In marching bands, the bass drummers are usually big fellas. Not always, but often. It isn’t an absolute but it frequently works out this way. Big guys are drawn to big instruments. They bring up the back of the band like anchormen, guys who set the musical pace and thus the timing and mood of the whole damn march.
So it was notable that Uncle Lionel Batiste, a man who looked to weigh perhaps a hundred and some change, with twiggy arms and legs and a waist seemingly smaller than a supermodel’s, carried his bass drum up and down and through the streets of New Orleans and all over the world for much of his 81 year life. With sloping shoulders perhaps pulled downward by the lifelong weight of his drum, Uncle Lionel gigged all the best weddings and funerals New Orleans has seen for generations. One couldn’t help but notice him there in the midst of all the cacophony and chaos of a suitable second line. Where one may expect to find a six-foot, 250 pound musician bombastically hammering the bass drum, there was Uncle Lionel, a little old guy defying expectations with a big drum and an even bigger influence.
Kermit Ruffins, who with little argument stands as the de facto living New Orleans musician’s ambassador to the Universe said Uncle Lionel taught him “how to act, how to dress, how to feel about life.” This is grandiose. This is the Tao of Uncle Lionel and it exists not only within Kermit but in the minds of any rash soul, from here or out of town, who has succumbed to the spirits and danced in the streets of New Orleans to brass band music. The complete experience and archetype of the second line parade flowed into Uncle Lionel from his forebearers and then, with more influence and a certainly more enriched style, flowed out of him and into the rest of us. All around the world, he was the high priest of New Orleans street music’s form, mode and method.
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.
He died this sabbath Sunday. He leaves a public life that will surpass any attempt at imitation. After 81 years in a city that does indeed give back to those who give to it, he leaves an ever-lasting legacy and a vast void far bigger than his slight and slender frame.