Professor Longhair “tralla walla” makes us feel fine

This week’s post (and my focus on this week’s radio show) is about the man who sang “we gonna hoola tralla walla malla dalla drink some mellow wine.”

Henry Roeland Byrd, aka Professor Longhair
Henry Roeland Byrd, aka Professor Longhair

Henry Roeland Byrd was a tap dancer, card shark, soldier, cook, laborer and general street hustler. He also was one of the greatest New Orleans piano professors of all time – Professor Longhair.

His iconic “Tipitina” inspired the likes of Fats Domino, Allen Toussaint, James Booker, Dr. John and countless others.

Professor Longhair’s style has been described as a rhumba crossed with a blues shuffle.In an interview with Peter Stone Brown not long before he died in 1980, he said:

” I was around a lot of honky-tonk musicians, barrelhouse musicians, blues musicians, and bebop musicians, jazz musicians. I just got a little bit from everybody and used it with what my mother taught me. She played a lot of ragtime music. . . I just mix my ideas up and call it a gumbo. There’s no certain thing at all. It’s just rockin’ rhythm.”

Fess was there at the beginning of the New Orleans Rock and Roll era in New Orleans, cutting his first singles in the J&M Studio (Cosimo Matassa) in 1949.  And in November 1953 with Alvin “Red” Tyler, Lee Allen, Earl Palmer, and Edgar Blanchard backing him up, he recorded “Tipitina” for the first time.

“Girl you hear me calling you. Well you’re three times seven, baby. Knows what you want to do.”

Calibration
Calibration

Born in Bogalusa but raised in New Orleans, Professor Longhair never made the hit parade and never really experienced financial success. By the late 60’s, his career had folded and he was living in poverty. In 1970, Quint Davis and Alison Minor sought him out with the intention of getting him to perform at their fledgling music festival, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.

Who they found was a frail, weak man who didn’t seem capable of pounding out his trademark rhythms. But with the help of Davis and Minor, he recovered enough to perform at the second JazzFest in 1971 and demonstrate that, if anything, his playing had gotten better.  His hometown and the world embraced him and his career flourished. Until his death in 1980, he recorded and performed, including at the nightclub created for the purpose of providing him and other aging R&B artists a place to play, named appropriately Tipitina’s.

Join me, won’t you for some Fess and Fess-inspired music this Memorial Day.   Sweeney’s Gumbo YaYa kicks off at 10 a.m. on Monday. Here’s a recording of that show on Mixcloud.

HBO’s Treme is an excellent introduction to New Orleans music

Occasionally, when someone learns about my New Orleans music show, they’ll ask me: “Have you seen. . .

And I know where they are going.

Yes! I have watched all 36 episodes of HBO’s Treme — some of them more than once including the commentary and music notes. The program is that good at portraying New Orleans.

The show ran from 2010 to 2013 and chronicled the lives of New Orleans residents upon their return to the city after Hurricane Katrina. And the show’s creators, producers and writers nailed it. The show is well regarded in New Orleans as having captured the unique and diverse culture and character of the city–both the good and the not so good.

Treme focused on the lives of musicians. Wendell Pierce, with cap, plays a trombonist struggling to make ends meet. He's marching with Rebirth Brass Band in this show and his trombone was played by Rebirth's Stafford Agee.
Treme focused on the lives of musicians. Wendell Pierce, with cap, plays a trombonist struggling to make ends meet. He’s marching with Rebirth Brass Band in this scene from the show and his trombone was played by Rebirth’s Stafford Agee.

Unfortunately, the show wasn’t sufficiently well regarded beyond the city (at least at the time) so no new episodes are being made. But if you’re reading this blog, you probably already understand the disconnect between being good and being popular. A theme that Treme also explores.

There’s lots of reasons to love this show, the main one for me is the music. There’s lot of New Orleans music in it. Literally hundreds of New Orleans-based musicians participated in its filming. Some of them even acted.

Yesterday, I pulled up the full cast listing of the show on IMDB and did a search for “self” and “selves” as in people and bands portraying themselves. I found over 250 listings. While some of the people playing themselves were politicians, chefs, writers, community activists and Mardi Gras Indian Chiefs, most of them were musicians.

The show featured literally hundreds of musicians. Some well known such as Dr. John (Mac Rebennak)
The show featured literally hundreds of musicians. Some well known such as Dr. John.

Some are well known like Dr. John, Fats Domino, Trombone Shorty and Irma Thomas. Others are not but should be such as Aurora Nealand, John Boutte, Tom McDermott, and Kermit Ruffins.

Several of the fictional characters are musicians attempting to make a living. One is a journeyman trombonists, played by Wendell Pierce, struggling to find gigs so he can pay rent and child support. Two others busk on the street and are learning the New Orleans style of music.

