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Lionel Batiste: Everybody’s Favorite Uncle

As Lionel Batiste, Sr., walks around the Tremé neighborhood where he’s spent his life, people wave from their front stoops and car windows shouting, “Hey Unk!” He knows everyone and everyone knows him, from those leaning on canes to toddlers in strollers. While times have changed, Uncle Lionel keeps up with all that’s going on, observing his world while strolling the sidewalks, marching in a parade or hitting his bass drum on a bandstand.

“I admire all the youngsters, all the young musicians, all of them,” says Batiste, who considers them and all who cross his life’s path as his “little nieces and nephews. Something that I feel is that God just sat down in this Tremé area with talent.”

While some veteran musicians bemoan the new brass band sounds and the styles of today’s second lines, Batiste, who’s played his bass drum at thousands of parades, observes the transformations with little lament. “Things change,” says Batiste philosophically. “What they’re playing now brings me back to when I was playing in my school days because the timing is almost like a marching band because they’re moving fast.” As a dance enthusiast, Batiste sees how the fast tempos have altered the moves on the lines. “The dancers have to do a lot of footwork and jumpin’. Some of them hit the ground and they do more clownin’ with the dancing now because of the music. They’ll turn up steppin’ on a porch and they’ll be dancin’ on top of a car. The kids today on the parade should put accident insurance on themselves,” he says with a laugh. “Time changes everything.”

Well, perhaps not everything. As Benny Jones, who co-founded the Tremé Brass Band with Batiste says of his musical partner and life-long friend, “He’s always been the same, always jolly.”

At 71, Batiste is the oldest brass band musician playing the rigorous, four-hour social aid and pleasure club second line parades. On hot spring or autumn days when temperatures hover in the 90s and the humidity hangs in the air like a damp sponge, these parades are no joke—even for young participants not burdened with the weight of a bass drum.

A man of invention who enjoys rigging things up, Batiste turned to these talents to make his life a bit easier playing the streets. He took a handsaw—not a band saw or circular saw—to one of his bass drums and slimmed it down.

“When I cut the drum and put new [lighter] hardware on it, it took off 18 or 19 pounds,” says Batiste in a nonchalant manner as if everyone chops up drums this way. Of course, this is the same guy who as a youngster converted a bugle into a trombone. “I couldn’t blow it,” he remembers, “but my brother could blow the hell out of it.”

The main thrust behind Batiste’s remarkable stamina at the parades, however, is his pure enthusiasm for the events.

“It’s a joy to my heart to see so many people love what I’m doing,” says Batiste. “When you love your instrument, your instrument is going to love you.”

CLOSE TO HEAVEN

Lionel Batiste was born in an upstairs apartment, or as he says, “close to heaven” at 1931 St. Phillip Street near St. Claude Avenue. Everyone in his large family was involved in music in some way, whether it was playing an instrument or simply a kazoo or a jug, singing or dancing. He maintains that his father played every instrument except the harp and explains that his mother liked for her children to entertain her. Place this family in the heart of the musically rich Tremé neighborhood and it isn’t at all surprising that Batiste has been a musician and performer his entire life.

“When I was coming up I didn’t live across Rampart, I didn’t live across Dumaine, I didn’t live across Ursulines and I didn’t live across Claiborne. I stayed right in this area here,” says Batiste, while sitting in the Backstreet Cultural Museum on St. Claude Avenue. Batiste continues to live in and haunt the neighborhood of his birth, a place he describes as holding “a lot of love, a lot of joy.”

“My first instrument that I started out with was a bass drum made out of a number five galvanized tub, the kind you use to wash clothes and bring it inside to take a bath in,” remembers Batiste. “I used to put it on the ground and I’d beat it with a hammer like them steel drums.” When it came time to march with the improvised instrument he’d turn it sideways and hit it with a mallet made out of solid rubber ball tapped to a stick. Later, Batiste often played either banjo or guitar, particularly when his family—mother, father, siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins—would all come out on Mardi Gras Day to revel and rollick with the Dirty Dozen Kazoo Band (a precursor to the Dirty Dozen Brass Band). Onboard to high-step during these lively excursions, which would often follow the Rex parade from Uptown to down, were folks dressed up as baby dolls and skeletons.

While Batiste, who is now renowned as a heartfelt vocalist, didn’t start singing professionally until the formation of the Tremé Brass Band around 1990, he began honing this skill early in life. He added his voice to the choirs of neighborhood churches and at Christmastime would join a group of youngsters who traveled the streets to sing carols at people’s doors. To pick up some change, he and other neighborhood kids, including his life-long friend Henry Youngblood (widely known for his edition of “Got a Big Fat Woman”) formed a vocal quartet and headed to stores and in barbershop quartet style, sang songs like “Sweet Adeline.”

