Dapper if not debonair, Uncle Lionel Batiste is that slender fellow wearing large sunglasses all the waking hours, a bass drummer by general trade (Tremé Brass Band) yet a vocalist whose honey-sweet take on sentimental standards of bygone years will make young women coo and their guys, even the beefy ones, smile at the genuine item.
The CD Lars Edegran Presents Uncle Lionel on the GBH label showcases the most tender set of pipes in town. Well, among males at least. His version of “When Your Hair Has Turned Silver” is enough to put the spring in any grandma’s step and pull someone younger onto the ballroom floor. Lest we lose the under-35 set among loyal readers, let it be said that Uncle Lionel’s version of “On A Coconut Island” evokes a vista of bleached sand and emerald waters for skinny-dipping under a Caribbean moon.
Uncle Lionel, as he long has been known to one and all, turned 78 last month. The youngest of 11 children, he grew up in Tremé across the street from Craig School. His father played many instruments; the sisters sang, the six brothers played piano or banjo. The neighborhood in the 1930s and ’40s was a hotbed of musicians – trumpeters Kid Howard and George Lewis, vocalists Smiley Lewis and Cousin Joe, trombonist Jim Robinson, the sterling Alphonse Picou who played the famous piccolo passage in High Society, all lived within a few blocks of Batiste’s home where his daddy earned keep as a blacksmith.
In an interview with Mick Burns for his book Keeping the Beat: New Orleans Brass Band Renaissance, Lionel Batiste paints a verbal picture of the Tremé that was. “We would go to dances at the San Jacinto Club. The Autocrat Club, it was a question of complexion – they’d hold a paper bag up, and if you was darker than the bag, they wouldn’t let you in.
“They were all mixed people in the Tremé … We didn’t have a segregation problem in the Tremé area. We would sit down together in the house and eat. You didn’t have all that robbing in those days. In that neighborhood they had feelings for one another … The white would look out for the black, the black would raise the white kids. I’ve seen a sister nurse a black child on that side and a white child on this [breast].”
That vision of the past may romanticize the burdens of race and class in Tremé of the 1940s, but if the history of this maddening city shows anything, it’s that people have forged rituals of joy despite a legacy of troubled politics.
With the destruction of 12 square blocks of housing in the 1960s to clear the land that eventually became Louis Armstrong Park, the San Jacinto Club and other hubs of the culture were bulldozed into memory. In an interview several years ago, Uncle Lionel told me of the memorial he organized for another casualty, the Caldonia Inn, a magnet for the second-line parade clubs. Professor Longhair took his stage name at the Caldonia. Louis Armstrong stopped there during his ’49 ride as King of Zulu. Uncle Lionel Batiste had a day job in a funeral home on Rampart Street “when they buried the Caldonia, tore it down.” He orchestrated a funeral for the club as it moved to another building, called New Caldonia. Uncle Lionel situated a mannequin garbed as a weeping widow on a bench at the bar, borrowed a casket from the mortuary and lined it with velvet. “I was the corpse,” he said dryly of his role, lying in the casket as pallbearers followed the Olympia Brass Band playing dirges for the Caldonia Inn.
In a career playing bass drum, the old man had his share of sideline occupations to make ends meet: plasterer, bricklayer, house painter. In a 1995 CD of the Tremé band on Arhoolie, he sang “Food Stamp Blues.”
Watching Uncle Lionel (and performing with him) over the years, the Swedish-born banjo and piano man Lars Edegran, long a mainstay of traditional jazz in New Orleans, decided to feature his singing on a single record. Uncle Lionel features a stellar lineup of sidemen – the prolific Evan Christopher on clarinet, Tom Fischer on the alto and tenor sax (and lead clarinet on the clarinet duets), Steve Blailock on blues guitar, Mark Brooks on bass and Edegran with his clarion string work.
Uncle Lionel singing, “There Must Be A Way” revives a popular waltz from local dance halls in the post-World War II years. In times such as these, with economic shock waves and the nightly news a show on urban homicide, Uncle Lionel Batiste’s soothing tones sing of hope for the human experiment.