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History Lesson 

Drummer Lawrence Batiste represents old-school New Orleans drumming at Satchmo SummerFest.

"I'm no jazz historian," says drummer Lawrence Batiste. "Some guy, somewhere, claims to know who invented jazz, how and in what club," Batiste continues, speaking during a break from his weekly gig with a traditional jazz trio in the Riverwalk Marketplace. "I don't know all that. All I know is what comes from the Third Ward, the Treme and where I'm at right now."

Batiste laughs unpretentiously, shoulder straps hang lazily across his chest, freshly relieved of their duty in holding Batiste's bass drum as he parades around the Riverwalk. Playing as they walk, Batiste's trio delights the crowd with a number of traditional jazz standards, including "Dinah," a crowd-pleaser that's been recorded by everyone from Louis Armstrong to Louis Prima.

"Larry's bass drum can really swing a band," says trio trumpeter Clive Wilson, referring to Batiste's nickname and his unerring tempos. "He can swing a 12-piece band as easily as a trio. It's a loose syncopation that makes people want to get up and dance."

"I just hum the melodies as I go along, that's how I play," says Batiste, who claims no relation to other local, musical Batistes. "It's that street-parade style. I tap the rhythm out with my feet and drum from that."

Batiste's "street-parade style" is an audible nod to his earliest musical influences: the brass bands and social aid and pleasure clubs of the Third Ward, where he lived until age 12, when his family's home was demolished to pave the way for City Hall. Batiste's house was just around the corner from where Armstrong grew up on Perdido Street. With shared family friendships, Batiste was a first-hand witness to Armstrong's influence and music. Thanks to his uncle, Noel White, Batiste was given the honor of riding on Armstrong's float when Satchmo reigned as King of Zulu in 1949. With his connection to Armstrong, a devotion to traditional jazz and its history -- plus his own drumming talents -- Batiste is a natural fit for Satchmo SummerFest's panel discussion this Thursday titled "Jazz Drumming in the New Orleans Brass Band."

"(Batiste) plays a great traditional snare and traditional bass drum," says Tad Jones, producer of the conference aspect of Satchmo SummerFest.

Jones first met Batiste while doing research for his upcoming biography, Louis Armstrong in New Orleans, 1901-1922. Batiste provided Jones "a good oral dissertation on what the neighborhood was like when he was growing up in the '40s," Jones says. "It hadn't really changed in the 30 years since Louis grew up there. Lawrence gave me this marvelous information on the brass band, and the role of drumming in the brass band. I knew it would be a great thing to have Batiste on the Satchmo Fest program."

Thursday's program, which is free and open to the public, will feature Batiste, Jones and Christie Jourdain, drummer for the all-female Pinettes Brass Band. Batiste represents the old-school in the discussion on drumming, while Jourdain stands for the new traditions. "The goal is to get some sort of dialogue going between them," Jones says. "To show each other what the other one knows."

Batiste says he first became fascinated by the drum around age 7 or 8, when he would head to St. Charles Avenue to watch Mardi Gras parades. Soon after, he found his first instrument: a broken tub in his backyard, which he played using chair legs.

"We were poor, so I knew a drum wasn't in my near future," Batiste remembers. "I taught myself to play a simple parade cadence from what I heard in the streets. Later on, my mom took me down to Werlein's and bought me a drum for $38. It must've taken two years to pay for it."

After returning home from the Army in 1960, Batiste worked delivering newspapers. One delivery landed at the door of trumpeter Kid Howard, who soon introduced Batiste to players in clubs such as Preservation Hall, Heritage Hall and Dixieland Hall. There, he learned from figures such as Paul Barbarin and Josiah "Cie" Frazier. He developed while emulating local greats such as Booker T. Glass (Olympia Brass Band drummer), and began playing in the Magnolia Brass Band.

Later stints with the Young Tuxedo Brass Band and Michael White's Liberty Brass Band have taken Batiste around the world, with multiple tours of Europe, as well as near-annual gigs at New Orleans' Jazz Fest, under his belt. And now, with a chance to share his musical experiences, techniques and history at a festival devoted to his neighborhood's legend, Batiste's reflection on local music is surprisingly simple, yet sage.

"The way I look at it, music is generational," says Batiste, a father of five. "You have your father's music, your music, and then your son's music. In New Orleans, it's all an offshoot of the same thing. It has a beat, it makes you move. I like music, and I like New Orleans. I like it all."

click to enlarge Lawrence Batiste rode with Louis Armstrong on - Armstrong's float when Armstrong reigned as King - Zulu in 1949. - DONN YOUNG
  • Donn Young
  • Lawrence Batiste rode with Louis Armstrong on Armstrong's float when Armstrong reigned as King Zulu in 1949.
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