Henry Roeland Byrd was born in Bogalusa, Louisiana on December 19, 1918. On the 100th anniversary of his birth, the iconic pianist, vocalist and composer, affectionately called Fess, will be celebrated around the globe. Nowhere else will his birthday be more feted than in his adoptive hometown of New Orleans. Tipitina’s, the Uptown club, which was established as a venue in order for him to have a home base and a place where he could regularly play, will appropriately host “The Professor Longhair 100th Birthday Tribute,” on the very date of Fess’ birth.
Bassist George Porter Jr., who first backed Longhair at the 1972 Jazz Fest, will act as the musical director for a band full of New Orleans musicians who have played with or were influenced by Byrd. Professor Longhair is also being recognized with an impressive exhibit at the Old U.S. Mint through July 2019.
In his honor, some of those who knew Fess well, performed with him or were influenced by his unique style share their memories of the great Professor Longhair.
Quint Davis, Jazz Fest producer
One of the more profound things that Davis, who at the urging of festival producer George Wein found and booked Fess at the first Jazz Fest, remembers is Byrd telling him that his signature song, Tipitina, was named for a mountain in Africa. Though that would be tough to verify on a Google search, somehow it remains just wonderful that Fess said it.
“Fess would play in the cracks between the keys to get the sounds he wanted,” Davis relates. “He told me once, ‘I’m not just luckin’ up on this, I’m doing this on purpose.’” Davis also reminds us that Fess was a tap dancer whose nickname was Whirlaway. “He would run up a wall to the ceiling and somehow get back down.”
“He had a real sense of fashion and he was hip. He wasn’t dressing like the ’50s. Right away he got boots and jeans and he had a jean jacket that he was putting patches on from everywhere we went. He was a rocker at his age.”
Davis says that people thinking Longhair an old guy with glasses didn’t necessarily realize that he was aware—attentive to his surroundings and beyond. “He was very aware of what was going on around him and what people were saying. Fess had a lot of essences. He was very regal in whatever situation he was in. I think his regal bearing was something that was always there.”
“He was a beautiful man. Once he actually got back to playing music, let alone become a worldwide icon, he was really happy about that.”
Zigaboo Modeliste, drummer
Modeliste is, of course, most noted as the drummer of the Meters. Earlier on he played “one-offs” with Fess and was on stage with bassist George Porter Jr. at the first Jazz Fest held out at the Fair Grounds. “We became friends,” says Modeliste. “He was a really, really nice man.”
“He was a funny guy. He was always upbeat, jovial and had a lot to say.” Modeliste vividly remembers his first trip to Europe and being on a plane with Professor Longhair. “He had a gym bag and I asked, ‘What’s in the bag?’ He opened it up and he had maybe 30 or 40 hotdogs in there. They were already cooked and they were wrapped in cellophane inside buns plus a bottle of hot sauce. I said, ‘Byrd, what’s all that for?’ ‘Man, they don’t have any food over there. You’ll see.’ I’ll never forget that piece of advice. Any man who flies to another country, with a bag of hotdogs, you’ve got to love him for it—he’s authentic with it. He was a really cool dude.”
“Professor had genius in him. He liked all these authentic things like rhumbas and cha-chas and a lot of his percussion values came from those things. He fused that into R&B as he knew it. Byrd was cut from a different cloth. Allen Toussaint recognized that Byrd had a special sound. And all of the piano players after Toussaint really started putting it out there—the Byrd style.”
Modeliste says he had some basic knowledge of Fess’ style before he performed with him, however, as a young drummer he was very open to his input.
“He gave me instructions on what exactly he had to hear in order to construct his plan. So you had to play around him. It’s a drummer’s delight because you’re in class. You’re learning to play an art form that he created. Nobody had the ideas that Byrd had. He told me one time that his mentor was [pianist] Tuts Washington.”
George Porter Jr., bassist
George Porter admits he was “a little star struck” when he was asked by Quint Davis to perform in the band backing Professor Longhair at the 1972 Jazz Fest with Modeliste on board for the show.
“Fess always had a great time on stage from where I was sitting,” Porter says. “I had a job to do and my job was to pay attention to his left hand and stay the hell out of the way of it. I lived on the other side of the fence from him—I stayed on Baronne and he stayed on Terpsichore—and my side door looked into his back door. Every now and then I would open my back door and he was outside smoking a bliff.”
Porter then relates a rather comical story about his initial meeting with Fess. “The first day we met, I was supposed to have a rehearsal with him. I showed up at his house too early. He basically opened the door and said, ‘Who is this?’ I said, ‘I’m George Porter Jr. and I’m supposed to have this rehearsal with you for Jazz Fest.’ He said, ‘Okay, you’re early,’ and he closed the door. I sat outside and waited for about 10 minutes and by that time Zigaboo showed up and we went in and had the rehearsal.”
Alfred “Uganda” Roberts, percussionist
Roberts was interviewed in 2011. Uganda, who is heard on Fess’ 1981 release The London Concert and the Grammy-winning House Party New Orleans Style—The Lost Sessions 1971-1972, remembers that Quint Davis said that he liked the way he played drums and said, “I bet you and Professor Longhair ought to sound pretty good together.” “That was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. We had a lot of the same rhythm structures in our genes. He had a little rhumba, mambo kind of sound with the way he played the piano. Musically speaking he taught me a lot about being disciplined.”
“I would come up with a certain beat, or most musicians might call it a groove, and I would stick with the groove and that would give him the freedom to do the little riffs that he wanted to do on piano. I would always sit very close to him at the piano. If there was something extra he would want me to do, then he’d give me a little nod. But other than that, I would stick with him like gravy on rice.”
Jon Cleary, singer-songwriter and pianist
“Professor Longhair used the piano as a funk machine,” says the British-born pianist and vocalist, whose first attempts at playing piano at age 11 or 12 were on Fess’ classic hits, “Tipitina” and “Big Chief.” “What he did percussively—the funk aspect of it—really appealed to me. It was the approach to the piano as part of the rhythm section that compelled me to keep going back to it and try to figure what he did, little licks and little riffs—not just any percussion but Afro-Caribbean rhythms like rhumba.”
Cleary remembers one year at Jazz Fest doing a “chat” about Professor Longhair with percussionist Uganda Roberts. “Uganda said he would go to hang out with Fess and what they would often listen to was [Cuban-born pianist and bandleader] Pérez Prado records. That makes sense to me.”
Sonny Schneidau, guitarist, sound engineer and talent buyer
Schneidau first saw Professor Longhair live at an Gator Ball put on by his sister and her friends at the 501 Club, which soon would become Tipitina’s. At 16, he was underage, but she got him in and directed him to “hang out here,” near the stage. “It was one of those life-changing experiences to be in that environment and that close to such an incredible artist such as Fess,” says Schneidau, who had already heard some of Fess’ recordings and recalls thinking, “Wow, this is some wild stuff—some serious piano playing.”
Personally, he says, his most special night was in early 1977 when the sound engineer at Tipitina’s, which opened in January of that year, departed and Sonny was enlisted to take his place. “A few days later I was mixing Fess and his band. I was whooshed to mix one of the greatest artists on the planet at one of the greatest clubs on the planet.
“He was a real gentleman—always kind, funny and respectful. He just wanted to have a good time and put on a good show,” says Schneidau who, when the club closed in 1984, bought the piano that Fess had played so many times. He put it on the back of a pick-up truck and played it as the truck traveled down the street. The piano is a centerpiece of the Professor Longhair exhibit presently housed at the Old U.S. Mint.