4 June 2014
This isn’t a Flashback, since this piece was never published—but it is from deep in the vaults. Let’s step back to New Orleans, 1980. . . .
Professor Longhair is no longer with us. There’s nothing more to be said. But this year’s Tribute to ‘Fess at the New Orleans Armory helped his mourners share their grief.
The Armory sits just north of Congo Square, once the site of weekly African drum and dance festivities by slave and freedman alike. Raucous, joyful and threatening, Congo Square symbolizes the rich cultural mixing that took place on the bayous and deltas of the deep South: a gumbo stew of musical traditions from the African coasts, the Caribbean islands and yes, from the European courts and countryside as well. A stew both potent and heady, with offshoots and influences even today.
Few people know how to stir that stew just right—so the tastes don’t all run together. One who did was Roy Byrd, AKA Professor Longhair. They say in New Orleans that every musician on the street has a little bit of ‘Fess somewhere inside him—a rhythmic approach perhaps, a half-forgotten melody, or maybe just the memory of his gold-toothed smile.
Whatever it is, New Orleans’ finest came to the Armory to pay their tribute to the Professor. The acts reeled past in fifteen minute bursts: Lee Dorsey ponying up to “Ya Ya”; Snooks Eaglin—old and on the nod—calling up his last shards of strength for a taste of the peculiarly urban brand of delta blues that found its way to the Crescent City. The Neville Brothers sweetened the mixture with streetfunk soul, and The Golden Eagles gave a powwow in their Indian headdress outfits; a bittersweet memory for most. Mardi Gras continues, but will “Tipitina” ever sound the same?
And so they came and went: black, white and brown; Cajun, Creole, or just plain cracker. There was a camaraderie among the performers that extended to the audience. We wandered and danced and sat on the stage. There was no climax, no end to hurry towards. It was Friday night and the good times—whatever they might be—were here at hand.
At last, Allen Toussaint sat down at the piano. he talked a bit first, passing along a message from Dr. John (longtime disciple of Professor Longhair) who was tied up in an LA recording studio. Allen didn’t say much about ‘Fess—just a few quiet words about his spirit still hovering over the show. Then he played.
The hall was silent. The notes rippled forth like an eddying stream, wending through our midst, and lingering in memory long after the last note was played. Just like ‘Fess.