The bass drummer for the Tremé Brass Band and the iconic leader of the brass band community of New Orleans passed away yesterday at the age of 80. One of his favorite lines was, “When I’m gone, I’m gonna miss me.” Words cannot express how many people will miss him all across the world.
An obituary appeared on the front page of the Times-Picayune this morning. While Keith Spera and Katy Reckdahl fleshed out the story of the man in some detail, the undeniable truth is that it is impossible to tell the full tale in a newspaper article. If every person who has a story about “Unk” were to write a thousand words those stories would fill volumes.
Here are three of my own. In the late 1990s, when Kermit Ruffins’ regular Thursday night gig at Vaughan’s Lounge in the Bywater was hitting on all cylinders, my parents were in town. They were already casually acquainted with “Uncle” from previous visits, but on this particular night, they got to know him a lot better.
Kermit and band were alternating between uptempo fresh material and old chestnuts. With “Uncle” Lionel looking on from the bar, they launched into one of his favorites. “Uncle” loved to dance and he immediately gestured to my mother to would join him on the tiny dance floor. Since the volume of the band prohibited any real discussion, she looked at my father as if to ask, “Are you cool with this?” He nodded his approval. But just to make sure, “Uncle” reached over in his gentlemanly way and handed my Dad his cane.
After their dance and the set ended, my parents sat the bar chatting with “Uncle” for the entire break. At one point I looked over and saw all three of their heads close together as my parents listened intently to his whispery voice. It was first time I ever saw “Uncle” with his sunglasses off.
The next two stories are adapted from sections in my book, Up Front and Center: New Orleans Music at the End of the 20th Century. In 1989, a new brass band jam session that laid out the groundwork for the beginnings of Kermit Ruffins’ solo career started at Sidney’s Saloon on St. Bernard Avenue. “Uncle” Lionel Batiste was at the center of this new downtown scene. Ruffins has credited Batiste with teaching him many of the old time tunes that make up his solo repertoire.
At one point towards the end of a set, Ruffins and Batiste shared the single, tinny-sounding microphone. The song they chose was “What a Wonderful World” and the whole place quieted down for the spellbinding duet. The young trumpeter and his mentor traded verses on the song made popular by Louis Armstrong. After the song was over, the whole band and most of the crowd paraded out the door in an impromptu second line.
When Kermit’s solo career took off and he began a regular gig at Donna’s Bar and Grill on N. Rampart Street, many elder statesmen of the brass band community gravitated to the intimate club. Ruffins gave them stage time and continued to develop strong relationships that further influenced his new career direction. “Uncle” was a regular, entertaining everyone with tall tales of gentlemanly conquest and sotto voce fables of life in the old Tremé.
During the second set of Ruffins’ first show at the club, “Uncle” decided it was time to perform, but without his bass drum he was forced to improvise. He headed into the kitchen and came out with a stack of pots and pans, which he painstakingly assembled on the floor in front of the band. After getting his set-up just right, he pulled a pair of spoons from some hidden pocket and began playing this makeshift percussion kit while on his knees.
Everyone in the place began cracking up at what initially appeared to be some sort of comedy routine. However, Batiste was a talented percussionist, and after a minute or so the band realized he was serious. Without the aid of a microphone, he proceeded to take an amazing solo on the pots and pans. After the song, he picked up the kitchen equipment, took a small bow and headed back to his beer at the bar.
Funeral arrangements for Lionel Batiste are incomplete. But you can bet there will be a big parade on Saturday.
Photo of the author and “Uncle” by Kim Welsh