As a vinyl .45 record that reads ‘Atlantic’ flips onto a record player, the piano in the background grows louder and more energetic, punctuated by drums and horns.

Then here comes the signature whistling that every New Orleans kid recognizes — it’s from the Professor Longhair song, “Go to the Mardi Gras.”

Longhair died in 1980. He never achieved real stardom in the lifetime. And his legacy hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves, family members say.

But on Wednesday, a new documentary honoring Fess will screen at the renovated Dew Drop Inn. Earlier that day, his music compatriots, the Neville family, will gather Uptown to unveil honorary street signs that rename two blocks of Valence Street to Neville Way, a 10-year honor granted by the City Council in response to an application made by Art Neville’s daughter, Arthel Neville. Last fall, the City Council approved similar honorary signage in honor of Professor Longhair for Terpsichore Street between St. Charles Avenue and South Rampart Street, a span that includes 1738-40 Terpsichore, his childhood home. 

Still, his granddaughter Nadine Byrd is devoted to honoring him on a more elemental level, by getting his music out there – to continue what he started, she said. The new documentary: “Professor Longhair: Rugged and Funky,” is part of that effort.

“I don’t wanna have to continue to whistle, and I can’t whistle,” Byrd said, in reference to her grandfather’s signature whistling on “Go to the Mardi Gras,” the Carnival anthem. “ I want those bones resurrected so they can understand that you hear his music all the time but they don’t recognize it,” she said.

The Lens got a sneak peek of the new, detailed film portrait of her grandfather, the classic New Orleans character most often referred to only as “Fess,” who’s usually pictured in dark sunglasses as he pounds away on a piano keyboard.

“It’s the rhythm of the city.”

Longhair poses for a photo in front of his piano. Courtesy of Joshua Bagnall.

As part of the film’s opening sequence, a photograph spins into the frame, of an older gentleman with blacked-out shades and a gold tooth singing into a microphone. Images of him, on photographic slides, dance around the screen to the beat of the music. 

There’s a voice. His voice.

“Back in those days, if you wore long hair, you liable to wind up in jail anytime. … When I started playing music, people that didn’t know me by my name, they started calling me ‘Little Loving Henry,” then ‘Loving Dr. Professor Longhair’ when I started playing music.”

On Wednesday night at the Dew Drop Inn, the film’s producers – Director Joshua Bagnall and Executive Producer Diedra “Deepa Soul” Meredith – are hosting a screening of the film, to raise money for their final but expensive step, licensing Longhair’s music, image and likeness.

In the film’s first interview, a gray-haired Allen Toussaint, seated at a grand piano, compares Longhair’s music to classical composers. “All of Professor Longhair’s work, to me, is as serious as Mendelssohn or Brahms, Vivaldi – and especially Bach,” said Toussaint, who sometimes referred to his pal as “the Bach of Rock.”

Longhair’s sound is a mashup of those classical influences blended with African-Caribbean rhythms —- rumba, mambo and calypso —- and mixed with jazz, second-line, blues, funk and rock’n’roll. 

The result: an eclectic sound that is the personification of New Orleans itself. “It’s the rhythm of the city, I mean he really kind of nailed it,” one musician says during the film’s opening sequence.

Yet Longhair didn’t have the ego to match his talent. “Professor Longhair never felt as he walked and talked and breathed, as important as he really was,” Toussaint said. “And I don’t think he knew it either.” 

George Porter, Jr., a bass player for Longhair for nine years who went on to play bass for the Meters, described Longhair as similarly humble.  “Fess was larger than life but at the same time, was also the guy next door,” he said.

“We couldn’t get past Baton Rouge”

Professor Longhair playing the piano wearing his signature shades. Courtesy of Joshua Bagnall.

Born Henry Roeland Byrd in Bogalusa, on the North Shore, his mother moved him to New Orleans rather than have him grow up in such a rigidly segregated place, where prominent citizens were also Ku Klux Klan members.

