It was the most important day in recent memory for the New Orleans jazz community, but someone forgot to notify the weather gods. All morning the skies grew darker and about noon they opened: torrential rain hurled into the streets, turning them into Venice-like canals, halting traffic and sending pedestrians scurrying.
The downpour didn’t stop people flocking to the Mahalia Jackson Theater to send off one of New Orleans’ most beloved musical figures. ‘Uncle’ Lionel Batiste, the venerable and ever-dapper assistant leader of the Treme Brass Band, had died at the age of 81 following a month-long illness.
Although a musical centrepoint in this most musical of cities, Batiste had gone through life largely unknown to the outside world. Until, that is, the long reach of American television tapped him on the shoulder: he soon began making regular appearances on the hit show Treme, his tall, drum-thumping figure beaming into thousands of homes once a week, every week.
And so his death became bigger news than an item in the local papers discussed by local jazz players. He was now a Big Deal, and with fame came the press: Reuters and the AP were first on the news, while that titan of American journalism, The New York Times, marked his passing with a front page mention and a long and thorough obituary.
For two days Batiste’s body lay at a local church while fans from all over the world came to pay their respects. To say his body "lay in state" would be a bit of a stretch – rather, in a move representative of New Orleans’ peculiarities (especially when it comes to death), his body stood bolt upright, hands together, hat and sunglasses on, still wearing the elegant white suit in which he used to march down the city’s cobbled streets.
“Even in death, the musician’s originality hasn’t escaped him,” noted The Times-Picayune.
Everybody who was anybody came to the funeral. Old musicians milled around outside the venue, escaping the rain while talking, laughing and – in a city with liberal public alcohol laws – drinking. The mood was as vibrant as the costumes: people passed by in a flurry of bright colours, wild feather-draped dresses, long skirts speckled with gold. One well-wisher was local musician Darreil Johnson who, resplendent in a tailor-made white suit, stood outside the church door for the service. Throngs of musicians stood around him, mixing laughter with sporadic outbursts of music – tubas, drums, trumpets – as he spoke. He knew Batiste, he said, for 45 years.
“Oh man,” he exclaimed, recalling his late friend. “He was like that uncle that you’re just dying to see, cause you know he’s going to bring joy, going to bring a smile to your face. There’s always a person in your family that brings a special light, and he was that light, definitely.”
So how important was he to the local scene? Johnson smiled. “Well, on a scale of 10, uh, I’d give him a nine.” He paused. “Point nine. Point nine. Point nine….” He continued, bursting into uncontrollable laughter, while others joined in. “Point nine. Oh, man.”
Normally, funerals for musicians in New Orleans culminate in a ‘second line’, a long, joyous procession through the streets, headed by a jazz band, and trailed by dancing locals. Not this time, though: the wild weather flooded not just the interstates and main roads, but the smaller streets through which the second line planned to wind its way.
It was a blow – but, in typical fashion, the gathered mass decided not to let a tropical storm get in the way of a good time. After the funeral itself (a buoyant affair, complete with band, impassioned preacher and many, many “hallelujahs”) a throng gathered outside the theatre, huddled close together to escape the rain, impatiently waiting for something, anything, to happen.
It did, of course. The musicians flowed outside and, just as the crowd began to get restless, a couple of horns piped up, breaking the waiting monotony. Within seconds other joined in and, after a quick run-through, the band launched into a loose, exuberant version of the jazz standard I’ll Fly Away. As they did, the crowd parted, and the raggedy group stumbled out into the rain and lightning. Not, this time, for a long trip, but a short march through the streets of Batiste’s own Treme neighborhood.
Another of Batiste’s old friends, Gerald Emelle, looked on as the procession left. “He was born here, he was raised here,” he said of Batiste. He looked out and gazed up at the sky. “That’s the angels in heaven crying for the great soul that’s coming,” he said, softly.