Throughout the series, the viewer is treated to music venues such as Tipitina’s, House of Blues, Blue Nile, Spotted Cat, and Snug Harbor and the music you hear on the show is recorded in situ. What you see is truly what you hear

In many cases, the musicians simply perform, either in the background or as a part of the plot. In other cases though, they deliver lines from a script or, in the case of Dr. John, ad lib. It’s a wonderful blend of reality and fiction.

A bass player with Jon Cleary's group, The Absolute Monster Gentlemen, Williams did quite a bit of acting and bass playing on the show.
A bass player with Jon Cleary’s group, The Absolute Monster Gentlemen, Williams did quite a bit of acting and bass playing on the show.

Cornell Williams, a bass player who in real life performs with Jon Cleary, portrays a member of a band formed by Wendell Pierce’s character and helps another character recover from drug addiction.

A more bizarre blending of real life and fiction is the character Davis McAlary, who often supplies the show’s comic relief and social commentary. McAlary is a musician and an on again, off again deejay at WWOZ, which is a real  community radio station in New Orleans. His character was inspired by Davis Rogan who has released several albums of original songs and was a deejay for WWOZ. To really twist your brain, you will see in various Treme scenes the real Davis performing on piano backing up the fictional Davis. (Another character is patterned after Donald Harrison Jr. who is also seen regularly in the show.)

Clarence "Frogman" Henry in a scene with fictional character Davis McAlary, inspired by real musician Davis Rogan.
Clarence “Frogman” Henry in a scene with fictional character Davis McAlary, inspired by real musician Davis Rogan.

If you have a propensity to love New Orleans, its food, culture and music, watching Treme will deepen that love. If you know little about New Orleans but are interested, the show is a great place to start your education.  Well, subscribing to this blog (upper right hand corner) and listening to my show won’t hurt either.

Tipitina’s keeps the legacy alive while contributing to the future

Professor Longhair may have memorialized the corner of Rampart and Dumaine in “Mardi Gras in New Orleans” but his memory and spirit live on at a different street corner, Napoleon and Tchoupitoulas, in a music venue that bears the name of another of his classics, “Tipitina.”

A bust of Professor Longhair (Henry Roeland Byrd) sculpted by Coco Robicheaux stands guard at the entrance of the New Orleans music venue that bears the name of his song Tipitina. – Photo by Alex Brandon / Times-Picayune archive

Rampart and Dumaine is the original location of J&M Studios, run by Cosimo Matassa. The location is recognized by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a landmark site and it’s a laundromat – with mixed but generally positive Internet reviews.

Tipitina’s, on the other hand, is a great example of how cool stuff can happen out of love for music and doing the right thing. Just as Preservation Hall is dedicated to keeping New Orleans jazz alive, Tipitina’s was conceived with the notion of honoring the city’s early R&B and Rock ‘n Roll legacy.

When the venue opened in 1977, it’s goal was to provide a public performance space for aging and almost forgotten R&B and Blues artists like Fess (Henry Roeland Byrd), Jessie Hill, Snooks Eaglin, Earl King and others. Tips was born from an act of love by a group of investors who collectively and affectionately became known as the “fabulous fo’teen.”

Neville Brothers in front of the Longhair mural at Tipitina’s. Photo by Leon Morris from the WWOZ website.  WWOZ’s early years were spent located above Tip’s in the beer storage room.

The venue also provided a platform for other local musicians, such as the Radiators, Little Queenie and the Percolators, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, the Continental Drifters and the Neville Brothers.

Tipitina’s in those earlier years was quite a bit different than it is today.  Music author Jay Mazza described a summer show this way:  “Sometimes it was so humid in the place that the clouds of smoke seemed to be seeded with water.  The smoke hung low in the room. Both bands and patrons alike were soaked to the bone within minutes. A trick learned early on was to bring extra shirts for changing between sets. . . Still everyone loved the place . . there always has been an amazing vibe associated with Tipitina’s.”

While the venue provided many great musical moments in the late 70s and early 80s, it struggled financially and eventually shuttered for about a year and a half. When it reopened in 1986, a major renovation made it far more attractive for musicians and their patrons. The warehouse-like building was opened up, creating a balcony level with higher ceilings, better circulation, improved bathrooms, and air conditioning.

Tacoma band Girl Trouble performing at the Capitol Theater this month. Like Tipitina's the theater has a history of providing local groups a platform to perform.
Tacoma band Girl Trouble performing at the Capitol Theater this month. Like Tipitina’s the theater has a history of providing local groups a platform to perform.

This is a nice example of how some key changes could make an Olympia venue more attractive.

