Thursday, June 28, 2012
New Orleans devotees will undoubtedly recognize the man in the photo. Maybe fans of of HBO's "Treme" will, as well. He is Lionel Batiste. Uncle Lionel to more than you'd think possible.
On my first trip to New Orleans, I met Uncle Lionel. (Of course I did.) He is larger than life. Whether on his way to a gig with the Treme Brass Band or on his way back home, Unc was always dressed to the nines. You can feel through the thick Crescent City air just how much he knew it, too. People would shout, "Hey Unc!" He'd nod back, smile, wave, raise his walking stick, tip his hat. He lived for this, and once you got a taste of New Orleans and its people, and moments as brief as shouting "Hey Unc!," you did too.
Years after my first trip to New Orleans, when I had long gotten familiar with the surroundings, I had been walking Uptown. Reaching the end of the French Quarter, just before Canal Street, I see Uncle Lionel coming towards me on a very quiet stretch of Dauphine Street. He was a good distance from his home in the Treme. He was carrying a small bag from Walgreen's. I shouted "Hey Unc!" (You just have to.) He stopped, and as if by some inner cue, launched into a story about waiting on line for way too long in Walgreen's, when all he needed was batteries. It wasn't the story. It was the feeling of being Unc's friend, even though he had no clue who I was. He talks to everyone. Outside of New Orleans, Lionel Batiste is just another character from the Big Easy. In his hometown, Lionel Batiste's presence is as big as Frank Sinatra.
I found out yesterday, Unc is not doing well. Prostate cancer, hernia op complications, cancer moving to stomach. One report said he had been in hospice care. A few hours later, a tweet said he had been sitting in a club watching his band play. The latter wouldn't surprise me if it were true. A mock traditional jazz funeral is being planned for Uncle Lionel, so family and friends can say goodbye while he is alive. (Only in New Orleans.)
Lionel Batiste is a big part of so many of my New Orleans experiences. I will miss that figure and his big bass drum and his voice of twilight. Be well, Unc.
To my knowledge, he only has one record under his own name. It's a beauty.