Even before the casket appeared, the crowd was swelling across both sides of Dryads Street, which runs through the center of Back-o'-Town in New Orleans. Nearly 3,000 people surrounded the Majestic Mortuary, so many that the Tuxedo band set out along a side street, circling the block to draw away some of the throng.
When the pallbearers brought the casket down the front steps of the mortuary, a huge roar went up, almost as if the legendary pianist, Professor Longhair, had come in person to perform at center stage.
Brightly colored unbrellas began to sprout like mush rooms above the crowd, a time-honored Carnival tradition, the reds and silvers and yellows bobbing above the heads and shoulders of the people pushing in ever tighter. Attendants had to burrow through the crowd to get the casket in the hearse. The Olympia band began "Just a Closer Walk With Thee," a gospel played in slow time, as a dirge.
"Lawda mercy," said an old black woman in the crowd, "nobody could ring that piano like the Fess."
Henry Roeland Byrd, who took the stage name Professor Longhair in 1947, had become a folk hero in New Orleans and had a cult following in parts of Europe and Japan by the time he died at 61 last week of pulmonary emphysema, chronic brochitis and advanced cirrhosis of the liver. But much of his life was spent in painful obscurity. Only in the last few years were there signs that he might achieve the popularity of other seminal New Orleans jazz artists like Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet and Byrd's contemporary, Fats Domino.
Word of his funeral spread like brushfire through the streets of new Orleans on Saturday. The throngs came out in the 40-degree weather, hundreds of them with cameras -- denizens of the street, elderly folk, mothers with babies, children, scores of young whites, well-heeled tourists tipped off by their hotels that a jazz funeral was under way, and the many musicians who knew and loved the old rhythm-and-blues pianist.
His first hit, "Bald Head," came in 1950 on Mercury Records and it was the only one to make the national charts. During the '50s he cut recordings of "Got to the Mardi Gras" and "Big chief," which quickly became Carnival anthems. The range of parade sounds woven into the recordings influenced a generation of local musicians.
The tide of electronic rock music in the 1960s passed Byrd by. In 1970 he was sweeping out a record shop when local promoter Quint Davis became his manager and resurrected his career. As director of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, Davis saw to it that Professor Longhair received top billing. His luck began to improve and he soon became a cult figure to a new generation of fans who crowded into the New Orleans music clubs that began to fluorish during the rhythm-and-blues revival of the last decade.
Within hours of his death, radio stations and jukeboxes in local taverns began playing his records, a tribute that continued through the week. But Professor Longhair died a poor man. Contributions from the musicians union and from friends were necessary to help the family with the funeral, and a benefit concert is planned.
The day he died, his new LP, "Crawfish Fiesta," was being shipped by a Chicago record company. Many people believed that the record, along with a documentary film about him planned for public television, would bring him fame and fortune.
A camera crew working on the documentary went into the mortuary the day before the funeral, lending a bizarre atmosphere to the proceedings. Two other camera teams from local TV stations also stormed into the small building, lights flashing, to film the body in the casket and the reactions of the crowd, many of whom were weeping. One reporter circulated through the parlor asking, "Can anyone find me a musician to interview?" Art Neville, keyboard man for the city's premier pop band, the Neville Brothers, said, "These cameras are 65 years too late. Where was the media all those years Byrd was playing but couldn't cut records?"
His brother, volcalist Aaron Neville, was more philosophical: "The body is dead, but Byrd's still here."
The funeral procession began more than an hour late the next morning, under cold, slate-colored skies. It took another 15 minutes to get the crowd moving behind the Olympia and Tuxedo bands, two of the city's traditional marching brass ensembles. Now the funeral procession began to move, slowly, the limousine following, to the rhythm of the dirges. Still more people came, emptying out of tottering honkytonks, and following the umbrellas pumping up and down. The crowd passed over scarred streets, past aging, pelling clapboard houses, people leaning over rusty iron grill balconies. This was Fess' neighborhood and these were his people.
When the Olympia band reached Rampart Street, just four blocks from the funeral home, the crowd had grown to more than 5,000. It took 10 minutes to prod them back from the middle of the street so the limousines could pass.
As New Orleans jazz funerals go, it was one of the worst managed and most exciting ever. Among Longhair's friends, the TV cameras inside the funeral home inspired bitterness.
Andy Kaslow, the saxophonist in Longhair's band, said, "His poverty had to do with the structure of the music industry, music consumed by the white public after it's watered down from black origins. Look at the fame of Elvis Presley compared to the obscurity of Professor Longhair, the notoriety of Dave Brubeck compaed to the lesser fame of Thelonius Monk. Fess was a bridge betwen all different forms that led to rock 'n' roll -- jazz, blues, calypso, R&B. He was the purest expression of what rock 'n' roll is all about, and he deserved one helluva a lot better."
Professor Longhair was buried in a cemetery far from the jazz funeral, but 150 people managed to make it there anyway.
Earl Turbinton, a longtime admirer, played a soulful eulogy on the saxophone after the minister finished his oration. When the last note of the sax faded into cold wind, and old woman said, "That's just the way he'd o'wanted it."
After that, all you could hear was the cameras clicking.