My Favorite Uncle – Uncle Lionel Baptist’s
Uncle Lionel Baptist’s voice sounds like a silk stocking drug across sandpaper. “It was so big,” he rasped, “there was a fellow in the front who helped pull it along . . . he was bigger than me and when he stopped, I stopped. Sometimes he’d start pulling while I was still playing. It was a mess.” Uncle Lionel was recollecting his first store bought drum. “It was a WPA model.”
Uncle Lionel pounded out his very first bass drum from a number five washtub and used a pot lid as a cymbal. His first band was the Pet Milk Six Brass Band and they would parade from his living room to his back porch, and sometimes around the neighborhood. Lionel’s childhood Treme sounded like a place to frolic unlike the padlocked doors and razor wire fences of today. Lionel’s father gave him the kazoo he played in his childhood brass band. After Lionel mentioned the kazoo, he went to his bedroom and dug around for it. He found it and showed me; the color was dulled but there was no rust.
According to Lionel, “Back then almost every house had an upright piano and people would get together and sing. Everybody was singing and playing and having fun.” Uncle Lionel’s father was a “multi-instrumentalist”; his mother sang and his brother played guitar. Having a good time then was simple and music was ubiquitous. Some of the adults would indulge in a cocktail. “It was like lots of houses was speakeasies, and some people had to have their little liquor and there was lots of home brew. I used to get paid to wash bottles.”
Uncle Lionel who is a clothes horse, smiled as he remembered his first school-band uniform, “the jacket was blue and gold and had white pants.” According to longtime “nephews” and “nieces”, Uncle Lionel has a closet full of suits, some with the price tag still dangling from the sleeve. When not dressed in brass band regalia, he is always resplendent, often in a suit, tie and fiercely shined shoes, sometimes with spats, and always a fedora to top it off. Uncle Lionel, with his martial bearing and dancer’s grace, can make any clothes look good.
In addition to playing at home and school, Uncle Lionel sang at church. He was a Catholic, but his parents were also involved with “the Spiritualist church” where he sang in a quartet. He explained his voice was higher then, and even now can break into a soprano if he “has a little alcohol in him.” (I think it is fair to say that Uncle Lionel likes his beer. Before I was conferred nephew status and was just another fawning admirer, I would ask him after he played a show if he would like a beer. His inevitable response was, “does a fish like water?”)
These days Uncle Lionel plays a special “cut down” bass drum. He’s carried it all over the world. He’s lived a lifetime of singing and playing, but also sewing, shining shoes, peddling coal, brick-laying, floor work and even “funky work”(plumbing). He’s always been good at watching and learning, and he’s had to be to survive.
Uncle Lionel is going to be seventy-four on February 19, and he’s going to be doing the only work he does these days, playing bass drum for The Treme Brass Band, a band he helped found. He will be at Donnas that Friday, like he is every Friday night. Uncle Lionel will be pounding that bass drum, whisking that cymbal, growling and purring songs about this city and its people and their loves and losses.
Uncle Lionel has carried the weight of many things in his life, including the oppression of Jim Crow. He remains unbent. I am proud to be one of Uncle Lionel’s nephews and vow to remain unbowed, just like him, despite the weight of the new repression, and the burden of the foolish and immoral war in Iraq.
Join with Uncle Lionel at Louis Armstrong Park on 20 January, and let everybody know we are not lying down. Together our voices can be heard.