A different kind of second line for ‘Uncle’ Lionel Batiste

Brice Miller Jr. went to his first second-line on Friday.

His father brought his trumpet, and a tambourine for his 8-year-old son.

Brice Miller has an image of 'Uncle' Lionel Batiste tattooed on his right forearm.

Brice Miller has an image of ‘Uncle’ Lionel Batiste tattooed on his right forearm. He says he was 17 or 18 years old when he met Batiste, who was performing at Donna’s. Batiste taught him the value of being an entertainer, he said, and how to sing with emotion.

Brice Miller Sr., a musician, entertainer and educator, had mixed emotions, combining his grief at the passing of “Uncle” Lionel Batiste with his joy that his friend and mentor had transcended his earthly limitations, and had left behind the pain of his final battle with cancer. He was also pleased to be introducing his son to a tradition he had been participating in for 30 years, since he was about the same age. The mix of emotions was about to become more complicated, however, with the addition of frustration with the conduct of the second-line.

First, Miller had trouble finding Benny Jones (snare drum, Treme Brass Band) and Woody Penouilh Jr. (sousaphone, Storyville Stompers), with whom he wanted to march in the second-line. They were there, but not in the central location he had expected. Then he noticed members of the gathering crowd in flamboyant costumes, mugging for their friends’ cameras as if they were at the starting point for the Krewe de Vieux Carnival parade, rather than a memorial procession.

But it would soon get worse, when, at the start of the procession, one of the two bands turned toward Rampart Street and the other turned the opposite direction, toward Claiborne.. Dylan James Stansbury’s video of the start of the second line, shared below, shows that 6 minutes into the procession the music had already made the transition from “Just a Closer Walk With Thee” to “Didn’t He Ramble,” and at the 6:25 point someone can be heard asking, “Where’s the second band?”

“It was the weirdest cultural phenomenon I’ve ever seen in New Orleans,” Miller said.

The event was promoted through a Facebook public event page, “Uncle Lionel’s Second Line,” created by Andrea Butson and Markeith Tero. The event was widely shared, with invitations sent to 3,972 people and with 1,339 Facebook users indicating that they would attend.

Among the throngs who filled two blocks of northbound Rampart Street shoulder-to-shoulder, some certainly knew Uncle Lionel better than others. There was a central group, a first line if you will, of people dealing with a personal loss. Outside that inner group, hundreds of people brought hundreds of perspectives to the event.

For Miller, an adjunct professor in the International Honors College at the University of Alabama, the question became how those outside the inner group understood themselves as “the other.”

Did the young man in a New Orleans Saints T-shirt, challenging the authority of the elaborately decked-out grand marshal, consider himself “the other”? Or did he consider himself a leader? When the two bands’ routes diverged, which was “the other”?

For Miller, much of the intrigue of the indigenous performing culture of New Orleans lies in its other-ness, in its strangeness to the outsider, rooted in the racial divisions of a century ago.

Second-lines evolved as responses to personal loss. Over time, the marches took on other functions, such as Sunday afternoon entertainment for social aid and pleasure clubs.

For memorial second-lines to retain their power to bring solace to those who grieve, conformity to the traditional structures is important in ways that are not essential to other second-lines. The mourners are the center of attention at the memorial second-line. The grand marshal is in charge. Where the grand marshal leads, everyone follows. The music should turn the corner from dirge to celebration at the grand marshal’s signal, and not before.

On Friday, July 20, funeral services and a program celebrating Uncle Lionel will be held at the Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Performing Arts at 11 a.m. Viewing begins at 9 a.m. with the service beginning at 11 a.m.
A jazz funeral procession to Mount Olivet Cemetery, 4000 Norman Mayer Ave., will begin after the funeral service. Brice Miller says he will be there, “in my black and white.”
Start: Mahalia Jackson Theater. Proceed through Armstrong Park to gate entrance to Basin Street. Right on Basin Street to North Villere St. Right on Villere to St. Philip St. Right on St. Philip St. to St. Claude Street. Left on St. Claude St. to Ursuline Avenue. Left on Ursuline Ave. to N. Robertson Street.Stop: Old Cozy Corner. Continue up N. Robertson to the Candle Light Lounge.
Stop: Candle Light Lounge. Proceed up N. Robertson to Basin Street. Right on Basin St. to North Claiborne Avenue. Right on N. Claiborne Ave.

Stop: Ernie K-Doe’s Mother-in-Law Lounge. Continue down N. Claiborne to St. Bernard Avenue. Left on St. Bernard Ave. to Hunter’s Field.

Disband: Hunter’s Field.

A memorial fund has been set up for Uncle Lionel Batiste at Liberty Bank and Trust. Donations can be made to the fund by going to any branch. If you have any questions please contact Glenda McKinley at 504-915-1552.

Below is Alex Rawls’ video impression of last Friday’s second-line.

