Uncle Lionel Batiste died this week at 81 years old. NOLA DEFENDER has a fine obituary:
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.
And Varg at The Church of Chicory has a remembrance to check out:
But let’s not get too caught up in the legend because that would be disingenuous to the man on the street that he was. Often alone, Uncle Lionel would dress to the nines and make the rounds around town. It was not a strange occurrence to be caught up in some conversation or another at Harry’s Bar and reach for your drink to see Uncle Lionel had quietly placed himself in the stool next to you, or for him to be in front of you in line at Sidney’s, or walking past with a carved wooden cane while you parallel parked in Treme, or peering through a window, looking in on a Frenchmen street show. He was our personal superstar like so many New Orleans musicians are. So when one happened to encounter him in a pedestrian way, we all felt a private sort of starstruck. These were cherished moments that only happenstance can deliver to us but Uncle Lionel made possible simply by who he was.
In that spirit I offer up one such cherished moment.
Last spring I was doing a follow-up interview with Jude Acers for a lengthy profile I was writing about the New Orleans chessmaster. It was dusk and the darkness was coming on fast. We were sitting at Jude’s chess table on Decatur Street in the French Quarter near the Gazebo Restaurant. And along strolled “Uncle” Lionel Batiste. I wrote up the moment for my profile of Jude, but I ended up cutting it since I couldn’t see figure where to fit it in the larger piece.
Here it is:
I followed up with Jude a couple times to dig deeper and seek clarification on a few matters and he was always gracious and willing to talk at great length.
Jude is a kind of master of ceremonies, when he feels like it. Much of the time at his chess table he can be rather sedate, but all it takes is an audience of one and it’s showtime.
One evening a nattily dressed “Uncle” Lionel Batiste strolled past us and Jude loudly called out after him in praise:
The legendary Lionel, on the posters of Jazz Fest, Treme posters, is now passing in the middle of the night and recorded for all time on the tape recorder, for a hundred years, generations to listen. There he is and Treme is playing him every night.
Lionel waved at us over his shoulder and walked off into the night.
(I’ll post the audio when I can find it.)