Wednesday, October 11, 2023

The Time I Met Russell Batiste Jr.

Photo from the day before
we met Russell Batiste Jr.
The renowned New Orleans drummer Russell Batiste Jr. passed away on September 30, 2023 at the age of 57. As I write this it's October 11, 2023...exactly one year after my chance meeting with him which took place on October 11, 2022.

Laura and I were in New Orleans for a weeklong vacation. It was a Tuesday night and rather than see music on Frenchman Street we did a ten minute walk out of the way to check out Russell Batiste's band at Sweet Lorraine Jazz Club on St Claude Ave where, according to the local calendar, Russell would be playing.

I had heard of Russell Batiste Jr. through his work with Page McConnell and Oteil Burbridge in the band Vida Blue. Maybe not the hippest way to become aware of his musicianship, but a common entry point for a Phish fan, I suppose. Anyway, my understanding or intel for that night's event was not exactly correct. It was more like an open-to-the-public band rehearsal than a performance, per se. We were the only patrons there.

Well, not the only patrons if you count George Porter, Jr. Yes, the legendary bassist for The Meters (real New Orleans royalty) was also there to listen to the music. It sounds like I'm making this up but I'm not. In one of those weird N'awlins type moments, he wasn't playing he was just there being himself. No big deal. Happens all the time. It was all I could do not to go up to him and say something. As Mr. Porter was leaving I did manage stammer out something like "I'm a big fan of your music".

However, the point is when Russell came by on his way out the door I stupidly said something like "What were Oteil and Page really like?". Russell immediately said "I'll be right back!". After he had taken his gear out to his car not three minutes later he came back to hang out with us. The next thing I know we're outside in Russell's car listening to music, clouds of smoke billowing out onto St Claude Ave. One of his band mates in the back seat. These weren't some flashy rock star wheels by the way. I jokingly say it was a 1998 Toyota Tercel or something like that. You should have seen the things he had in there! Paper airplanes.

Russell treated us instantly like we were old friends. Comfortable, laughing, joking, goofing off, letting loose. He didn't know us. We were just tourists in New Orleans for the first time having one of those magical Big Easy moments that becomes a life long memory. We probably spent 20 to 30 minutes in his car listening to recordings of his band and unreleased Vida Blue. It never seemed to get awkward, somehow. We kind of all mutually agreed when it was time to part ways.

Even though it was still early in the evening Laura and I couldn't really do anything else that night afterward. I remember just being in awe. Not really believing what had happened. We called a ride back to our place and watched House of the Dragon when we got back. 

It was shocking to learn that Russell had passed. I'm so glad to have had that moment. He touched so many lives, including ours.


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