Mark Guarino Special to The Washington Post. NEW ORLEANS — High above the biggest stage at this city’s annual Jazz and Heritage Festival hangs a three-dimensional sculpture with a likeness of a piano player gazing out at the 400,000 concertgoers who congregate here to listen to marquee headliners such as Bruce Springsteen and Arcade Fire. The festival is this city’s rite of spring, featuring brass bands, Cajun groups, gospel choirs and traditional jazz musicians.
Festivalgoers may not know the identity of the piano player who hovers above them, but they should. He is Professor Longhair, patron saint of New Orleans music. “Fess,” as Henry Roeland Byrd was known, died in 1980.
But until this year, his influence has remained widely unheralded, except during carnival season when his songs, “Big Chief” and “Go to the Mardi Gras,” are as common here as holiday carols in December. His recordings — highly syncopated, enormously joyful — are considered the foundation for anyone attempting to play New Orleans rhythm and blues piano.
“Everybody has to come to terms with it. You can’t do it like him, but you have to do something,” says pianist and Longhair devotee George Winston.
Thirty-four years after Longhair’s death, there has been a surge of interest in his life and significance. Two film projects — a Hollywood feature and a documentary — both aiming to tell his remarkable life story are in the works. And a community-funded restoration of his home was finished this month, just weeks before Friday’s opening of the 45th edition of the jazz festival, where Longhair first performed in 1971.
“For something that is called the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, it’s kind of backwards: What it really is, is the heritage of jazz festival. The one thing that New Orleans can always claim that no one in the world can, is its birthright of jazz and the coming together of African, Caribbean and all these influences,” says Quint Davis, the founding producer of the jazz festival and chief executive of Festival Productions. “For us, Fess was the perfect link to show that.”
When Longhair died at 61, he was in the midst of a rediscovery — his best-loved studio recording, “Crawfish Fiesta” happened to be released the day he died. He was about to embark on a tour across Europe opening for the Clash during which he would perform before his biggest audiences yet.
At home, the spoils of sudden fame were evident at 1738 Terpsichore St., where he lived. Out front he often plugged in an electric piano and played for the neighborhood. He died in his bed of natural causes after a late-night dinner of red beans and spaghetti.
In the decades since, especially following the death of his wife, Alice, in 1989, the home fell victim to looters, hurricanes and general neglect. Katrina permanently displaced daughter Patricia Byrd, who retained ownership of the home. She and her son ended up living in hotels, with friends, and in temporary housing established for displaced musicians.
Without money to make repairs, the home looked like it would succumb, like so much history here, to the indifference of time.
That didn’t happen. Thanks to a coordinated effort between the city, local non-profits, including the Tipitina’s Foundation (the charitable wing of the storied New Orleans music club where a bust of Fess greets visitors at the door), and the muscles of nearly 200 volunteers from around the world, Patricia Byrd is finally moving home this month.
The $180,000 restoration of the wood-frame, two-story house does not return the home back to its 19th century beginnings, but to the 1970s when Fess purchased the home and enjoyed, for once, a sense of permanence and success.
The front room, a former candy shop and the place Fess stored his musical equipment, will become a museum. Byrd envisions local musicians performing monthly concerts on a piano once played by her father.
“I’m interested in helping people who want to learn things about my dad,” she says. “Memorabilia about his life as a musician, and father, husband and friend.”
Two decades before white audiences embraced his music, Longhair was an accomplished performer, having innovated a percussive piano style influenced by Afro-Caribbean rhythms, and an uninhibited vocal style that interjected yodels, yelps and whistling.
“He had his own vocabulary, a lot of his music came from some really off-the-hook things,” says Dr. John, the producer of “Mardi Gras in New Orleans,” who performed early sessions with Longhair as a guitarist. His earliest memory of Longhair was at age 9, when he was taken by his father to a house party where the pianist was performing.
“When I got there, he was kicking the piano to make a bass sound. This was not your regulation anything,” Dr. John says. “When the band took a break, I saw Professor Longhair, and I walked over to him and asked, ‘what do you call it when you cross your fingers over and under?’ And he says, ‘that’s overs and unders!’ And I said, ‘what do you call it when you do ‘data-da-data-da?’ And he said, ‘that’s double-note crossovers!’ He had names for everything.”
Although Longhair was cited as an influence on Elvis Presley, the Rolling Stones and even the Beatles, and recorded for both Atlantic Records and Mercury Records, he had only one national hit and remained a regional star. In 1964, he walked away from music and earned a living as a card hustler and occasional janitor at a local record shop. It was there in 1971 that Davis, a Tulane University graduate who was searching for him, discovered him sweeping a back room.
“I probably scared him half to death, because I ran over and threw my arms around him,” Davis says. A few months later, Longhair performed at the second jazz festival, a gig that rebooted his musical career. As if waiting in the wings for his cue, Longhair stepped into his role as elder statesman without hesitation.
“He was a very hip rock-and-roller in the way he held himself up with his nobility,” Davis says. “So his transformation into being a worldwide rock star, in how to act and how to dress, it was almost instantaneous. It was very natural. It was who he was, even if, at that point, he was without a career.”
As recent hit documentaries about cult heroes Big Star and Sixto Rodriguez proved, the cyclical, and often harsh, nature of commercial success for musicians is a narrative that works well for film.
Lily Keber, a New Orleans filmmaker who recently finished directing a film about James Booker, another famed pianist from her home town, is in the midst of shooting “Professor Longhair: Making a Gumbo,” in collaboration with Fish-Pot, a British film company.
“It’s a little surprising that a documentary doesn’t already exist. He’s the grandfather of all contemporary New Orleans music,” she says. “Fess is certainly more than Mardi Gras.”
Then there is “Tipitina,” a feature film underway that will tell the story of Longhair’s last decade. Producers include Rashi Kaslow, the son of Longhair’s former manager Allison Miner. Actor Samuel L. Jackson has already said he’s interested in playing the title role.
Screenwriter Grant Morris, who says Longhair is one of the “greatest untold stories, not just in New Orleans but in the country,” said his screenplay had been knocking around Hollywood for years but finally gained traction recently due to the upswing in film productions in town. Last month, the nonprofit group Film L.A. reported that Louisiana tops California as the film-production capital of the world. Of the 108 major-studio productions released into theaters, 18 were shot in the Pelican State.
“People are looking to New Orleans not just as a location to make films now, but also as a source for films. Suddenly, we’re in the right place at the right time,” Morris says.
Yet unlike other music biopic subjects, the piano great didn’t appear burdened by drugs, depression or have a history of sexual escapades. He was entirely assured of his talents, says Bruce Iglauer, who recorded Longhair on “Crawfish Fiesta.”
“Fess was bigger than life musically, but personally he was much more modest,” he says. “He put a great deal into every note, both vocal and instrumental. I think that one of the reasons why it lives on — it just makes people smile.”
The museum planned for the restored home is intended to introduce Professor Longhair to new generations, but that’s already happening.
University of Michigan students who caulked, scraped and painted the house during a week in late February did so in the spirit of helping New Orleans rebound, not because they were aware the home they were bringing back to life was once owned by one of the city’s leading musical figures. The group of about 20 students had never heard of Longhair, but Byrd regaled them with stories of her father, and by the end of the week, they understood the significance of the home. Many more will undoubtedly follow.