Of all the colorful char-actors who’ve populated the streets of New Orleans over the years, Uncle Lionel Batiste takes the cake. Uncle Lionel patrolled the banquette along lower Decatur and Frenchmen Streets with the panache of a potentate or prelate. Always impeccably dressed in a crisply tailored suit, usually accompanied by a color-coordinated bowler hat, he sashayed down the block, a wizened figure greeting people with a smile, a nod of his head and occasionally a tip of that cap or a flourish of his walking stick. When Uncle Lionel sauntered out of his digs he was on stage, and he clearly loved to be recognized and basked in the attention he received. In addition to his ministrations toward the regular denizens of the block, Unc had time for everyone and seemed to particularly enjoy the attentions of tourists, tirelessly letting them chat him up and willingly posing for endless photographs. He should have gotten a stipend from the tourist industry for his ambassador-like demeanor.
Uncle Lionel’s passing at age 81 on the morning of July 8 automatically makes Frenchmen Street a less interesting place. Other char-actors will doubtlessly try to recreate his act, but no one can recreate the man. Uncle Lionel knew who he was and what he stood for. As the bass drummer for the Treme Brass Band he understood the importance of music in everyday life. He was an archetype without the desire to be a celebrity, a proud, self-sufficient black man whose stage was the streets of his community and whose demeanor spoke volumes about the nature of dignity. He represented the Sixth Ward and its Treme neighborhood as a product of the country’s first black community. His iconic figure is so ubiquitous in the HBO series Treme he might as well be the show’s brand icon the way Professor Longhair defines Tipitina’s.
During his frequent sojourns, Uncle Lionel moved at in inexorable pace, attuned to the rhythms of his home town. The day Batiste died, drummer Doug Belote posted an anecdote on Facebook. “Uncle Lionel, why do you wear your watch across your palm instead of on your wrist?” asked Belote. “I want everyone to know,” Lionel answered, “I have time on my hands.”
Impromptu second lines jumped up on Frenchmen Street immediately, fired up by the determination to keep doing it until the body was laid to rest. On Friday the 13th, a blinding rainstorm didn’t stop thousands of second-liners—many dressed in white but others in revelers’ costumes—from parading down St. Philip Street, then taking over North Rampart Street on a wild, dancing romp to Sweet Lorraine’s. Bus drivers stopped their vehicles in the street amid the sea of second-liners, taking the time to watch the celebration. The sharp-stepping Uncle Lionel would have certainly been proud of the party he threw. He probably would have been amused by the sight of the three separate brass bands becoming completely enveloped by the crowd. Drums and horns emanated from the midst of what must have looked from the sky like some massive psychedelic caterpillar.
Kid Merv Offers Tribute
Friday’s second line was followed by a benefit concert at Sweet Lorraine’s featuring Uncle Lionel’s protégé Kid Merv. Merv wore the last suit Uncle Lionel ever saw him in. Kid talked about the style tips he learned from Uncle Lionel, sartorial as well as musical.
“Uncle Lionel had more than 100 suits,” says Merv. “You’d never see him in the same suit for one month. He taught me what to get, like shirts, and hats, shoes, pants, and cufflinks, ties. He’d come over to me and rub my fabric, and I’d say his famous line back at him: ‘Watch the fabric.’ He’d look through his glasses and check out the shoes I had on. He always shopped at Rubenstein Bros., all the stores down in that area.”
“When I joined the Treme Brass Band, Uncle Lionel called me a crooner,” says Merv. “He said, ‘You got the voice of a crooner.’ So he started showing me how to bend notes, how to sing some of the songs that are hard to sing but mean a lot to a lot of people. At Donna’s Bar and Grill that’s where Uncle Lionel taught me, where I learned how to sing ‘Mack the Knife,’ he encouraged me to sing ‘Route 66.’ He coached me, he gave me a lot of encouragement. Sometimes when we finished with our performance we would sit down with our beers—Miller High Lifes—and go over all the songs and numbers. The main one was ‘Kiss To Build A Dream On.’
“Today a lot of his spirit is still living in my life. For the rest of my life. He was very good to me. He was a friend of my father’s. My father died when I was eight years old. He coached me as a big brother. He was always a father figure to me, more than a friend. I will never forget him the rest of my life and he will always live in my music as long as I have breath to breathe.”
Uncle Lionel on Satchmo
Geraldine Wyckoff interviewed Uncle Lionel for an August 2002 cover story to coincide with that year’s Satchmo Summerfest. Batiste talked of his memories of Armstrong dating back to childhood, when he “encountered Louis Armstrong on several occasions and clearly remembers seeing the trumpet legend during a Zulu parade,” according to Wyckoff. “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,” Batiste told Wyckoff. “I used to 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.”
Batiste told of 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.”
Batiste also witnessed 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,” he said. “I felt like he deserved it.
“His gift was to play the trumpet. First it’s in the high notes he made and the jokes he would tell, you know, and that smile on his face.”
Mardi Gras Magic
Everyone has their own favorite Uncle Lionel stories to tell. Here’s mine:
I must have passed him hundreds of times on the street and always said, “hello,” if there was an opportunity, but mostly our exchange was limited to smiles and nods while a few choice words sufficed. During his forays, Uncle Lionel would often hit the various clubs along Frenchmen Street, sometimes just listening, occasionally performing a little dance while the band played, and in the best circumstances taking the mic to sing a couple of tunes. Davis Rogan, another Treme denizen, always made sure Uncle Lionel came up to sing during his gigs on Frenchmen Street. Last carnival season (2012), on the night of the Krewe du Vieux parade, Rogan’s band played the Spotted Cat. The place was packed and the band’s first two sets were off-the-scale great. Uncle Lionel dropped in and watched from the wings, sipping a Miller High Life. Somewhere around 2 a.m. the intensity of the revelry kicked in, and Rogan began feeling the effects of carnival magic. His throat was shot but the band careened on. Uncle Lionel was standing next to me. Smiling wickedly, he turned and said, “I feel my strength.”
Suddenly we were watching a new show: the Davis Rogan band with lead singer Uncle Lionel Batiste. As the lead vocalist in the Treme band he knew a lot of songs and his guest spots were always charming. But on this night he was breathing fire. The highlight was an epic version of “Tipitina,” chorus after chorus, Davis having too much fun to care about stopping while Uncle Lionel kept adding fuel to the inferno. During one chorus he shouted the line “Hey Robertaaaaaa!” so intensely it was as if he stopped the world for a moment, freezing time for the Mardi Gras magic to take over and thrust the spirit of Professor Longhair into Uncle Lionel’s body. What, only moments before, looked like a Frenchmen Street gig careening off the rails in the after-midnight revelry turned into a time warp of spirit possession that encompassed the whole club.
Perhaps some Mardi Gras night years from now, someone will get up in front of some band on Frenchmen Street and start singing until the spirit of Uncle Lionel possesses them. I hope I’m there to hear it.
Thank you, Uncle Lionel!