Tipitina’s also kicked up their bookings, continuing to stage local artists but adding national and international acts to the mix, building a worldwide reputation.

To get an idea of the artists who have performed at Tipitina’s, check out its index of musicians, some of whom are honored with additional recognition on the sidewalk outside: the New Orleans Walk of Fame.

Tipitina’s honors New Orleans musical legacy inside and outside with its Walk of Fame.

Another cool feature of Tipitina’s is its Foundation. It’s not every place where you can rock out to amazing music, with the understanding that profits go to support the very music scene you’re enjoying.  The Foundation purchases instruments for Louisiana schools, provides ongoing youth music workshops, offers an after school jazz and digital recording program under the artistic direction of Donald Harrison, Jr. and provides a a statewide network of workforce development and job skills training centers for musicians, filmmakers and other media professionals.

Jazz artist Donald Harrison, Jr. heads up the Tipitina’s internship program.

And you never know what you’ll find at Tips. An Olympia friend told me about how she and her partner on a NOLA visit wandered into the uptown bar on a late Sunday afternoon, ordered a beer and found themselves drawn into a Cajun Fais Do Do.

So next trip to NOLA, put Tips on your list. Until then, you can catch many of the musicians who perform there on Sweeney’s Gumbo YaYa, every Monday from 10 a.m. to noon on your community radio station, KAOS.

Community Stations like KAOS; WWOZ make a difference

Picture yourself at Tipitina’s in the early 80’s preparing to catch some funk by Zigaboo Modeliste and George Porter, Jr., and just as the band is about to begin, a microphone descends from the ceiling.

In the early years of WWOZ, Tipitina’s was the home of the station.

You would have been witnessing an early, glorious moment in community radio. Located in the beer storage room above the uptown New Orleans night club was the nascent community radio station, WWOZ. With that simple, low-tech approach, the station was able to broadcast a live performance–launching a 30-year tradition of supporting local music.

WWOZ has come a long way from that beer closet and now is readily recognized as the “Guardian of the Groove” in New Orleans.

While serving a smaller market, KAOS has a similar reputation for supporting the often overshadowed music scene in Olympia.

With the KAOS Fall Member Drive and the WWOZ Fall Member Drive, I thought it timely to talk about my two favorite radio stations and why financial support is essential to both.

Like many, I listen to more than one station. But I only pledge to KAOS and WWOZ.  I pledge to KAOS because its my default station that I listen to the most, providing a wide range of music and programming. I pledge to WWOZ because I love New Orleans and its music. Listening to the station connects me, albeit remotely, to the city I was born in. Without WWOZ, I would not have had the confidence to launch Sweeney’s Gumbo YaYa – a show that wouldn’t exist without KAOS.

Here are the features I like about these stations.  They both are non-commercial, community radio stations. They both invite and train members of the community to volunteer as on-air hosts (deejays). While being “volunteer powered” means they’re not as slick as some commercial radio stations, the hosts convey an authentic, honest voice, portraying Olympia and New Orleans in a way that gives me a deeper understanding. These deejays work in the same community, walk the same sidewalks,  drink at the same bars (you get the idea.).

Both stations are cheerleaders for local music, regularly announcing live music events, hosting studio performances and interviewing musicians and other performers. This boosterism can matter.  In 1987, KAOS hosted the the first radio broadcast of Nirvana and this summer, Seattle’s Vaudeville Etiquette was written up by the music tracker CMJ because of airplay it received on KAOS.

Just last week, local musician Greg Black stopped by the KAOS table at Arts Walk and offered the station his new CD, recorded two blocks away at Dub Narcotic Studio. You’ll hear it, along with other local music, on KAOS.

rampb-emperor-biography-hails-ernie-k-doe-291g96r6-x-large
Ernie K-Doe, New Orleans singer and lounge owner, was a deejay with New Orleans community radio station WWOZ.

And like WWOZ whose shows have been hosted by musicians like James Booker, David Torkanowsky and Ernie K-Doe (this blog’s patron saint), many of the KAOS on-air hosts are musicians themselves.

Both stations offer more than music. WWOZ , owned by the same folks who bring us Jazz Fest, focuses on programs that delve into the music and culture of New Orleans. KAOS has a broader mission, providing alternative perspectives such as National Native News, Counter Spin and Workers Independent News. as well as locally produced public affairs programs like Parallel University, Speaking of Wellness and the one I contribute to, Community Connections Report.

Strong listener support for these stations are crucial. The additional funding helps enrich the quality of the programming. But it also demonstrates to underwriters and funders that the station is a valued resource worthy of their support. Please take the time to pledge to KAOS and pledge to WWOZ this week or whenever you read this.