New Orleans Bids Farewell to “Uncle Lionel”
After two weeks of tributes and memorials, a crowd of 400–500 people said their final goodbyes to Treme Brass Band singer and bass drummer Lionel Batiste Sr. on July 23. As pallbearers hoisted the casket off the back of a horse-drawn carriage and into a flower-draped hearse at the corner of North Claiborne and St. Bernard avenues, the band—an extended-family version of the ensemble Batiste had co-founded and helped lead since 1995—played a solemn dirge in honor of Batiste, who lost his battle with cancer on July 8 at the age of 80.
A mentor to musicians citywide, Batiste played the bass drum for most of his life but became nationally recognized in recent years. He was the first African American king of the Krewe de Vieux Mardi Gras parade and the face of the Treme neighborhood’s 2012 bicentennial celebration. His image was also used to promote HBO’s “Treme” series, which he appeared on regularly as himself.
The jazz funeral was rescheduled from July 20, when torrential rains flooded city streets. Hundreds of mourners still filled the Mahalia Jackson Theater that day for a music-heavy service that featured performances by Kermit Ruffins and Deacon John Moore. A parade through the aisles led by the Treme Brass Band (joined by a dozen other musicians) got the entire room swaying during a moving rendition of “Just A Closer Walk With Thee.”
New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who later joined an impromptu second line through the rain from the theater to Treme’s Candlelight Lounge, also spoke at the service.
Landrieu told the story of how Batiste had floated to safety by holding onto his drum during Hurricane Katrina. “When life brought him the worst, he gave back the best: joy, beauty, dignity and grace,” Landrieu said. “He was the drum major for freedom. He was the drum major for justice.”
Batiste, better known simply as “Uncle Lionel,” was almost as much a New Orleans style icon as he was an ambassador of the city’s music. A bird’s-eye view of Monday’s jazz funeral procession sparkled with images of Batiste decked out in various versions of his signature duds: Banners, hand-held signs and fans all featured photos of the late musician, and dozens wore watches over their hands instead of their wrists in remembrance of Batiste’s most famous fashion quirk. He was fond of saying he wore his watch that way because “I want everyone to know I have time on my hands.”
Meanwhile, Mardi Gras Indians in full plume danced to the beat of up-tempo traditionals as social aid and pleasure club dancers in sashes emblazoned with Batiste’s name jumped and sashayed ahead of the cluster of trombones, trumpets, sousaphones and drums. Women sporting Lionel Batiste memorial T-shirts pumped parasols in the air and sang along when the band played “I’ll Fly Away.”
At the center of the mass of people was Batiste’s brother, Norman, who is also a bass drummer, garbed in a commemorative Uncle Lionel T-shirt and pink, green and white social aid and pleasure club-style sash.
A high-energy party vibe prevailed as mourners followed Batiste’s casket in a parade around his neighborhood until, in jazz funeral terminology, his body was “cut loose,” and the casket was driven to Mount Olivet Cemetery.
But the weeks of musical tributes that followed Batiste’s death also sparked solemn consideration of his decades-long, positive influence on the community.
Trumpeter James Andrews, a nephew of “Uncle Lionel” and a former member of the Treme Brass Band, recalled a lifetime of performing with Batiste that had come to a close.
“We traveled so much together all over the world since I was a kid. He was always a mentor to me, but he was a mentor to all the kids,” he said.
“The legacy he left is the big beat he had on the bass drum. He had a unique touch, he could play the old style and he could jam, too.”
Asked which of the dozens of recent concerts, tribute shows and second lines in Batiste’s honor was the most fitting goodbye for his uncle, Andrews said the experience of marching out of the Mahalia Jackson Theater and through the pouring rain to the Candlelight was particularly spiritual.
“Every night there was a tribute was great,” Andrews said. “But there was just something about goin’ through the water.”
A fund has been set up at Liberty Bank to assist the Batiste family with medical and funeral expenses. To make a donation, please visit the website.