Off to the side of the Preservation Hall stage, a slight, gray-haired man -- dressed in a three-piece suit, derby hat, and dark black sunglasses -- leans heavily on a companion's arm and slowly, very slowly, pulls himself up the stage's single step. He extends an elaborately carved cane in front of him and begins tapping it in a sweeping motion as he shuffles, shoulders hunched, toward center stage.
Uncle Lionel Batiste built and operated this shoeshine stand outside Joe's Cozy Corner; when not playing music, he says, he's had to make "a couple of dollars to take care of home."
Photo by Tracie Morris/Young Studio
Audience members, their eyes full of concern, gaze at the man as he inches his way in front of them. He stops, pulls a kazoo out of his breast pocket and plays a few bars of "You Are My Sunshine" along with the band. People in the crowd give a little laugh, then lean forward to listen as the band plays low so that the man can sing over the music in his quiet voice.
He winds up the chorus -- "You'll never know dear, how much I love you/Please don't take my sunshine away" -- and pauses to let the sax take a solo. Then, with great effort, he stands up straight and breaks into a feverish tap dance, intricate steps moving from side to side. Those in the crowd begin to realize that they've been duped. So the man takes it one step further -- he tilts up one edge of his dark sunglasses, revealing a perfectly healthy eye, which he winks at a woman in the front row.
The crowd roars with appreciation. "Let's hear it for Uncle Lionel Batiste," says the bandleader, as Batiste dances nimbly to the edge of the stage. He fakes a backward fall just long enough to perch on the knee of another nearby woman, then waves at the audience with both hands as he leaps off the stage, grinning.
Long before the "Uncle" was added to the front of his name, Lionel Batiste was known as an exceptional bass drummer. That's especially true in his home neighborhood, the Treme, which has produced many of the city's finest jazz drummers. Here, at age 11, Batiste first paraded on bass drum with the Square Deal Social & Pleasure Club.
Nearly every afternoon, the 72-year-old Batiste now can be seen sauntering along the neighborhood's sidewalks, making his way from his longtime apartment in the Lafitte housing project to one of the three bars clustered on Robertson Street between Dumaine and Ursulines streets -- the Cal; the Candlelight, with its front wall bearing a bigger-than-life painted image of Batiste in a sash and top hat; and Joe's Cozy Corner, a longtime hub for musicians. Framed photos of Batiste hang on the walls in all three clubs.
On Robertson Street, Batiste calls nearly everyone either "my niece" or "my nephew." He's seen many of them grow up. "I put diapers on her -- a three-point diaper with one pin," he says, pointing at a passing woman.
Drummer Shannon Powell says he's watched Batiste closely all his life. "I learned how to relax and keep good time," says Powell, pantomiming a steady bass-drum mallet with his right hand. "That's just natural for Uncle. He keeps good time, even after about 12 of those beers."
Jazz drummer Herman LeBeaux, who lives around the corner from Powell, says that the rhythms that Batiste puts down on his drum are pure New Orleans. "Inside Uncle Lionel's bass drum is the pulse of the city," he says.
Powell also learned how to dress from Batiste, whom he calls "the cleanest musician in the city." And no matter what suit Batiste is wearing, his breast pocket is never empty. "He always has a kazoo with him," says trombonist Corey Henry. "He never leaves home without it."
Batiste has a known soft spot for youngsters. "Uncle is my total influence," says Kermit Ruffins. "He taught me how to act, how to dress, how to feel about life." Most of those lessons took place at the bar at Joe's Cozy Corner, he says. Ruffins points at the way his own tie matches the fabric in his hanky pocket -- a trick learned from Batiste, he says, who taught him to fill that pocket by clipping a piece from the back half of his tie.
Yet Batiste, like so many jazz musicians before him, has also worked a lifetime of odd jobs -- everything from bricklayer to embalmer to praline deliveryman. The count may top 100, says Batiste's lifelong friend Henry Youngblood. "He did whatever came in his mind."
Many of his earliest employers were located on Rampart Street, says Batiste, stopping for a chat near Armstrong Park. "I always have time on my hands," he says with a wink, pointing at the watchband that he wears just below his knuckles instead of in the conventional wrist position.
It's around 10 p.m. Sunday and his night is just beginning. "I'm out exploring," he says. At some point he'll drop in on Shannon Powell's Sunday night gig at Donna's Bar & Grill, and he'll probably stop to flirt with the ladies at a little bar over on Basin Street. Along the way, he'll take a walk through the French Quarter where tourists will -- as usual -- ask if he'll pose for photos with them. He's perfectly dressed, in a matching suit and hat, tie and hanky. On his lapel is his usual pin, inch-high praying hands.
He puts out his right elbow and offers a short stroll, a tour of the work he's done on this three-block stretch of North Rampart Street. By the end of the tour, he'll have named half a dozen employers here, although he also will have identified every other building in between. This one was a barber shop, he'll say, that one was a casino, and the one over there was a furniture shop, the first place he got credit.
