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New Orleans Celebrates the Life of a Bandleader

New Orleans Celebrates Life of Lionel Batiste
By CAMPBELL ROBERTSON
Published: July 16, 2012
New York Times

William Widmer for The New York Times
Lionel Batiste of the Treme Brass Band, known as Uncle Lionel, was honored in kind.

NEW ORLEANS — The drums could be heard first and then the brass, and then, far down the street in the twilight, people could be seen dancing and swaying, the bells of sousaphones above them like halos. Shuffling back and forth at the front of the parade was a paint horse named Sunshine that somebody taught how to dance.

This was Day 2 of the party that has lasted over a week in the Treme neighborhood. On some nights there have been small, informal parades like this one; on other nights people from around the city and even tourists have flocked to this neighborhood, New Orleans’s cultural and musical heart, to see or be a part of a certain kind of celebration that takes place almost nowhere else.

On the nights between the death and the burial of one of their colleagues, musicians gather to play and remember. This culminates in the funeral procession, one of those local traditions that is featured in the city’s marketing materials but is no less old and true for it. People still talk about processions from years past, but in terms of size, the one coming up this Friday may be among the largest in recent memory.

William Widmer for The New York Times
A fan posed in front of the Candelight Lounge, where the Treme Brass Band performed its usual Wednesday night gig last week.

“The way things is going, this is probably going to be the biggest,” said Action Jackson, a D.J. who follows cultural events for the local radio station WWOZ.

The man being laid to rest is Lionel Batiste, known to everyone for decades as Uncle Lionel, to many simply as “Unc.” Mr. Batiste, who was 80 when he died of cancer on July 8, was the singer, bass drummer and assistant grand marshal for the Treme Brass Band. He was also one of the great New Orleans personalities, the face of Treme and a consummate man about town.

“In the daytime,” said Benny Jones Sr., who is Mr. Batiste’s nephew by marriage and who founded the band with him nearly 20 years ago, “he liked to wake up and dress up and walk.”

Did he ever dress up: high-shined shoes, on the soles of which he would record the date of purchase; necktie and pocket square, the square at times made of fabric snipped off the back of the necktie to ensure a perfect match; wristwatch worn across his knuckles, so, he said, he would always have time on his hands; brown derby on his head; and then the walking cane, sunglasses and an ever-shifting constellation of jewelry.

And he walked, sauntering along Frenchmen Street in the afternoon, or embarking on a leisurely bar crawl up St. Bernard Avenue, beginning with Sidney’s and on and on to the Autocrat Club or Seal’s Class Act. He would sit at the bar with a Miller High Life, preferably next to a woman, and discuss the proper way to iron the crease into trousers, how to say “pregnant” in Creole or how to cook a pot roast.

Mr. Batiste could have been New Orleans itself: mischievous, unhurried, with an antiquated and singular style, well-acquainted with the hard life but easygoing nonetheless, at once the genuine article and a showman playing for the tourists. As a child he tap-danced for the customers at a whites-only club in the French Quarter. But he also danced to the music of legends like Professor Longhair at a neighborhood club owned by Mr. Jones’s father. And he kept on performing in his off time.

“They’d spin the bottle,” Mr. Batiste said of family gatherings in a 2001 interview included in the book “Keeping the Beat on the Street: The New Orleans Brass Band Renaissance.” “If it stopped on you, you had to sing. Another thing they’d do, you had to dance with the bottle.”

He knew all the dances — he was particularly proud of his waltz — and he played nearly all of the instruments, including the drums, banjo, piano, violin, clarinet, washboard and kazoo. Until the Treme Brass Band formed in the mid-1990s, he was a journeyman drummer, playing with various bands and working no end of odd jobs, from mortician’s assistant to bricklayer.

But after he and Mr. Jones formed the Treme Brass Band, his music career steadied. And after Hurricane Katrina, his fame grew beyond the city. He was a fixture on the HBO series “Treme,” the poster man for the Spike Lee documentary “If God Is Willing and da Creek Don’t Rise,” and a presence at international music festivals — you might run into him on airplanes, his hatbox as his carry-on.

It did not make him rich, but he enjoyed the fame.

“I want to be at the Mahalia Jackson or the Superdome,” he explained to one of his daughters, Karen Williams, of his funeral wishes (accounts of the number of children Mr. Batiste had, and even his age, are various; Ms. Williams said he married twice and had 11 children, seven of whom survive him, and that he was indeed 80 years old).

The memorial on Friday will be at the Mahalia Jackson Theater, a venue big enough for touring Broadway shows. “No dark colors and no crying,” he told his daughter.

Until then, there will be the gatherings, sometimes just the musicians sitting around playing and swapping stories in the patch of grass known as Tuba Fats Square. On other nights, friends and associates will hold an intimate parade, as much as such a thing exists, starting around the Basin Street restaurant owned by the trumpet player Kermit Ruffins, one of Mr. Batiste’s protégés in matters of style. The musicians at these parades are generally young, young enough to haul sousaphones and trombones around for four hours, stopping only at landmarks of the honoree’s life. But Mr. Batiste’s older brother Norman, 83, is spry enough to follow along.

William Widmer for The New York Times
A musician was among several who played outside before the show started that night.

There have also been the well-publicized events, like the concert on Wednesday night at the Candlelight Lounge, the usual spot for the Treme Brass Band. An hour before the members showed, the club was already heaving with sweat-drenched concertgoers, many of them new to the neighborhood, including a delegation from a swingers convention that happened to be in town.

The biggest parade yet took place on Friday afternoon, hundreds-strong despite a steamy rain that fell on and off. Musicians came from all over — there were well more than a dozen trumpet players — and played old standards like “Just a Closer Walk with Thee” and “Didn’t He Ramble.” They marched out of the Candlelight, around the funeral home where Mr. Batiste will lie in state on Thursday; past the old site of Joe’s Cozy Corner, outside of which Mr. Batiste once kept a shoeshine stand; past the school that he sneaked out of to catch parades as a boy; past the senior apartments on Royal Street where he spent his last years; ending in a benefit concert at a jazz club.

There were longtime friends of Mr. Batiste’s in the parade, though many and possibly most of those who followed along, snapping pictures with their phones, had not known him personally. They knew who he was, though, and knew his approach to life, which was perhaps best embodied by the AAA mechanic, his truck blocked by the passing parade, who jumped out and began dancing in the street.

Katy Reckdahl contributed reporting.

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