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'Uncle' Lionel Batiste, Drummer for the Treme Brass Band, Dies at 81

Lionel Batiste
Poster courtesy of Treme 2012

The musician, who had been a fixture on the New Orleans jazz scene since the 1940s, died Sunday morning after a brief battle with cancer.

"Uncle" Lionel Batiste, the longtime bass drummer for Treme Brass Band, and a fixture for 70 years in the New Orleans jazz scene, died Sunday morning after battling cancer for only a few months. He was 81. 

Batiste was an icon for many local musicians, and with his signature sunglasses, wristwatch worn on his hand as opposed to his wrist, and an omnipresent kazoo, he moved to the beat of his own bass drum.

Batiste was diagnosed with cancer in April, according to New Orleans newspaper The Times-Picayune.

While Batiste rose to fame slowly with the Treme Brass Band, he appeared in numerous commercials and television shows, including Treme on HBO. He was a central figure in Spike Lee's Hurricane Katrina documentary, and he was frequently featured as the face of New Orleans for the city's Jazz and Heritage Festival. According to Treme clarinetist Michael White, Batiste used his drum to stay afloat in the floods after Hurricane Katrina.

While he was known as a bass drummer and began playing the instrument as a child, Batiste occasionally sang for the band, demonstrating a smooth, soft voice. But more often, Batiste danced. While he was a shoeshiner in the French Quarter as a boy, in his younger years he was brought on stage next to Pork Chop and Kidney Stew to show off his tap-dancing skills. He developed his signature slide and hop dance from studying an older drummer, Papa Knox.

After several months in the hospital this spring, Batiste was released June 26, still ill, and attended the Treme Brass Band's gig that night at d.b.a. According to Nola.com, the club's owner cordoned off a corner for Batiste to sit in his wheelchair, surrounded by much of his 13 children and numerous grandchildren.

“He was in a wheelchair, very frail, half the size he was before,” Tom Thayer, the club's owner, told The Times-Picayune. “But he seemed to have a great time. He hung out most of the night. He smiled and posed for pictures, and after the first set, he signed every single CD everyone bought. There was a good energy there.”

Mr. Batiste stayed for both sets, “and when they wheeled him out,” Thayer said, “the whole place applauded when he left for the last time.”

A portion of sales of the "Treme 2012" poster, which is a photograph of Batiste, will be donated by the group to help with Batiste's medical and funeral costs, according to Toni Rice of the Multicultural Tourism Network.

Funeral arrangements have not yet been made.