Remembering a New Orleans Icon: 'Uncle' Lionel Batiste Dead at 81

(Carolyn Kaster/AP Photo)

Fellow New Orleans drummer Herman LeBeaux once said that inside Lionel Batiste's bass drum is the pulse of the city. Well, this evening, the city that care forgot is a little more quiet.

Lionel Batiste, vocalist, bass drummer and assistant band leader of the Treme Brass Band died Sunday after a brief battle with cancer. He was 81.

In a town known for its characters, "Uncle" Lionel definitely stood out. When not in his traditional white marching band hat and uniform, he could be seen nattily dressed anywhere - from the Treme, to the French Quarter, to the musical haunts of Frenchmen Street. Always dressed impeccably, wearing a wristwatch stylishly on his hand - time on his hands, as it were.

He lived and breathed music: If he didn't have his bass drum, he always carried a kazoo, and would never turn down a chance to dance with a pretty girl.

He grew up in Treme, the historic New Orleans neighborhood that spawned the HBO series of the same name, in which he appeared several times.

His likeness graces a poster celebrating Treme's bicentennial this year.

And on a personal note, Batiste's band performed at my wedding. The night before, I brought some of my uninitiated guests out to see him in action. He danced with every one of our bridesmaids. When I inquired about payment for the wedding, his only question was: "How far we gotta walk?"

Funeral arrangements have yet to be announced, but you can bet there will be a huge turnout and epic second line parade for one of the Big Easy's icons.

Members of the Treme Brass Band plan to pay tribute to Batiste Wednesday night at the Candlelight Bar on North Robertson Street in Treme. Just look for the huge painting of Uncle Lionel out front.

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