Unless you live in New Orleans, there are certain things you will never fully understand. Sure, you can buy the occasional ticket and have a ball, sitting ringside for a few days as the Greatest Show on Earth parades by. But, unless you’re actually a member of the circus troupe itself, well … you just ain’t gonna ever really “get” this mythic circus we chosen ones call “home”.
And Lionel Batiste is just a supremely talented musician.
Unless you live here. In which case, you know Uncle Lionel isn’t just a musician. He is music itself. New Orleans music.
I will never forget the first time I witnessed Lionel Batiste. It was at the Candlelight Lounge, which is a hundred feet down and several light years away from my house in Treme. I hadn’t lived here long and wanted to take a friend of mine who was visiting from London to go see the world-famous Treme Brass Band. Walking into the Candlelight is a bit like walking into the bar in “The Shining”… via the Yellow Brick Road. You know you’re not in Kansas — or anywhere remotely familiar — anymore (unless you happen to be Jack Nicholson, a munchkin … or from New Orleans!).
When we arrived, the band was tearing into “Gimme My Money Back.” The joint was jumping, the drinks were flowing, and Miss Chinee was at the door, more than happy to take my money. Back.
One song flowed into another until we hit that magical point where there were no individual songs, just notes Just music. And laughter. And life.
Then, this waif of a man who had been playing bass drum behind dark glasses began to scat on “Mack the Knife” and things started shifting. The band, the cigarette smoke, even the air, all seemed to part, making way for the legendary Lionel Batiste to show us how it’s done.
Which is exactly what he did. In two ways.
On one level, Uncle Lionel and the entire Treme Brass Band put on one helluva show. My oh-so-British friend shook things that night that neither he nor his Jubilee Queen knew he had (causing Miss Chinee to give a knowing “white people just should not dance” glance across the bar).
But for those of us who live here, even newcomers like me, Uncle Lionel did something else that night. As his feet and his voice glided from “Mack” to “There Must Be a Way” (or was it “All of Me”?), he issued an invitation to our crescent-shaped hearts. Like a magical dog whistle, you couldn’t hear it. But, like everything true in this city, you could feel it. It was an invitation to join him in following the rhythm to places unknown. An invitation to use the beat, the notes, as keys to open doors. Doors leading deep within the soul of our city. And ourselves.
It’s the invitation of music … and there ain’t nobody better at issuing it in New Orleans than Uncle Lionel Batiste. For 70 years, he’s been issuing it all across this city. From the Candlelight to Frenchmen. From Second Line Sundays to only God (and Lionel) know how many Jazz Funerals.
Now the time has come for us to return the favor and issue our own invitation to Uncle Lionel. An invitation of gratitude and love as he and his family make peace with the news that he has cancer.
This morning, while walking my dog Tyra Banks, I ran into Shannon Powell, the King of Treme and one of Uncle Lionel’s many proteges. We got to talking about how Uncle Lionel was feeling, about the good time he and his daughters had at dba on Tuesday night and how his wife was getting along. Shannon mentioned that there was talk about some kind of big, public celebration.
“That’s all great,” I said, “but what should we all be doing now?”
We agreed Uncle Lionel wouldn’t want any sadness. Because, while he may occasionally sing the blues, you can tell from the twinkle in his eye that pierces even the darkest of glasses that Lionel Batiste is not a man who lives the blues.
“Say a prayer,” the King of Treme said. “Go hear some music.”
“Done,” I responded. “What else?”
“Well, he loves ice cream. Tell people to eat ice cream for him. Haagen Dazs. Don’t matter the flavor. He’ll love that.”
Thus said the King. About the god.
We call Uncle. Uncle Lionel.
Which leaves only one question: One scoop or two?
Brett Will Taylor is a southern Shaman who writes Love: NOLA weekly for NolaVie. Visit his site at ashamansjourney.net.