(July 8, 2012) NEW ORLEANS, LA — Today I spent the day dancing and singing in memory of someone I’d honestly never heard of before this morning.
I like to think I know a little bit about New Orleans music, but that’s all I know. I’ve listened to a fair amount of music from this city over the years, but I don’t have nearly the familiarity with the city’s royalty that locals or even many frequent visitors have. So although I’d seen photos of Uncle Lionel Batiste before, I didn’t know who he was and had never heard his name until Scott, the guy I’m staying with, told me this morning that he’d died.
Uncle Lionel Batiste was the drummer for the Treme Brass Band. He died this morning at 80 years of age. He was, for many people, the heart and soul of the brass band tradition in New Orleans. His photo is everywhere — in clubs and restaurants all over the city. He is revered by many local musicians and, if today is any indication, beloved by the people of New Orleans.
I walked through a torrential downpour from my apartment on Port and Royal all the way over to Basin Street in the Treme, the oldest black neighborhood in America. According to WWOZ’s Twitter feed, Rebirth Brass Band was going to play a sendoff for Uncle Lionel at 3 p.m. To get there, I had to walk through Louis Armstrong Park, where the names of many New Orleans musical luminaries are set in the stone walkway, including the name of the man who first made me want to come here, 30 years ago:
I arrived about 45 minutes later, soaked to the skin despite my umbrella, at Kermit’s Treme Speakeasy, a club run by trumpeter Kermit Ruffins. As I walked in, the man walking in ahead of me said, “They gonna be some dignitaries up in here.” But there weren’t all that many people inside. And no band. And it was 3:45 already. But this is New Orleans, where time runs at a pace that would give Einstein fits trying to explain it.
Most of the seats were taken, but one table had an open seat and I asked the couple sitting there whether I could join them. They said yes so I sat, dripping, on a seat. I eavesdropped, of course, and heard the woman ask the man who he had interviewed today. So during a break in conversation, I introduced myself and asked him whether he interviewed people for a living. His name was Basil, and he told me he was a documentary filmmaker currently in town working on a project about the US Army’s PR efforts. They’d sponsored the Essence Music Festival this weekend, which is why he was here.
He asked me what I did for a living and I said I interviewed jazz musicians and was traveling the country doing that. The woman across the table said, “Wait, are you also a poet?” Turns out she knew who I was and liked my poetry. What a small, crazy world. I am so unfamous that those moments are always surprising and, let’s be honest, gratifying. Danielle turned out to also be a documentary filmmaker. And we were joined later by Aaron, yet another documentary filmmaker. I guess I need to buy a video camera.
The three of us — Basil and Danielle and I — got on very well. We had a lot in common and had a great conversation. It’s funny how when I’m feeling the loneliest, sometimes life drops wonderful people right into my little world. To prove my point, here are the two books Danielle had with her:
Buddy Bolden and Michael Ondaatje. Not bad, right?
Oh, and one other thing before I continue with the main story. I ordered fried chicken, and rice and beans with pork. I know, I know. I’m a vegan and I don’t ever do things like that. But there was something about the day and the place and, let’s face it, the fact that I was very hungry. It was weird eating meat. I wasn’t grossed out at all. I never am by meat. I was mostly apathetic about the experience. It tasted good. I don’t want to do it again. But I don’t feel awful about having done it.
Anyway, after a while we heard the sound of a trumpet from outside. That was our cue to spring up from the table and head out to the sidewalk, where Rebirth was in full effect. I don’t know if you’ve ever been five feet from a brass band, but it’s quite an experience. I’ve been close to quite a few amplified brass bands over the years (Dirty Dozen, Soul Rebels, Stooges, others), but this was on the sidewalk, no amps, tons of dancers, all soul and passion and emotion and love and respect. This was music that lifted you off the ground and rooted you to the earth at the same time.
Uncle Lionel’s brother was there, too, dancing and hugging folks. There were news crews filming and dozens of phones raised to capture pictures and videos. I saw tearful faces mixed in among the joyful faces, too. It was very powerful.
Most of what I know about the New Orleans tradition where death is concerned comes from books and movies. And I don’t really know what part of the process today represented. But I’m a huge fan of joyously celebrating life, particulary when it’s the passing of a beloved elder member of the community. Of course it’s sad, and I’m not downplaying the need for grieving, but death also affords us a time to reflect on the joy the person brought to our lives. And in the case of Uncle Lionel, that was apparently a lot of joy.
Basil and Danielle and I danced in the street while a light drizzle fell. Luckily the downpour had stopped by this time. After maybe 30 minutes Rebirth stopped playing and everyone went back inside. We realized after a while that nothing else was going to be happening for quite some time. I left to get some work done, while Danielle and Basil and Aaron (who had joined us by this time), went off to have fun.
A couple hours later I met them at the Spotted Cat, a live music club on Frenchmen Street. The Shotgun Jazz Band was playing trad jazz and people were dancing.
When they took a break, the four of us walked down Frenchmen Street. Danielle said she’d overheard someone say there was going to be an event for Uncle Lionel on Frenchmen Street, but we couldn’t find anything. Well, not at first. After we’d walked around for a while, we heard some trumpets coming from up the street. A crowd quickly gathered and before we knew it, another second line had formed. The band and the crowd marched up and down the street, dancing, singing, shouting, raising hands, clapping, rejoicing.
More and more people joined the throng. There must have been a couple hundred people marching up Frenchmen. Then we were back in front of the Spotted Cat, and the entire band, with as much of the crowd as would fit, took over the club for a few minutes.
Now the streets were packed with people, so many that the police had to occasionally clear a path for cars to pass. We marched around the corner onto Royal Street, where the singing and dancing and playing continued. I recognized one guy from the Stooges, and also Washboard Chazz, but I don’t know who made up the rest of the band.
I was so moved to be part of the whole experience. I think the way we treat our elderly is indicative of who we are as people. Here in New Orleans, from what I saw today and tonight, the elderly are respected and valued for what they have contributed and still contribute. It was a truly beautiful thing to see.
After a while things died down and we four returned to the Spotted Cat, where we checked out a few songs by Pat Casey’s band. Then I went home to prepare for a morning interview. Though while I was typing this it was rescheduled.
I’m heading out of New Orleans on Tuesday night. I’m going to New York for a week, then to State College for about a month to spend time with my sons. Then I’ll start the tour again, probably at the end of August at the Detroit Jazz Festival, if all goes as planned. And, again if the plan comes together, I won’t be alone.
By the way, I took a ton of photos at both events today. Here are links to the two photo albums:
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