As a youngster, and even today, Batiste was up for anything that could be considered entertainment. When he was a teenager he’d join the now legendary team of Pork Chop and Kidney Stew to tap dance on the streets of the French Quarter. Another popular routine of the day that Batiste employed to earn some cash was a dance performed while sitting on an apple crate. Kids would take off their shoes and socks and stick a Coke bottle cap between their toes and tap out the rhythms. “They used to call that ‘barefootin’,” remembers Batiste with a laugh. “I likes to dance, it comes from my family. I do the jitterbug, I do the Susie Q, shuffle, I do the waltz…”

THE HIGHEST PEAK

Batiste considers his first truly professional job playing bass drum with Harold Dejan’s Olympia Brass Band in the 1950s. Many brass bands have called on his talents as a bass drummer or grand marshal including the Crescent City, the Tuxedo and the O’Howard brass bands. “Up until now I still get calls from traditional bands,” says Batiste.

His primary employment is, of course, with the Tremé Brass Band, a group led by snare drummer and old friend Benny Jones, who, it happens, is married to Batiste’s niece. The band got its start at a Tuesday night jam arranged by Jones that was held at Cindy’s Saloon on St. Bernard and St. Claude avenues. The session was so successful it became a regular gig. Jones then pared down the group to include such musicians as himself, Batiste, tuba player Philip Frazier, trumpeter Kenneth Terry, tenor saxophonist Elliot “Stackman” Callier, soprano saxist Butch Gomez, trombonists Revert Andrews, Eddie “Boh” Paris, and Keith “Wolf” Anderson with Alfred “Dut” Lazard acting as grand marshal.

“It took off pretty fast,” says Jones of the ensemble that now performs around 20 gigs a month, has traveled abroad and made a huge splash with its 1995 Arhoolie release Gimme My Money Back. On the disc, Batiste shows off his vocal prowess on classic hymns like “Jesus on the Main Line” and proves he remains hip to the times as he digs into the hot modern style of “Food Stamp Blues.”

Sharing the rhythm section with Batiste, Jones credits the bass drummer for keeping things lively. “Sometimes he’ll double up or triple up the rhythms,” explains Jones, “and it keeps the band real interested—it keeps the band moving. He always has a different joke every time he gets on a bandstand and I guess you could say that’s in our repertoire with him. He’s part of the show.”

Batiste’s serious side takes over when he leads a band as a grand marshal for a jazz funeral. He learned the style and skills of this esteemed position from watching greats like Sing On, Slow Drag, Matthew “Fats” Houston, Tampa Light, Ellyna Tatum and other old-time masters. Batiste remembers the pride he felt when he was asked to grand marshal for the first time. “It made me feel up there,” says Batiste, “it made me stand out more—more noticeable. I also have been a commissary—that’s [the position] behind the grand marshal. See the grand marshal is supposed to do nothing but prance. The commissary he runs the band but he gets his signals from the grand marshal.”

To lead a jazz funeral procession as a grand marshal takes a special demeanor, one of respect and dignity. With the sadness of the occasion filling the air and the music stirring the emotions, a grand marshal must stand apart from his or her personal feelings.

“When I do funerals I look up at the highest peak that might be a lamppost and I concentrate on that. It helps me from shedding a tear.”

LADIES MAN

When someone takes over Batiste’s bass drum duties at nightspots like Donna’s or Vaughan’s, it’s not long before he’s out on the dance floor with one of the woman patrons, putting on some pretty sexy moves and making her spin and laugh. Batiste denies he’s a flirt though he can charm just about any female from eight to 80.

“I likes the ladies,” he admits but is quick to explain that when he steps off the bandstand he’s then acting as the grand marshal for the group. “The grand marshal, that’s his job to go out and grab you by the hand to dance. That’s what he’s there for. When I see people sitting down with that type of music goin’ on, if they don’t snap their fingers, clap their hands, tap their feet, they might as well just go home. I enjoy what I’m doing—just dance the night away. I’m not a flirt,” Batiste stresses again, “I’m just an entertainer.”

Well, that might be, but Batiste does confess that having an eye for the ladies may be one of the reasons he didn’t take up the trap set and play with sit-down bands. When he was a young man, he’d watch what went on between the musicians and the ladies at dances like those played by Dave Bartholomew’s Big Band at the Sinner Sinner social club on Dumaine Street. Bastiste observed that the members of the band would all talk to the women during breaks, but at the end of the night the drummer usually came up the loser.

“The trumpet player he’d put his instrument in a flour sack or pillow case and would make sure she wouldn’t go nowhere,” remembers Batiste. “He’d say ‘oh hold this for me’ and he’d run to the bathroom and take care of his needs and she’s right there waitin’. The piano player, he’d close his piano, get his money and he was gone. And the drummer would still be there and the janitor would be waiting to put the lights out and he’s still foolin’ around with screws. By that time, the ladies had changed their mind.”

