As you enter the Professor Longhair exhibit, formally called “Me Got Fiyo: The Professor Longhair Centennial,” on the second floor of the Old U.S. Mint, a bust of the iconic pianist, vocalist and composer greets you. For those who’ve frequented Tipitina’s, the club established for Fess and named for one of his most memorable songs, it’s a little startling. “Oh, wow,” one might initially think. “Who’s at Tip’s to welcome folks there?” Very soon it becomes apparent that this is a replica of artist Coco Robicheaux’s brilliant original sculpture of Professor Longhair that holds the place of honor at the Uptown club. Besides, this one is bronze-colored and encased in glass—no affectionate head rubbing possible.
The bust stands at the beginning of an insightful journey into the music and life of Henry Roeland Byrd, a.k.a. Professor Longhair. The exhibit, which runs through July next year, celebrates 100 years since Byrd’s birth on December 19, 1918 in Bogalusa, Louisiana.
Nearby is the old upright Baldwin piano that was installed at Tip’s in 1977 when the club opened and on which Longhair challenged with his hard-driving style. Thankfully it was purchased by the music-loving Sonny Schneidau, who began as a sound man at Tipitina’s and rose to talent buyer.
Perhaps the most appealing aspect of the exhibit is that Professor Longhair’s incredible music can be heard as visitors look at historic photos, old posters, album covers and memorabilia. Patrons can also watch videos such as Stevenson Palfi’s remarkable documentary, Piano Players Rarely Ever Play Together, and interviews with some of those who knew and/or were highly influenced by Professor Longhair. It really hits home when Jazz Fest producer Quint Davis recalls jazz impresario George Wein’s reaction on first hearing a recording of Fess on a jukebox. As Davis tells it, Wein says to him, “Who is that?” Davis recalls his reply as, “Oh, that’s nobody.” Wein contradicts him saying, “That’s somebody!” and demands that Fess perform at the first Jazz Festival.
Larger wall placards delve into Professor Longhair hits like “Tipitina” and “Big Chief,” though Earl King isn’t mentioned as the latter’s composer. That’s especially significant as the title of the exhibit references King’s lyrics. Of course it’s Fess who kills the tune with his immediately identifiable playing and whistling.
The late photographer Michael P. Smith captured Fess just about everywhere. His historic photographs encapsulate not only various important moments in Fess’ life and career, but also his spirit. They’re essential to this fine exhibit.