Like Louis Armstrong, Professor Longhair is a New Orleans original.
On the eve of Satchmo SummerFest, the New Orleans Jazz Museum will unveil “Me Got Fiyo: The Professor Longhair Centennial.” The free, public reception is Thursday from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.
Professor Longhair’s recordings, including “Mardi Gras In New Orleans,” “Big Chief” and “Tipitina,” occupy an enduring place in the New Orleans soundtrack.
“Me Got Fiyo” celebrates Professor Longhair, aka Henry Roeland Byrd, one of New Orleans’ most enduring and influential singer-pianists. The exhibit’s more than 50 items include two pianos played by Byrd, photos, posters and vinyl recordings. Other items include his 1970s business card and the Professor Longhair flag that hung in Tipitina’s, the music venue founded by Fess's fans in 1977.
Pianist Tom Worrell and percussionist Uganda Roberts, a longtime member of Professor Longhair's band, will perform at the opening reception.
Born Dec. 19, 1918, in Bogalusa, Henry Byrd's family moved to New Orleans when he was about 2 months old. His mother, a professional musician, taught him to play the many instruments she played, including piano and guitar.
As a youngster, Byrd danced and performed with “spasm” bands that featured homemade instruments. He salvaged, repaired and played pianos discarded by Werlein’s music store. A six-month hitch with the Civilian Conservation Corps in the late ’30s exposed him to percussionists from the Caribbean. He incorporated their Latin rhythms into his blues and boogie-woogie piano. Local pianists Sullivan Rock, Kid Stormy Weather and Tuts Washington were also major influences.
“As people have done in New Orleans,” said Jazz Museum music curator David Kunian, “he took very different strains of music and combined them into something uniquely New Orleans and uniquely his. And he changed the way everyone plays the piano here.”
In 1949, Byrd made his first recording of “Mardi Gras in New Orleans.” He recorded for various labels during the next three decades, including Mercury, Atlantic and local label Ron, which released the definitive version of “Mardi Gras in New Orleans” in 1959.
But a career in music proved difficult for Byrd, who was reluctant to travel. To make a living, he played cards for money and cleaned up at the One-Stop Record Shop.
Byrd’s career rebounded after a booking at the 1971 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. In 1980, when his career was thriving, he died unexpectedly at 61, just as his latest album, “Crawfish Fiesta,” was being released.
“Me Got Fiyo: The Professor Longhair Centennial” runs through July 1, 2019.