In a town defined as much by extravagant characters as congenital corruption or perilous geography, Uncle Lionel Batiste was rare. The old man who wore sunglasses all his waking hours anchored Treme Brass Band as bass drummer. When he died July 8, at 80 (or is it 81? There is confusion about the year of his birth), I was in Santa Fe on vacation, suffused with regret that I couldn’t make his sendoff.
He was a jaunty fellow with his rings and gold watch, lionized on Frenchmen Street and his prances through the French Quarter. He had the grin of a perpetual winner. Several years ago he told me about his boyhood in Tremé, long before the city razed 14 blocks in an urban renewal disaster that ended up being a park, belatedly named for Louis Armstrong. Presumably born on Feb. 2, 1931, he spent his early years at 1024 N. Robertson St. “In winter I used to work on the wood wagons,” he recalled, “and a vegetable-peddling wagon in summer. On a slow day I’d pick up rags.” He sang for the fruits they sold, an illustration moved from his easy tenor baritone into a lilting falsetto reach.
“I got watermelons red to the rind I got some for a nickel, some for a dime.
So would you pay, Cause here come a watermelon man.”
“My daddy played music,” he continued, “but he didn’t play for no nightclubs. He played to entertain family and friends. A lot of my daddy’s friends were raised up in this neighborhood including Benny Jones’ daddy.” Jones, leader of the Treme Brass Band, was a decade younger than Batiste, a son of drummer Chester Jones, a veteran of the Eureka, Onward and Tuxedo brass bands. Chester gave Batiste his first gig.
“It was a nightclub across the river named Pepper Pot,” he explained. “I must have been about 12, 13 years old; but I had to stop. My mom didn’t like me coming in late.” He went to Joseph Craig middle school, “and a few weeks at Booker Washington” high school, before he quit, as did many black youths of his generation, to help support a family with 11 siblings. Jones comes from a family of seven boys and six girls.
He first marched in a parade with the Square Deal Social Aid and Pleasure Club. “We started at Gravier, across Tulane Avenue, come straight down Rampart Street, pass through the 6th Ward, the 7th Ward, come back to the 6th Ward to Square Deal club.” The site was between Roman and Prieur streets, an area later demolished to make room for University Hospital.
“We wore shirts and pants, and ties; some wore suspenders, some wore belts. Of course we had the fans, umbrellas, baskets; they would decorate the baskets, umbrellas and streamers. The first year I paraded I was in green and white, and I had a decorated umbrella.”
As he became a bass drummer, marching for second line and funeral parades, Uncle Lionel developed a gritty take on death.
“I had a nephew got kilt. Back then they’d lay you out in the house with one or two bedrooms. They’d take the mattress, string it against the wall, put the remains in the front room. They’d serve coffees, crackers, little wine. It would last two days. Now my nephew, man’s name was Tank, he was the first to have his body rolled from the house to the church to the streets. From 1300 St. Philip St. to 1200 block of St. Philip Street, which was the Calvary Spiritual Church.”
To trumpeter James Andrews, who played as a youth in the Treme Brass Band, ”Uncle was all about show business – how to dress, how to bring the melody, [how to] keep the song. With a fine touch to the bass drum, he was always on top with the beat he had. And it was funky.”
The family plunged into elaborate planning for Batiste’s funeral. At the wake, the old man was literally standing up, a feat of embalming for which the mortician Louis Charbonnet drolly told The Times-Picayune’s Keith Spera, “You have to think outside the box.”
Such events in this town have that kind of tendency. When Lady Linda the gospel singer died, her grieving husband, Anthony “Tuba Fats” Lacen, said, “The wake is now open. Y’all can sing and enjoy yourselves. That’s the kind of person she was.” A saxophonist stood honking and rocking his horn in front of her open casket. A guy in a plush burgundy suit danced the alligator on the floor. A lady called Miss Lollipop, holding a clarinet, swirled a handkerchief as pranced in front of the coffin. On watching a video of this, the venerable University of New Orleans historian Jerah Johnson remarked, ”What will they think in Peoria?”
When James Andrews entered the Charbonnet-Labat Funeral Home to see Uncle Lionel propped upright against a pole, hands clasped with rings on his fingers, leaning on his cane, he assumed it was a statue. “I went to the casket and thought, ‘Oh, no, they stole Uncle before the funeral.’ It was different, and kinda awkward. But I would say this. For Uncle we did two weeks straight second-lines in tribute. I’m sure that’s the first time that happened.”
That is right. Uncle Lionel Batiste was a standup guy.