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New Libation Orchestra: a who’s who of who’s in town

Chris Arenas is back in New Orleans, and is reviving the New Libation Orchestra, which performs Thursday night, July 19, at dba.

Chris Arenas of New Libation Orchestra with his bass

Chris Arenas of the New Libation Orchestra in New Orleans. “I hear birds chirping outside, not sirens and people screaming,” he says of his move from San Francisco.

New Libation got its start during Arenas’ first run-in with New Orleans, a three-year sojourn that ended, coincidentally, the day before Hurricane Katrina. His departure date had been scheduled well in advance, and “we ended up driving out with everyone else,” he said.

His destination: San Francisco, where he DJed and performed with Myron & E, Pamela Parker and Raw Deluxe.

In 2009 and 2010, Arenas performed with Eric Lindell, whom he had met in 2002 when Lindell was playing regular Monday night gigs at the Circle Bar. With Lindell, he toured in support of the “Gulf Coast Highway” CD and contributed to the “Between Motion and Rest” and 2010 “Jazzfest Live” CDs.

Working with Lindell brought Arenas back to New Orleans after a three-year drought.  “It was amazing to see the transformation of the city during that time,” he said. “Frenchmen Street was as busy as ever, the music scene thriving once again. There were new bars and venues to check out. You would see more familiar faces who had moved back to town as well as meeting some new folks who had come down to help rebuild, fell in love with the city and decided to stay.”

His indefinite plans to return to New Orleans to live became more compelling, and this year, around Jazzfest time, the perfect Uptown rental opened up and he seized the opportunity.

The New Libation lineup for Thursday includes Jeff Raines, guitar; Rich Vogel, keys; Chris Davis, drums, and Quickie Mart, turntables and effects. If you saw New Libation in 2005 at the Maple Leaf, dba or Shiloh, the lineup was probably quite different. Kevin O’Day and Steve Reichlen have drummed with the collective, Brian Coogan has played keys, and Ben Ellman and Brent Rose have played saxophone.

If you notice a strong Galactic influence, you’re not mistaken. Arenas, Raines and Galactic bassist Robert Mercurio have been friends since they were music-obsessed teenagers in the Maryland suburbs of Washington. D.C.

Their musical explorations began with funk, after Raines’ older brother “gave him some Sly Stone and Parliment/Funkadelic records that we listened to incessantly.” Record store runs for more funk led to discovering the jazz section, “finding the greats like Charles Mingus, John Coltrane and Miles Davis, then coming across more rare records with artists like Grant Green, Boogaloo Joe Jones and  Lou Donaldson. We would even make trips up to Philadelphia to look for new music,” Arenas said.

After high school, Raines and Mercurio left for college in New Orleans, and Arenas left for San Francisco, by way of New Orleans.

Even when the friends were apart, music drew them together. Mercurio would send Arenas cassette tapes of his early performances in New Orleans, and Arenas would send packages of blank cassettes to be loaded with Meters bootlegs. “I’ve shed a lot of things over time, but not those cassettes,” Arenas said.

The New Libation Orchestra puts a New Orleans spin on soul-jazz classics, much as Good Enough for Good Times does. Good Enough for Good Times keeps a narrower focus, however, while New Libation is more likely to cast its net into schools of electronic and brass band sounds.

Just weeks after Arenas’ return to New Orleans, summer set in with full force, and the city’s musicians started fleeing this swampy sauna for festival performances and tours in more temperate climates. Arenas has been accepting opportunities to play around town, recently with Dave Jordan and with Derrick Freeman’s Smoker’s World. And, on Thursday, with New Libation Orchestra, a “who’s who of who’s in town.”

‘Uncle’ Lionel Batiste embodied New Orleans

Much of what I love about New Orleans was embodied by “Uncle” Lionel Batiste, who died Sunday at age 81.

"Uncle" Lionel Batiste with the Treme Brass Band, Mardi Gras 2012

“Uncle” Lionel Batiste with the Treme Brass Band, Mardi Gras 2012, in a screen grab from a YouTube video by Dylan James Stansbury. See the video to check out Unc’s moves!

Like his bass drum, his presence seemed out of proportion to his physical size. So it is throughout New Orleans, where modest things — a walk by the river, a plate of red beans, a shotgun house — take on outsized importance.

Although I never knew him as a young man, his vitality was irrepressible. He loved to look good, he loved to flirt with the ladies, he loved to be part of the crowd on Frenchmen Street. So it is throughout New Orleans, where celebration of life comes so naturally.

And, oh, he was generous. My son Nick was 11 or 12 when he met Uncle Lionel, shortly after our move to New Orleans. We were in Dutch Alley; leaving an afternoon performance at the National Park Service space there. Uncle Lionel showed an interest in Nick, who had been drumming for two or three years. When Nick admired his necktie with a drum kit design, he took it off and gave it to him.

That necktie was lost in Hurricane Katrina. But, like Uncle Lionel, the meaning it held will carry on.