was organized by family, friends and fans of Uncle Lionel, one that essentially caused life in large swaths of downtown New Orleans to come to a complete stop.
“There were longtime friends of Mr. Batiste’s in the parade, though many and possibly most of those who followed along, snapping pictures with their phones, had not known him personally,” wrote the New York Times’ Campbell Robertson about the event. “They knew who he was, though, and knew his approach to life, which was perhaps best embodied by the AAA mechanic, his truck blocked by the passing parade, who jumped out and began dancing in the street.”
At Uncle Lionel’s official wake last week, attendees were greeted by an unusual sight upon entering the Charbonnet-Labat-Glapion Funeral Home: Uncle Lionel standing upright, no coffin in sight, appearing outside the box in death as he had throughout his life, as captured in the Instagram photo below…
In a send-off as unique as the man himself, Mr. Batiste wasn’t lying in his cypress casket. Instead, his body was propped against a faux street lamp, standing, decked out in his signature man-about-town finery.
He wore a cream sport coat, beige slacks, tasseled loafers, ornate necktie and matching pocket square, bowler hat and sunglasses. His bass drum and his Treme Brass Band uniform were positioned nearby.
His hands rested atop his omnipresent cane. The gold watch spanning his left palm was his trademark, representing his desire to always have “time on my hands.”
His head was cocked slightly to the left. He appeared ready to step from behind the velvet rope and saunter off to Frenchmen Street, where he reveled in dancing and drinking beer.
“He looks better today than when I saw him the Thursday before he died,” said Storyville Stompers tuba player Woody Penouilh. “Heaven is agreeing with him.”
The last time I spoke to Uncle Lionel was this past Mardi Gras as he and his bandmates were preparing to lead a second line procession down St. Charles Avenue. I snapped the picture embedded at the top of the post as he was lecturing me on “what it means to be sexy.” His key piece of advice: “You’ve got to relax and laugh and have a good time. Keep a smile on your face. That’s sexy.”