Treme Brass Band singer Lionel Batiste dead at 81
NEW ORLEANS – Lionel Batiste, the vocalist, bass drummer and assistant leader of the Treme Brass Band, has died. He was 81.
Fans of the HBO cable TV series “Treme” may not have known Batiste by name, but they often saw him close up. He was the skinny guy with the big drum in the band, one of the acts regularly featured on the show.
Family and others close to Batiste were with him when he died Sunday at the Ochsner Health System’s hospital just outside New Orleans, said Batiste’s daughter, Karen Williams.
Batiste, known as “Uncle Lionel,” had been ill for about a month, said band leader Benny Jones Sr. He said Batiste had been with the band since it was formed in 1995, but had played bass drum since childhood.
Batiste used his drum to stay afloat in the floods after Hurricane Katrina, clarinetist Michael White said.
“The water kept rising,” White said. “He couldn’t swim. The water was too high for him to walk out. He saved himself by floating out on top of his bass drum.”
Batiste’s singing voice was “somewhere between blues and old-time gospel, kind of raspy but with a nice quality to it,” White said.
He recalled that in the late 1960s, Batiste wasn’t playing but “second-lining” — dancing and strutting with a decorated umbrella to the band’s music — and acting as grand marshal for parades and jazz funerals.
“He would bring joy and just New Orleans spirit. … He made people feel good about themselves and about living,” White said.
The “Treme 2012” bicentennial poster features a photograph of Batiste and his drum. Toni Rice of the Multicultural Tourism Network said the group was donating $10 from each poster sale to help with Batiste’s medical and funeral costs.
“I’m broken-hearted,” said actor Wendell Pierce, who played trombonist Antoine Batiste on “Treme.”
“He’s part of a long line of great musicians and great family. I was honored to have his name, the name of the character I played, and know that his legacy will live on,” Pierce said.
Pierce said the legacy of Batiste and his style of music was evident in France, where he was working when he heard Batiste had died.
“I was walking home from a jazz club about 3 a.m. here in Paris, and on the banks of the Seine, there was a brass band playing some New Orleans music,” Pierce said. “It just shows you the impact of musicians like Uncle Lionel … his legacy will be felt not just in New Orleans but the world over.”
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