My First Professor
|Occasionally, my folks would scrape together enough extra money to head to a country bar on a weekend. I remember one bar in particular by the name of the Gaiety, which was a honky tonk east on Chef Hwy. It was a long drive to near or maybe over the Mississippi line. (M I S S – I S S – I Pee Pee In Your Eye – that’s how I learned to spell it.)|
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 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 piano – 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.
“Goodbye Joe, me gotta go, me oh my oh, me gotta go float a pee-row down the bayou…Oh Jambalaya, crawfish 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 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 transformational moment for a young entertainer like me.
Frequently over the next few years my folks travelled to whenever they could to wherever this man played. I heard my dad explain once that Henry wasn’t allowed to play in New Orleans proper because he had a mixed band. Professor Longhair, Henry Roeland Byrd, was black yet he often 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.
There are still things that Fess played that I 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 for his heartfelt inspiration.
Older classmen 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.