He points his cane at the corner of St. Philip and Rampart streets, home during his boyhood to two sandwich shops where he -- and anyone else who was black -- had to go to the back to be served. At the time, Armstrong Park was filled with houses, including his family's. The Congo Square area held a whites-only pool where white teenage girls swam, although he and his friends sometimes jumped in anyway.
"The water stayed the same color even after we got out," he says, raising his eyebrows ever so slightly. He wryly blames his false teeth for the smart-aleck comment and then re-focuses on the purpose of this tour.
He extends his cane toward the corner of Rampart and Dumaine. "See that green door?" he says. He worked one of his first jobs there. "I shined shoes for a guy named T-Boy, One-Eyed T-Boy."
Batiste unstraps his bass drum, makes a cross in the air in front of a new bottle of Miller High Life, and puts his head back for a long sip before stepping down from the stage. He's on a gig with the Treme Brass Band, for whom he plays bass drum, sings vocals and acts as assistant leader.
"I made my instrument -- my bass drum," says Batiste. The result, with the standard New Orleans cymbal fixed on top, is slimmer and lighter than most, allowing Batiste to continue his signature slide and little hop for an entire four-hour second line parade. The drum's heads are painted with the words "Treme Brass Band, New Orleans," which arch over an image of a woman dancing with a little boy kneeling nearby trying to look up her skirt. Batiste's friend Gennie Leyh painted the original at his request, and he carefully traces the image onto every new drum head.
"This is what I love to do, play the drum," he explains. The other jobs have been about money -- "a couple of dollars to take care of home," he says.
Treme snare drummer Benny Jones Jr., who's married to Batiste's niece, is known around the neighborhood as the leader of the Treme Brass Band, founder of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, and son of legendary drummer Chester Jones. This Friday, Jones will receive a lifetime achievement award from the New Orleans International Music Colloquium. Still, in between gigs with the band that the Colloquium calls "one of the top brass bands in the world," you'll often find Jones painting houses and doing other odd jobs. "That's the musician's life -- always working a job on the side to make ends meet," says Jones.
Providing for a family can sometimes mean leaving music behind, says 68-year-old Treme Brass Band trombonist Eddie King, who for 28 years starting in the 1960s, quit gigging to work as a stevedore, a job shared by other musicians such as Aaron Neville. "Me, I went to the river," says King. "But all musicians go from job to job."
Batiste's older brother, Norman Batiste, 74, also gave up music to work steady jobs at places like Antoine's, where he spent 18 years as a supervisor. "I didn't start playing the drum again until I retired," he says, sitting in front of the bass drum he plays nearly every day with the pickup band on Jackson Square.
"Jazz musicians in our community have to balance their passion for their music with some sort of stable employment," says analyst and pollster Silas Lee, who has for 20 years studied the social and economic status of blacks and whites in this city. The fact that most musicians must work other jobs, he says, is both a reflection of this city's mediocre labor market and a sign, he says, "that while we are credited to giving birth to jazz, we haven't really nurtured it."
Across the United States, most artists and musicians work more than one job. The National Endowment for the Arts found that four out of five artists held second jobs at some point within the year, in its September 2000 study, More Than Once in a Blue Moon: Multiple Jobholdings by American Artists. That's a rate higher than any other workers in the labor force.
But this city's jazz musicians may be working second and third jobs for less pay, says Lee. "Because when you look at the income scale in New Orleans, you see that it's very skewed by race. And the majority of jazz musicians are African American."
Last year, Lee wrote A Haunted City, a report examining the disparities. One chart shows household income, from the 2000 U.S. Census, for the lower end of the income scale -- under $20,000 a year. Nearly one in two black households fell into that category, while only one in four white households did. At the high end, Lee notes, it looks even worse -- one in four white households made more than $75,000, while only one in 20 black households did.
Poverty in the black community has meant poverty for black musicians, says longtime Treme resident and promoter Al Harris. "Yes, musicians are grossly underpaid. But look at the history of brass bands and who hired them. They played for black social and pleasure clubs, black funerals, black club owners."
Today, conventions, corporations and people of all colors will hire brass bands to second line around hotels and play at parties. But the wages for these bands haven't necessarily changed much, something that most out-of-town music fans might not know. "The visitor's view of the city is very romanticized," Lee says. They may be paying $400 a night for their hotel room and $20 to get into a music club, Lee explains, and they don't realize that the city's bellhops, maids and musicians aren't seeing any extra money -- unless they get it personally, through tips.
During Kermit Ruffins' younger, leaner days, he lived off the tip jar in Jackson Square. These days, most of his gigs pay straight fees, and so he -- like other musicians at better-paying gigs -- doesn't even put out a jar. "Now I don't want it in front of me," he says.
But Ruffins always tips when he hears good music, especially in certain places. "Most of the clubs in the Quarters pay their musicians $10 an hour, which is pretty sad. So tips are really important there," he says.
