My First Professor
In that bar played a giant of man that my dad called Henry, or sometimes, Birdman. He was the tallest person I had ever seen. And he had these extraordinarily long fingers. Birdman played piano at the bar, accompanied by various musicians and singers depending upon the night. Some nights more players would filter in late in the night.
I always positioned myself at the end of the piano and watched Mr. Byrd’s hands pound a an old, beat up, cigarette scarred, turn-of-the-century vintage piano – bringing out a carnival of sounds from his ten, bony fingers and that deep voice resonating off every surface in the jernt. Happy people – free of care – danced joyously to the music.
I watched intently every finger stroke and would later attempt to mimic his movements with my tiny hands. I may have been six by this time. My parents were happy that I was distracted and not interfering with their conversations with the other denizens of Gaiety. And Mr. Byrd took a liking to me.
Occasionally, Mr. Byrd would show me a pair of keys to hit, “Jus’ keeps on hitting the B-flat and C when I points at you.” I’d strike the keys in rhythm with him whenever he pointed, then he’d signal me to stop with a gentle, horizontal wave of his hand whereupon his fingers would fly up and down the 88’s, another finger point and I’d be pounding the high Bb-C as he laughed and urged me on.
You pick up on vibes from adults. My dad loved this guy. He felt him, sang along with him (out of tune), and bought him beers. “You’re all kinds of alright, Sunny,” Mr. Byrd would say. My dad would always reply, “Henry, you know what I came to hear, you know the song. Play it! You played it for her you can play it for me.” I hadn’t seen Casablanca at that point in my few days so I missed the significance of the Bogart reference until years later.
“Goodbye Joe, me gotta go, me oh my oh. Me gotta go float a pee-row down the bayou…Oh Jambalaya, craw-fish pie, fillet gumbo. For tonight I’m gonna see my Cher amio… ”
I had heard Jambalaya more than any other song at that time, but this was quite different. It wasn’t a guitar strumming, hillbilly twangy version. It was a vibrant, soulful piano-based rendition. Mr. Byrd painted a completely different picture than what I envisioned from the original by Hank Williams, Sr.
This proved to be yet another transformation moment for a young entertainer like me: that New Orleans mandate to make the song your own right before my tiny eyes.
Frequently over the next few years my folks traveled whenever they could to wherever this man played. I heard my dad explain that Henry wasn’t allowed to play in New Orleans proper because he had a mixed band. Professor Longhair (Henry Byrd) was black yet he hired white musicians to play with him. Strangely, I immediately understood what he was saying. I knew kids whose mothers would call them in from the ball field if there were Negro kids playing. At 6, I couldn’t comprehend racism, but it was the reality of the time and place. It was the way things were in 1959 in the Deep South. .
There are things that Fess played that I still can’t figure out. I replay his every finger movement in my mind, but can’t discern the nuances of his floating digits. But I solemnly appreciate all that he taught me and his heartfelt inspiration.
Older class men of the time like Mac Rebennack (Dr. John) and Ed Volker (The Radiators) – who got closer to Fess as musicians and students – were able to absorb more, but there isn’t a keys man of our generation that isn’t beholding to Mr. Henry Roeland Byrd, more famously known as Professor Longhair.