Uncle Lionel Goes Out In Style

Of the many places where I’ve lived, from Choteau, Montana, to Iwakuni, Japan, to San Francisco and New York (mentioning a few), New Orleans is the most unusual, the one most often on my mind. “This is really a banana republic, you know,” my friend Bill Corrington once told me. He loved the city as much as I do, and he wasn’t the only one to invoke that metaphor. Most people know about above-ground cemeteries, jazz funerals, streetcars, beignets and the madness of Mardi Gras, to mention obvious facets of Crescent City culture.

Unless you’ve lived there, perhaps it’s impossible to know the mixture of laissez faire, stubbornness and gaiety that characterizes Orleanians, regardless of background. All of that came flooding back when I read Keith Spera’s story in the Times-Picayune about the lying- —er—standing-in-state of Lionel Batiste (photo by Marc Pelletier). The bass drummer in the Treme Brass Band was one of the Batiste clan that has provided New Orleans so many fine musicians. He died on July 8 at the age of 80. To identify him as a New Orleans character would be to drastically under-describe his personality. Here’s a paragraph from Spera’s story.

In a send-off as unique as the man himself, Mr. Batiste wasn’t lying in his cypress casket. Instead, his body was propped against a faux street lamp, standing, decked out in his signature man-about-town finery.

Yes, his body. To read the whole thing, click here.

Now, for a taste of what made Uncle Lionel distinctive in a town packed with rare characters, here is a performance captured by videographer Beate Sandor in 2009. Uncle Lionel sits in at Snug Harbor with Charmaine Neville and the band led by Wendell Brunious. Lionel doesn’t appear until 6:36, but you don’t want to miss what comes before. Brunious makes the introduction. This makes me want to go “home.”

Lionel Batiste, RIP.

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