Best of the Beat Heartbeat Award: Uncle Lionel

A flurry in the crowd at the Down By the Riverside post-Thanksgiving concert marked the arrival of Uncle Lionel on the scene. Folks gathered around him, jubilantly greeting him with “Hey Unk!” offering hugs and beer and snapping photos. Women waited their turn to dance with the always-dapper Lionel “Uncle Lionel” Batiste Sr., the bass drummer and co-founder of the Tremé Brass Band, exquisite grand marshal and one of the most beloved musicians and people in the city who warms up any affair.  Batiste had been gone from the city for two months following Hurricane Katrina and during this—his homecoming weekend—the always gregarious turned up everywhere music was happening. The enthusiastic musician and entertainer charmed those at the Nickel-A-Dance show at Café Brazil where he took the stage to sing in front of guitarist/banjoist Don Vappie’s Creole Serenaders and later he headed over to the Palm Court. New Orleans instantly became a brighter place with Uncle Lionel back in town.

“I’m happy to be back home,” Batiste declares, following stays in Arkansas and Mississippi after evacuating the Tuesday after the storm. Fortunately he was picked up by a boat and taken to Orleans and Claiborne Avenue and then boarded a truck to the airport.

Those cross streets in the Tremé neighborhood where he waited to be transported were just blocks away from the upstairs apartment where he was born 76 years ago 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. His first instrument was a bass drum he made out of a galvanized washtub that he beat with a hammer ala steel drums. When it came time to march he’d simply turn the improvised instrument sideways and use a mallet created out of a stick and a rubber ball. Later, Batiste often played either banjo or guitar particularly on Mardi Gras Day when his family rolled with the Dirty Dozen Kazoo Band, a precursor to the Dirty Dozen Brass Band.

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. His primary employment remains with the Tremé Brass Band, which got its start at a Tuesday night jam session at Cindy’s Saloon in 1990. Since evacuations took the band’s members in different directions, however, Batiste hasn’t played with the group since August. Leader and snare drummer and Batiste’s life-long friend, Benny Jones, is presently living and working out of Arizona though he hopes to get back to New Orleans sometime this winter. That will be a reunion worth waiting for.

As a youngster, and even today, Batiste has always been up for anything that could be considered entertainment. Now much called upon as a vocalist (he killed on the hot “Food Stamp Blues” from the Tremé’s 1995 sizzling release Gimme My Money Back) Batiste began honing this talent as a kid. He added his voice to neighborhood church choirs, and in order to pick up some change, he and other neighborhood children formed a vocal quartet and headed to nearby stores to sing a capella on chestnuts like “Sweet Adeline.” When he was a teenager he joined the now legendary team of Pork Chop and Kidney Stew to tap dance on the streets of the French Quarter. Says Batiste: “I likes to dance, it comes from my family. I do the jitterbug, I do the Susie Q, shuffle, I do the waltz.”

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.”

In order to beef up his income to support his family, Batiste learned a variety of trades. “I learned how to lay bricks, I was doing a little work on cars and as small as I am I worked with concrete.” A noted shoeshine man, he also added plastering and lathe work to his skills. He painted houses, drove deliveries was employed at a radio parts store and using his artistic bent, Batiste learned how to work with papier-mâché making the big heads and the like for Mardi Gras floats.

For several years he was employed by noted Carnival float builder Blaine Kern. He has also designed umbrellas, streamers and fans for second-line clubs like the Dukes of Caledonia, the Square Deal and the Money Wasters. He’d sketch illustrations on canvas for Wildman Bird of the White Eagles Mardi Gras Indians that would later be filled with colorful beads.

Bestowing good cheer has always been an innate part of Batiste’s daily life. He affectionately greets everyone with a “How’s my little niece?; How’s my little nephew?” whether they’re gray-haired businessmen, babies in carriages, neighborhood characters or wealthy socialites. Nobody boasts more kin than Batiste—everybody’s favorite uncle.

As Jones says of his musical partner, “He’s always been the same, always jolly.”

“It’s a joy to my heart to see so many people love what I’m doing,” Batiste says with heartfelt sincerity. “I love to see a smile on their faces—it makes me feel good. We are all here for a reason.”