Sunday, August 29, 2010

Professor Longhair

But even as Ahmet began to produce music using pieces of the knowledge he had acquired as an enthusiast, he continued to look for the inaccessible thing, the thing with authority, the thing that did not need his help. “Herb Abramson and I went to New Orleans,” Ahmet told me. “And we heard about this Professor Longhair, and the very name fascinated me, you know. But I didn’t know where to find him. He didn’t have a telephone. We were taken to a place where he usually hung out, but he wasn’t there. They told us he was going to play that night. We took the address, and we thought that the address was in town—you know, a local address. But, as it turned out, that evening when we got in a taxi and gave him the address the driver said, ‘That’s across the river. You have to take a ferry across the river. And I won’t go there anyway, because that’s a niggertown.’ So the driver took us as far as the ferry. And when we got across the river it was very dark, because there were no street lights on the other side, but there were a couple of taxis. So we took a taxi, a white taxi, and we told him where we wanted to go. ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘I can’t go there.’ So I said, ‘Well,’ and I made up some story. You had to make up stories in those days, because they were strict Jim Crow, you know. If you went to a Negro section of town, you’d have to have an excuse. If you said you were from a record company, that didn’t always work, so sometimes we’d say we were from Life magazine, or something like that. And so I made up a whole story. The man said, ‘The best I can do is take you near there, and you can walk over.’ He said, ‘I wouldn’t go in there for anything in the world,’ and so on and so forth. We said O.K. So in the middle of the night he took us and stopped in the middle of a field, it looked like, you know. Fields on both sides. And I wasn’t sure whether he was just, you know, taking some sort of revenge on us or something. So I said, ‘Where is it?’ So he said, ‘Well, you have to walk right across this field over there about a mile.’ Far away we could see some lights. He said, ‘That’s it over there, you see. This is as close as I can come.’ Well, I tell you, we tramped through this . . . field, in this pitch black, in the middle of the night. There was a bit of a moon out, so we could see our way. As we approached this village, we saw this house, which was bulging in and out. All the windows were brightly lit. A lot of light was coming out of the house. It was right in the town square, the main intersection, and from far away it looked, actually, as if people were falling out the windows. The music was just blaring. We thought this must be—‘My God, there’s a fantastic band in there!’ You know, there was a great sense of discovery to . . . tramping through this field and hearing this music from far away in this ugly black village, you know. ‘My God, Herb, we’ve really come upon a great discovery. It’s just what you dream about.’ When we arrived in the square there, people saw us, and a couple of people went running immediately into this house—this was a club, you know, where he was playing—because I guess every time they saw white people it meant trouble of some kind, you know. So we walked up into the place and we said, ‘We’re from Life magazine.’ And the guy at the door said, ‘Just a minute,’ and so on. ‘We’re also from this record company in New York,’ and so on, ‘and we want to see Professor Longhair.’ And there was a big row at the door. Some people ran out the back door. They weren’t quite sure. Thought we might be the sheriff or something, you know. After a few minutes’ talk, they let us come in and sit behind the piano, and— Oh, the thing that struck me when we arrived there, when we walked in, what I thought had been an R. & B. band turned out to be just Professor Longhair by himself. He was sitting there with a microphone between his legs. He used to play an upright piano, and he had a drum, kind of a drum, attached to the piano. Not a drum but a drumhead, you know, attached to the piano. He would hit it with his right foot while he was playing. He made a percussive sound. It was very loud. And he was playing the piano and singing full blast, and it really was the most incredible-sounding thing I ever heard. And he was doing it all by himself. And it was one of the most primitive dance halls I’d ever been in. There was just like . . . a club, you know, but people jammed in there dancing and this wild thing going on, and they hid us in the corner there and we were listening to the music. I thought, My God, we’ve really found an original—nobody’s ever heard this man. He played like nobody I’d ever heard. Had some of the characteristics of some of the early boogie-woogie piano players, but with a strong Latin influence. He had a little bit of Jelly Roll Morton, a little bit of Yancey, a little bit of— But he played in his own time. He kept a very strange, different tempo. And a lot of Spanish influences—West Indian, you know. And it was just a strange mixture but the most marvellous thing I’d ever heard. And I said, ‘My God, no white person has ever seen this man.’ So as soon as he finished, Herb and I, very excited, said, ‘Look, we have to tell you, we’re just astounded by your playing,’ you know, and shaking his hand. ‘We want very much to record you.’ He said, ‘Oh, what a shame. I just signed with Mercury.’”