"What do I owe you, nephew?" says Batiste, getting a beer from Lloyd the bartender at Joe's Cozy Corner. He's dressed in a matching burgundy suit and hat, with a single-stemmed rose pin next to the praying hands.
Henry Youngblood, Batiste's lifelong friend and the godson of late jazz great Henry "Booker T." Glass, perches on a nearby barstool. He's known around here as a singer, longtime parade grand marshal, and the man who wrote "I Got a Big Fat Woman," a favorite both on Joe's jukebox and at brass band gigs. Today, Youngblood looks Batiste's outfit up and down and gets a grin on his face. "You know who Uncle reminds me of? The Planters peanut man." Batiste makes a wisecrack in return, and the two collapse into laughter.
For the past seven decades, these two men have been nearly inseparable. They grew up across the street from each other in the Treme, attended nearby Joseph A. Craig Elementary School, and spent a little time at the Milne Boys Home for delinquent acts they won't reveal. "We were mischievous," says Youngblood simply. "And guess what? We still are."
For them, work was as essential as mischief, to help support their parents and then their own families. The pair labored side by side for years, first at One-Eyed T-Boy's and later at Greenberg's costume shop, where they learned to build big papier mache heads for parade floats. They landed jobs on the peddling wagon, selling tomatoes, watermelon and bananas.
But they always found time for hijinx. In the 1930s, their group of friends created the Dirty Dozen Kazoo Band, which paraded all over town any time boxer Joe Louis won a fight. "And he won a lot," says Youngblood.
During the 1930s and 1940s, Batiste and another neighbor kid, Bird, worked as porters for two Bourbon Street clubs, taking deliveries and cleaning the bars in the morning. "We would knock off work," he recalls, "and then dance on the way to the Treme. They used to throw us nickels and dimes." Soon Batiste was good enough to dance with two Treme residents, the tap-dance duo Pork Chop and Kidney Stew, some of the most famous tap dancers New Orleans has ever produced.
When Batiste and Youngblood were teenagers, they were both hired by the place next door to T-Boy's -- J&M Music Shop, where Fats Domino, Lloyd Price, Big John Turner, Guitar Slim, Smokey Johnson, Shirley Lee and Dave Bartholomew recorded. Batiste tried to teach Youngblood how to drive in the J&M truck, but Youngblood -- who was trying to show off for one of his girlfriends -- ended up rear-ending a hearse.
The two men spend a few minutes trying to list all of Batiste's jobs. "He pimped shoes -- cut designs into the leather," says Youngblood. Batiste also was a bowling alley pinsetter, bricklayer, tilesetter, electrician, gramophone repairer and an embalmer at two local funeral homes, where he learned to sew back-less suits for bodies in caskets. "You can't bend the arms, so you have to have a suit with no back," says Batiste.
Eventually, Batiste and Youngblood and their friends Slim and Rudolph chipped in $10 each and bought an old Ford. "I was the chauffeur and the mechanic -- the grease monkey," says Batiste.
"I was the sweetest thing in town, the candy man," Youngblood says. He and his mother worked 25 years at Evans Creole Candy Company, which was then located at Common and Rampart streets. She cooked; he wrapped the pralines. "Henry Youngblood had some of the fastest hands in the city," says Batiste, who was soon hired there as a deliveryman.
Youngblood says that they were happy working together at the candy company. "But then he acted the damn fool and got married." They both married childhood sweethearts from Craig school, although Batiste has now been widowed twice and Youngblood has since remarried and now has a total of 20 children. Batiste doesn't have quite that many kids, he says, but he won't say an exact number. "Let's just say a considerable amount," he says.
Batiste walks outside Joe's to talk to someone sitting on top of the shoeshine stand, a three-chair stand that he built and operated for years. "That was his stand," says Youngblood, who worked it when Batiste came home from a European gig so gravely ill that WWOZ announced, on the air, that Batiste had died. "What I'm so happy about is that we're still here," says Youngblood.
Today, it's a sunny afternoon and Youngblood is watching Batiste as he stands at the jukebox, one eye peering below his sunglasses so that he can read the song titles.
"That's my partner," says Youngblood, admiringly. He takes a sip of his drink and extends his hand toward the guy in the burgundy suit. "That," he says, "is my happy-go-lucky buddy, Lionel Batiste -- they call him Uncle. If you feel bad, he's going to make you laugh."
Norman Batiste can't keep up with his baby brother, he says. "Lionel is always on the go, used to tap dance and all that," says Norman.
Uncle Lionel makes impromptu stops at his older brother's house. "I'll hear a knock on the front door and a 'Hey, Nuts!' so I'll know it's him,'" Norman says. "But by the time I get to the door, he'll be halfway down the block."
It's become their own little routine. Norman will stand on the stoop and yell, he says. And his little brother Lionel will turn around, wave a nice big wave -- and then keep walking.