The New Orleans pianist Professor Longhair once described his particular genius at the keyboard as “that little gimmick I does.” I don’t think he was being especially coy, or even self-effacing—when your instinct for something is so finely hewed that it feels preternatural, it can be hard to recognize your own virtuosity, or to notice just how hard other people are working to keep up with you. Professor Longhair—who was born Henry Roeland Byrd, in 1918, and known, more colloquially, by the honorific Fess—was that sort of player: a savant, an eccentric, a visionary, a gold tooth bobbing in the back of the barrelhouse, scrambling everyone’s brains.
Almost every musical history contains at least one crucial forebear whose inventions were too bold to translate to a broad audience, but who was nonetheless a profound influence on subsequent generations, and therefore changed the culture at an odd remove—a musician’s musician. In the nineteen-forties and fifties, Fess mixed Afro-Caribbean clave rhythms with American R. & B., building on what Jelly Roll Morton had been messing around with as early as 1910, with his song “The Crave,” but making it heavier, pricklier, different. When Fess sang, he did so in the punchy, precise style of the postwar blues shouters, but on occasion he warbled like a deranged songbird. His songs were never ponderous or aching—he was more interested in conveying what he referred to as “pep.” Consider this live version of “Tipitina,” from 1978—Fess recorded it while aboard R.M.S. Queen Mary, a retired transatlantic ocean liner that Paul McCartney had rented for a party. (Other guests that night included Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, the Jackson Five, and Cher; Lee Dorsey, Ernie K-Doe, Chocolate Milk, and the Meters also performed.) It’s one of the most immediate and undeniable performances I know. Each time I hear it, I feel a renewed sense of wonder—a strange, flooding joy. “There’s Professor Longhair, and then there’s the rest of us,” the producer, pianist, and songwriter Allen Toussaint once said. To suggest that Fess exists on his own spiritual plane feels fair.
Earlier this spring, to celebrate Fess’s centennial, a crew of New Orleans filmmakers and preservationists, including Blaine Dunlap, Polly Waring, and Nell Palfi, released a new two-disk boxed set that reiterates Fess’s significance to the history of American music. “Fess Up” contains a DVD of Stevenson Palfi’s extraordinary (and, for many years, very difficult to see) documentary