Saturday night, I wasn’t planning on purchasing photography. I was on Frenchmen Street with 3 friends listening to the Smoking Time Jazz Club and about 4 drinks deep when we stumbled upon a late-night open air art market. With lights strung overhead, a crystal lamp at the entrance and a variety of eclectic vendors, it was magical to say the least. As we ventured inside, I immediately found a print that I HAD TO HAVE! It was Uncle Lionel Batiste, in all of his New Orleans glory. If you’re not familiar with Uncle Lionel, he’s a music legend in the Crescent City. The jazz singer and bass drummer is best known for playing in the Treme Brass Band, although he’s been a member of countless others throughout his career. The eccentric and might I add well-dressed musician always wore his wristwatch across his knuckles…so he would “always have time on his hands.”
Uncle Lionel passed away last year at the age of 81. In true New Orleans style, it was an event to remember. Uncle Lionel stood proud and tall at his own wake. Literally. The funeral home took his body out of the casket and propped him up against a street lamp, in a scene that most initially mistook as some sort of statue. Following days of celebrations, the entire community gathered to put on a jazz funeral for the ages. My husband and I both took off work, bought beer and white handkerchiefs and prepared to dance our way through the streets of Treme. Musicians came from around the country to march behind his casket and play the songs that made his famous. As roughly a hundred musicians took up “Amazing Grace,” chills ran through my bones and tears welled in my eyes. Black, white, young, old, rich and poor, a community divided came together as one.
When I saw Andy Levin‘s portrait of Uncle Lionel, those memories flooded back. As he now stands tall in our home, I’m reminded of the blowing trumpets, dancing baby doll ladies, twirling handkerchiefs and the impact of a New Orleans’ legend who always had time on his hands for music and celebration.