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Uncle Lionel Batiste Passes

Tremé Brass Band Bass Drummer, New Orleans Icon Dies at 81

Uncle Lionel Batiste, longtime bass drummer of the Tremé Brass Band and patriarch of the famed Batiste family, died Sunday morning of complications from Stage 4 cancer, NoDef confirmed with friends of Batiste Sunday morning. He was 81.


Always sporting an outfit that was the definition of dapper, sunglasses and, in recent years, a cane, Batiste made it his mission to get a smile out of anyone he met, and he was hard-presesd to find anyone whose face didn't light up in his presence.




In addition to duties behind the bass drum, he was also known to take the mic to sing rousing renditions of New Orleans standards. Batiste first learned he had pancreatic cancer about two weeks ago. He played bass drum since he was a boy, and never seemed to lose his love for marching in street parades, heading out on the streets for a night out and working the crowd in hopes of finding a dance partner.


In recent years, Batiste was a fixture on Frenchmen Street - he lived at the large apartment complex at the corner of Royal and Frenchmen - and at his band's Wednesday night gigs at the Candlelight Lounge on N. Robertson Street, as well as in street parades, which he continued to play into his 80s. After Treme came out, he began to make similar appearances at jazz gigs in Europe and around the country, his friends said.


READ: Second Line, Memorial Shows for Uncle Lionel

Though his physical stature was slight, the spotlight always seemed to be shining off of his vibrant clothing, hat and ever-present watch -often worn around his palm.


Friends asked him why he never wore his watch on his wrist.


"That's cause I got time on my hands, son," he responded.


At the weekly Candlelight Lounge gigs, he was unquestionably the star of the show. As the band started playing at about 10 p.m., he would sit behind the bass drum for a couple of swinging New Orleans standards.


Whether it was due to fatigue, impatience or the fact that there were women in the crowd, Batiste would then emerge from behind the drum and begin to work the crowd. He would carry the tip jar, shaking it in his hand. But when he approached a woman and began to dance with her, the reason he decided to work the floor revealed itself. Throughout the night, he might've returned to the bass drum for another song, or sang on a number, but generally he kept dancing, and kept everyone smiling.


"When I go on the street now, I'm looking for a combination of things: the music, the money and the girls," he told Mick Burns in 1991 for the book Keeping the Beat on the Street: The New Orleans Brass Band Renaissance (Louisiana State University Press, 2006).


In addition to all of those smiles, Batiste's indiscriminate nature provided a window on the Treme into which he was born. Never documented by HBO, Batiste always described this Treme as the Cradle of Jazz preserved: Despite dust-ups and dice games, there was music on the street and in every house, and there was no racial divide.


"We didn't have a segrgation problem in the Treme area. We would sit down together in the house and eat. In the neighborhood, they had real feelings for one another; they loved one another," he told Burns in the same interview. So there wasn't no hard times. 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 this side and a white side on this."


According to local legend, Batiste first started keeping the pulse in marching bands virtually by accident. Already a stalwart on the parade scene, he served as de facto grand marshal of parades when he was younger. But one time, a bass drum player didn't show up. He filled in, and has been playing ever since.


Through the years, Batiste played with the Olympia Brass Band and others, always working jobs during the day to make ends meet, and playing music at night. He also played a mean kazoo.


Batiste and Benny Jones formed the Tremé Brass Band after Jones split with the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. As the Dirty Dozen moved the brass band sound forward to include elements of traditional marches, hip-hop, funk and other influences, the Treme stayed focused on the traditional New Orleans sound.


The tempo might've been a little slower than what was new on the street, but the swing of the beat always provided what Batiste was truly after when he played music.


"...We have something to give the older ones: give them a chance to get up and dance, remember the time they first heard that number. If you're playing and nobody's interested, that's deppressing to me," he told Burns.


At the news of this New Orleans icon's death, it might be tempting to
get as deppressed as he would get when nobody danced. But in the Tremé , WWOZ is reporting that, as of Sunday afternoon, there was already a party started at Kermit's Treme Speakeasy in his memory with Rebirth Brass Band.


Further funeral arrangements weren't immediately available.


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