I spotted him dancing at the Spotted Cat nightclub on Frenchman Street. He was another extra for the HBO show, "Treme," one day when I doubled for actress Melissa Leo. I knew he hadda be somebody important. And then Sheila Stroup - of all people - wrote him up in the Times-Picayune.
"Uncle" Lionel Batiste,78, is a drummer for the famous Olympia Brass Band. He plays kazoo for the Treme Brass Band. And he is, quite literally, the new poster boy for the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival Congo Square 2010 poster. (Congo Square, for those who don't already know, is the place where jazz was born.)
Tuesday, April 20, 2010
By Sheila Stroup, Times-Picayune
'I like to make people smile'
Happiness is the highest calling for Treme Brass Band drummer 'Uncle' Lionel Batiste
"Uncle" Lionel Batiste gives off a certain kind of joy, whether he's playing his drum or singing or dancing down the street in a rollicking second-line.
"I just like to entertain," he says. "I like to make people smile."
He is impeccably dressed, down to his shiny shoes, and wears gold jewelry and his signature dark glasses. He wears his watch stretched across his hand, just below his knuckles rather than on his wrist.
"It's just part of my style of dressing," he says. "It lets you know I have time on my hands."
As we sit talking, I try to calculate in my head how many smiles he has brought to people's faces in his long musical life. Millions, I imagine.
Batiste, 78, is bass drummer, assistant leader and occasional kazoo player for the Treme Brass Band, which is led by snare drummer Benny Jones, a longtime friend.
"I helped get the band started more than 20 years ago," he says.
Before that, he played professionally with numerous other brass bands, beginning with Harold Dejan's Olympia Brass Band when he was 19.
"I played with the Tuxedo, the O'Howard, the Liberty -- a lot of different bands," he says.
Batiste's musical career started much earlier, though, when he was a little boy growing up in a large family at the corner of St. Philip Street and St. Claude Avenue.
"My first drum was a No. 5 washtub," he says.
The washtub served as the family bathtub, and when it sprung a leak, he claimed it.
"I used a bucket for my snare drum, and pot lids for cymbals," he says. "And I made a guitar out of a King Edward's cigar box."
The first band he played with was the Original 6th Ward Kazoo Band.
"I think I was 7 years old," he says.
By the time he was 11, he was marching with the Square Deal Social and Pleasure Club Band.
"I second-lined with a whole lot of bands," he says. "A lot of the streets weren't paved back then. They were covered with oyster shells."
He remembers that his Treme neighborhood was always filled with music.
"A lot of musicians would pass by playing their instruments. The ladies would be sitting on their steps, and they'd stop and play a song or two," he says.
He attended Joseph A. Craig School, where the children could take part in a rhythm band.
"I didn't pay too much attention to that," he says, dismissing it with a wave of his hand. "It was just banging sticks together."
Batiste's mother was a seamstress, and she taught her children to sew.
"I had sisters who were seamstresses and brothers who were tailors. And I could tailor myself," he says.
All the children in his family learned to cook by the time they were 12.
"We had a big round cook stove we called 'Big fat mama,'" he says. "We had to polish that stove."
Batiste, twice widowed, often cooks for himself.
"I cook beans, cabbage, shrimp, rabbit," he says.
One time, a friend who hunts and traps even brought him a raccoon.
"My little grandson was not impressed," Batiste says, laughing. "He said, 'Somebody done put a dog in Paw-Paw's refrigerator.'"
Through the decades, Batiste made a living at a variety of trades, including bricklaying, float making, stone masonry, bowling pin setting and embalming.
"I was always getting into something," he says.
But it was music that put a bounce in his step and took him around the world.
"I've retired from everything else, but I'll never retire from my music," he says.
He is used to having people recognize him, call out "Uncle Lionel!" when they see him, ask him to stop and pose for them.
"I'll be walking, I'll be singing, I'll be feeling good, and people want to take my picture," he says. "They take it, and they paint it, and they put it in galleries and sell it, too."
That's fine with this elder statesman of New Orleans music, who's about to become even more famous. As the subject of this year's Congo Square poster, Batiste's likeness will soon hang on walls around the world. Thousands of Jazz Fest fans likely will buy the lovingly-rendered painting by Treme artist Terrance Osborne.
"I signed so many of those pictures my fingers got tired," Batiste says.
He has also been getting compliments on his performance with the Treme Brass Band in the first episode of HBO's "Treme."
"I didn't get to see it," he says. "I had to work that night."
Batiste works most nights, often until 2 a.m.
"But I'm playing music, so it's good," he says.
It's so good he can't imagine doing anything else.
"Everyone has a gift," he says. "I like to sing. I like to dance. I like to make people happy."
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Sheila Stroup's column appears Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday in Living. She can be reached at email@example.com or 985.898.4831. Comment and read more at NOLA.com/living.