"Uncle Lionel" Batiste, I imagine, never made nearly as much money as he did sweet jazz music.
And when Katrina hit New Orleans, the co-leader, vocalist and bass drummer for the Tremé Brass Band floated to safety from his ground-floor apartment in the Lafitte project by hanging onto his drum.
Floating with Uncle Lionel in that big bass drum, some say, was the pulse of the Crescent City. That pulse survives him, as evidenced by the massive "second line" Sunday night on Frenchmen Street in the city's Faubourg Marigny district, outside some of his favored musical haunts just hours after Uncle Lionel died of cancer at age 80. Above is a picture of that.
In any other American city, there would be something deeply nonsensical about Paragraphs 1 and 2 naturally leading into Paragraph 3. A poor man, chased from public housing when the federal levees gave way and the waters rushed in, bore the pulse of a great city, kept the beat of the music of its soul and is sent to his heavenly reward with an outpouring fit for an earthly king.
In this country, in these times, that is just foolishness.
ALMOST 2,000 years ago, the people of Corinth probably thought much as Americans do. So much so that the apostle Paul had to set them straight with a little crazy talk -- a little nonsense now preserved in the New Testament to benefit wise guys such as your average American.
18 Let no one deceive himself. If any one among you considers himself wise in this age, let him become a fool so as to become wise.IF NOTHING ELSE, we Americans think we know it all, that we possess the wisdom of the world. Especially since August 2005, we've been pretty sure that New Orleans folk are pretty foolish.
19 For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in the eyes of God, for it is written:
“He catches the wise in their own ruses,”
20 and again:
“The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are vain.”
21 So let no one boast about human beings, for everything belongs to you,
22 Paul or Apollos or Cephas, or the world or life or death, or the present or the future: all belong to you,
23 and you to Christ, and Christ to God.
Foolish to live in a saucer too near the rising sea.
Foolish to rebuild after -- And isn't it all too obvious? -- God, or Gaia, or Mother Nature, or climatological science . . . or the wisdom of human civilization, for Socrates' sake, strongly suggested that rebuilding the next Atlantis might be a colossal waste of resources and federal funds. How dumb can you be?
Dumb enough to re-elect Ray Nagin, that's for sure. I think Paul would be on board with us "wise" Americans on that one.
In short, the Crescent City is a sinking ship of fools, according to "the wisdom of the world."
The Almighty's mileage may vary, however.
FOR CERTAIN, in a paradox of biblical proportions, it would seem the meek have inherited the cultural landscape in this caste-riven city near the drain plug of the class-obsessed American South. This in a riddle of a city, ensconced in an enigmatic region that has played so large a role in status-obsessed America's long-running mystery -- which revolves around how we reconcile our status-obsession with "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. . . ."
Common sense holds these truths to be self-evident, that there are bunches and bunches of ways in which we really don't want to follow New Orleans. We don't want to tolerate endemic poverty, for one, or endemic insouciance about the value of a good education, for another.
We don't want to be the nation's murder capital.
We want to believe that "Can we all just get along?" is a game plan worth implementing as a society. That's not one the Crescent City has been particularly committed to, not across the racial divide and not across the class divide, either.
They say if you's white, should be all right,IN NEW ORLEANS, the white, brown and black in the chorus of Big Bill Broonzy's "Get Back" transposes to white, Creole and black, a racial and caste system once rigorously enforced . . . and which holds considerable social, if not de jure, relevance even now. About as relevant to -- as defining of -- a sinking city near the mouth of the Mississippi as a dapper black bass drummer who embodied the soul of a city as he pounded out its heartbeat in second lines and night spots from the Tremé to Times Square. Sometimes, the heart of New Orleans beat on the two and the four . . . other times on the one and the three.
If you's brown, stick around,
But if you's black, well, brothers, get back, get back, get back.
The Big Easy usually isn't -- not when so many bullets have someone's name on them, not when so many have so little, and not when the idea of hope sometimes seems about as tenuous as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' levees.
New Orleans hasn't mastered so many things. Honest and effective government, it probably never will. But it has paradox nailed. Pride of place, too. And soul. And heavenly music. And heavenly eating. And home . . . and Mama an' dem. And, Lord, those second lines!
It understands -- understands in a way we "wise men" never will, metaphysical fools that we are -- that the worth of a man isn't necessarily his net worth or how much power he amasses. It understands that, yeah, Warren Buffett might be a bazillionnaire, but Uncle Lionel was a hell of a drummer, and a mean dancer, and a great mentor for generations of musicians, and a faithful keeper of the cultural flame . . . and damn, Cap, didn't he look sharp?
Oh! didn't he ramble, ramble?
YOU CAN'T BUY that shit, brah. And you can't buy a sendoff like the one Uncle Lionel has earned from the city whose pulse he kept. Not any more than you can buy an immortal soul -- or the profound, life-giving wisdom of holy fools.
Long may they ramble.