The woman was chicken leg-skinny, old enough to be my mother and still wearing her teal-colored nurse's uniform from work.
"Put that down," she ordered, and then plucked the beer bottle out of my hand and put it on the unattended piano. "Dance with me."
So we danced. It was a Sunday at Vaughan's Lounge in the Bywater in August of 2006, a strange, uncertain and often grim time as New Orleans waded through its first post-Katrina summer. A storm had formed earlier in the week off in the tropical distance, scared everyone into gut-knotting anxiety and promptly disintegrated into nothing. Some businesses that had opened hopefully enough after Katrina were starting to fail, and we kept learning of suicides by people we never even knew owned guns. The “new New Orleans” we had heard was coming seemed very distant.
But here at Vaughan’s, things were different. It was the old New Orleans, if only for a set. There was a pile of food in the corner. Mardi Gras decorations, long out of season, still hung from the ceiling. And in the corner of the room the Treme Brass Band was performing, its players gushing sweat like the rest of us in this dead swelter.
Then Uncle Lionel stepped up to the mic, setting aside his bass drum for a moment. He was sweating too, but he sure looked cool, duded up in linen trousers, a tropical-print shirt and a straw hat with a band that matched the shirt. We danced, he pantomimed, we cheered, he sang New Orleans songs we all knew by heart and that he had been singing for generations. And in the middle of this it was easy to believe that everything was going to be alright. Uncle Lionel had made it. The Treme Brass Band had made it. Their music – our music – had made it. Somehow, we all were going to make it.
Lionel Batiste – Uncle Lionel to anyone who ever met him – passed away on Sunday at age 81. His memory instantly brings to him his style, and the man’s mien was impeccable, from his sharp wardrobe to his debonair demeanor. But he was beyond dapper and dandy. Uncle Lionel had a magnetic power. He had the power to show the next generation of musicians what it was all about. He had the power to inspire people – whether it was to take up music or simply to live a little larger. And he had the power to make anyone he encountered feel welcome, even expected, even if it happened to be their first experience with a second line or their first visit to the backstreet bar where he was performing.
Photo by Ian McNulty
He was a vivacious, gregarious link to our musical heritage, and he made it all seem as current and vital as the next song, the next dance and the next round. He was indeed the uncle to our music culture and we were all his nieces and nephews.
Tonight, the wide-ranging family of New Orleans music will pay tribute to Uncle Lionel’s legacy at the Candlelight Lounge (925 N. Robertson St., New Orleans, (504) 581-6689), beginning at 9 p.m. This is the regular Wednesday night gig for the Treme Brass Band – with whom Uncle Lionel played bass drum and sang for more than 20 years – though tonight is bound to be anything but a regular gig. The Candlelight is a small neighborhood joint in the Treme with a low ceiling, a bar selling bottled beer and half pints of booze with setups, and a mural of Uncle Lionel on the wall outside. I would expect a packed house and many guest appearances from Uncle Lionel’s friends and fans. Also, this Friday, the more upscale jazz club Sweet Lorraine’s hosts a memorial benefit for Uncle Lionel, beginning at 7 p.m.
At this writing, arrangements for Uncle Lionel’s second line and funeral have not yet been announced. It’s safe to say they will be epic. For updates, check the fan page about him on Facebook. His family has set up a memorial fund for expenses. Donations to the "Uncle Lionel Memorial Fund" are accepted at any Liberty Bank and Trust branch.
The Candlelight Lounge
925 N. Robertson St.
1931 St. Claude Ave.