Musicians who played with him described him as basically a one-man band, whose hands and feet combined could play all different rhythms. “He’d kick the piano with his feet, ain’t need no drummer. We didn’t have no bass player, because he kicked the piano with his feet — that was the bass player,” said saxophonist Robert “Barefootin’” Parker, who played his horn on a 1949 Longhair Carnival classic, “Go to the Mardi Gras.”

Though Longhair is revered by jazz aficionados around the world, he was little known outside New Orleans for much of his life, though his work influenced many marquee names from New Orleans, including the Nevilles, Fats Domino, Huey “Piano” Smith, Allen Toussaint and Dr. John.

Porter remembers plenty of imitations of Longhair by people who became big stars. “For guys like Fess, they had the Elvis Presleys and the Jerry Lee Lewis’ that hanged onto that style … and went off and made money off of what they heard down here in New Orleans that we couldn’t get past Baton Rouge.”

But Longhair — like many musicians, then and now — was held back by racism and by a reality that plagues many quintessentially New Orleans artists – including Louis Armstrong and King Oliver — who are not acknowledged in their hometown until they leave and become famous elsewhere. 

That’s partly because the city of New Orleans, like Longhair himself, wasn’t given the reverence it deserved, said historian Raynard Sanders. “It was not anything that was cherished or was considered great by the mainstream media in New Orleans. So those people that were fortunate enough to leave here, like Louis and the other musicians, gained fame when they went to communities that respected their music and that art form,” Sanders said.

Racism also was ever-present, Sanders said. “Like anything else any African American did at that particular time, (African American music) was always downplayed, marginalized and was not thought of with any great respect locally,” he said.

Longhair’s biggest challenge was getting paid for the music he made. He made records and wrote hit songs like “Go to the Mardi Gras” and “Tipitina,” which gave the famous Uptown nightclub its name. But, like many other musicians, he didn’t receive the royalties he deserved. Locally, he struggled to get bookings for his band and those he did get paid poorly.

“He played this gig and he came home…My mom asked, ‘How did it go?’ And he said, ‘The door didn’t bring in enough money and I waived my salary,’” Longhair’s daughter, Patricia Byrd, said in the new documentary. Longhair had to pay his band, or else he’d never be able to hire musicians for another gig. But he would often forgo his pay as band leader, she said.

Even with the hit singles he’d written and recorded during the 1950s, Longhair was unable to make ends meet as a full-time musician. As much as he loved music, the music was not showing him love back. He began working odd jobs and put music aside.

“I quit. I stayed away from music for around 15 years,” Longhair said.

“He is a part of our history”

The signature shades of Professor Longhair (Courtesy of Joshua Bagnall)

Then came the 1970s, when Miles Davis and others restyled the genre of jazz with his fusion album, Bitches Brew. Locally, in Preservation Hall and other venues that opened in the 1960s and 1970s, there was a new wave of reverence for older traditional-jazz and blues musicians.

In 1971, when Longhair was working as a janitor in a record store, Quint Davis tracked him down and made him a headliner for the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, giving his career a meteoric rise. This turned his career completely around, as he became the festival’s official closing act and a patron saint of sorts for fervent Jazz Festers.

After his prominent debut at Jazz Fest, Byrd’s career took flight. He was now seen as an elder statesman, a musician at the top of his craft. In 1979, Longhair signed with Chicago-based Alligator Records, to produce his first-ever full album. But just before the album was released, Professor Longhair passed away in his sleep, at the age of 61. 

The Dew Drop’s new owner, Curtis Doucette Jr., is hopeful that Longhair’s spirit will be in-house for the film’s first screening. After all, Longhair himself spent time there, performing at the Uptown club. “He is part of our history and this institution has always shared his passion for musical innovation,” Doucette said.

“Professor Longhair: Rugged and Funky” will be screened at the historic Dew Drop Inn, 2836 Lasalle St., on Wednesday ( May 1, from 3 to 6 p.m. All proceeds from the event will go towards completing the film. Donate to the film or get your tickets for the screening at .

Mizani Ball

Mizani Ball is a filmmaker and award-winning producer based in New Orleans. She completed her MFA in Documentary Media at Northwestern University in 2021. Shortly after graduating she began working as...