Except inasmuch as "Uncle" Lionel Batiste was ubiquitous in New Orleans — anybody was liable to pass him on the street in his top hat and gold chains any day or night of the week — I really didn't know the man well. But once in 2008 I gave him a ride from Bullet's to Rock 'n' Bowl. I've been thinking about that evening recently, as we mourn his July 8 passing.
Lionel and I had chatted the week before between his sets with the Treme Brass Band at the Candlelight Lounge, and he'd recognized me at Bullet's and said hello. Actually, he'd bought me a beer and asked permission to dance with my tall, slender, 21-year old friend. Now he needed a ride, because even though he was in his late 70s, Lionel's Tuesday nights didn't end at 11 p.m., and he had somebody to see — two people, it turned out, women who were visiting from out of town. By the time we got to Rock 'n' Bowl, though, things were slowing down, and the girlfriends were heading back to their hotel.
Lionel was now stranded at 11:30 p.m. on a Tuesday with nothing to do, so he offered to give us a tour of New Orleans. I'd moved down from Connecticut just six months before, and I had to work in the morning, but I was not so ignorant as to miss my good luck. Uncle Lionel, refined and rambunctious, seemed to define the spirit of the city. I might have mistaken him for an icon if he wasn't presently hollering at me to watch out for an epic pothole on Carrollton.
We drove back downtown and Lionel told stories. He showed us where he was born, and where his father was a blacksmith. Over there was where he met Louis Armstrong, the time he came back to ride in Zulu.
Imagine what it was like before they bulldozed part of Treme for Louis Armstrong Park, he said. There used to be more music in the streets, and less violence. Over there was the San Jacinto Club. We took care of each other, he said. We still do.
Lionel told me he was excused from service in the Army because he was busy on the home front, "making more soldiers." He told us that the Candlelight used to be a chicken coop. He showed us where the Caledonia had been, and the New Caledonia, and told us about the funeral he directed for the club when it closed, casting himself as the corpse. Late that evening, we sat together on a bench on Frenchmen Street, Uncle Lionel singing "The Sheik of Araby" in his raspy voice.
Lionel was omnipresent, irrepressible and a kazoo player. He was tiny, his hats were always a little bit too big and it always seemed a small miracle that he didn't tip over from the weight of that bass drum when he marched in the second lines. Once he had a dance-off at the Candlelight with my then-girlfriend, now-wife, and won when she refused to limbo between his legs but he did between hers (in fairness, she was taller). Allen Toussaint described Sam Cooke as "the kind of hip that carries a comb, not a knife," and the same could have been said of Uncle Lionel, except that Lionel kept a dagger hidden in his cane. He loved the trick where you put your hand behind your back and stick your finger out from under your crotch.
People often described Lionel as "dapper," a word as old-fashioned and cool as the man himself. Some months after our drive together, I was walking down Decatur Street with my mother and we bumped into Lionel. I introduced them, and he kissed her hand.
New Orleans has a way of turning facts into cliches, cliches into myths, and myths into articles of faith. That's what Uncle Lionel did every time he drank a beer, anyway, transforming a bottle of Miller into a moment of High Life. He'd take the bottle by the neck, holding it in the hand where he wore his gold watch across his knuckles. He'd cross himself with the bottle, then make a slow circle with it in the air in front of him, and raise the bottle to his lips.
I saw Uncle Lionel perform that personal ritual at bars and second lines. To many, he was a father, brother, friend and co-conspirator, but I only knew him as a public figure with whom I'd shared a few passing moments and one memorable evening. I guess a lot of people knew him that way too, though, as a man about town, or a man who was always about his town, who seemed to stand for the city, its past and its best hopes for itself.
— Lionel Batiste's body will lie in state at the Charbonnet-Labat Funeral Home (1615 St. Philip St.) from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. July 19. A funeral is scheduled July 20 at the Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Performing Arts in Armstrong Park, with a viewing at 9 a.m. and services beginning at 11 a.m. A jazz procession will follow.