LET IT SHINE

Uncle Lionel takes his time as he whisks his brush across the two-tone leather shoes of a customer seated at the wooden shoeshine stand that he built in front of Joe’s Cozy Corner. For a bit more money he adds the finishing touch, carefully applying “sole dressing” around the edges and on the heels of the shoes. There’s no rushing the job for Batiste, who has been perfecting this art for a half a century. He’s also had lots of practice keeping his estimated 50 pairs of shoes in spiffy condition.

“The secret to a real good shine is a clean rag and clean brushes,” says Batiste, who has worked off-and-on at the profession since childhood. “And if the customer is on the stand, you have to have a real balanced hand because when you’re polishing the shoe you don’t want to put polish on the sock.”

Shoeshine stands were popular in the Tremé and like barbershops today, served as social centers to share news, gossip, and maybe a hot tip on a horse race. Batiste began his career—one of many—shining shoes at a stand owned by Henry Youngblood’s uncle. It was located next to the infamous, original Caldonia Club on the corner of St. Phillip and St. Claude. Later he worked for a master called T-Boy, the owner of a shoeshine parlor that was housed in the same building as Cosimo Matassa’s J& M Music Shop on the corner of North Rampart and Dumaine.

“I used to make a lot of money,” says Batiste, who glossed up the footwear of the bookies, who often worked out of the building, and their patrons as well as many of the musicians coming to the store for supplies or heading to the recording studio in the back. “Fats Domino came through there—I shined his shoes, Dave Bartholomew, Cha Cha Hogan. There were a lot of big-timers that came through there.”

“Lionel shined shoes for just about everybody,” remembers Matassa. “Back then, shoeshine guys were special—everybody had their favorite—and shoes were more important. People had their dress shoes and their work shoes and they worried about them. He did a great job; he made shoes look beautiful. He might have been less flamboyant than some of the other guys, but he always had that beautiful smile and he fit in like a hand in a glove.”

Matassa, who lived in the French Quarter, would also see Batiste around the neighborhood and call on him when he needed some jobs done. “He used to help me with my kids and stuff—take them for walks,” says Matassa. “People don’t today don’t realize that the French Quarter and the Tremé weren’t considered so separate in those days. I mean Rampart Street was a main street but it wasn’t a wall the way it is today. So he’d do things for us that we’d pay him to do and other things just because he was as a neighbor. Making a living playing music was tough.”

“Wherever there was a trade, I learned it,” says Batiste, who picked up skills like laying brick, working on cars and plastering. He utilized his artistic nature as an employee of noted Carnival float builder Blaine Kern and designed umbrellas, streamers and fans for second line clubs. Batiste also sketched illustrations for some Mardi Gras Indian suits worn by the White Eagles’ Wildman Bird.

LOUIS ARMSTONG’S SMILE

When he was a child, Batiste encountered Louis Armstrong on several occasions and clearly remembers seeing the trumpet legend during a Zulu parade. As a member of the band from the Milne Boys Home, an institution that replaced the Colored Waif’s Home where Armstrong once resided, Batiste stood with his fellow musicians to watch the Mardi Gras procession. Dressed in khaki uniforms and hats, the young band members stood on the steps of Charbonnet-Labat Funeral Home on the corner of St. Phillip and N. Claiborne as the mule-drawn floats passed by. Armstrong came along and stood with the group for a time, chatting to the boys as well as band manager Peter Davis. Back in 1913, it was Davis who allowed Armstrong to join the Colored Waif’s Home Brass Band where he quickly mastered the cornet.

“I was in the band,” says Batiste, side-stepping the reason he was among the group from Milne. “I used to the visit the home, let’s put it that way and it just so happened they gave me a uniform. Louis Armstrong would sit and talk to youngsters, especially those from the boys’ home because he knew you had to do something to get that uniform,” adds Batiste with a chuckle, while perhaps realizing his slip.

Batiste recalls Armstrong’s visits to the Milne Boys Home as well as hearing the trumpeter play with the WPA Band. “The band used to come to Craig University [a name often used for Craig Elementary School] and stood up under the big tree and entertained the other band members.”

Like most people in the city, Batiste was among the throngs of folks on the streets to see Armstrong as King Zulu during the 1949 Carnival parade. “I was really happy and it was really a pleasure—a pleasure—to see him up there,” remembers Batiste, smiling at the memory. “I felt like he deserved it.

“His gift was to play the trumpet,” says Batiste, who hears and sees New Orleans reflected in both Armstrong’s music and demeanor. “First it’s in the high notes he made and the jokes he would tell, you know, and that smile on his face.”