Format: NTSC Region: 0 – all regions
Running time: 184 minutes
Release Date: 2018
Label: Ruby Red
Director: Stevenson J. Palfi
Featuring: Professor Longhair, Allen Toussaint, Isidore “Tuts” Washington
Two DVDs with a 38-page hardback book
FESS UP is a New Orleans music lover’s collectible boxed set: two DVDs with three hours of content, plus a 38-page hardbound volume of archival images and commissioned essays.
Disc one has PIANO PLAYERS RARELY EVER PLAY TOGETHER (1982, 76 minutes), Stevenson J. Palfi’s revelatory documentary about the essential creation narrative of jazz: how music is played by one generation of artists and then reinvented by those younger and hungrier who wait all night for a chance to sit in with the master. Three generations are thus portrayed: the youngest is Allen Toussaint (1938-2015); the oldest is Isidore “Tuts” Washington (1907-1984); the genius in the middle is Henry Roeland Byrd (1918-1980), known throughout the world as Professor Longhair. Songs include: Yes We Can Can, Mr. Freddy Blues, Swannee River Boogie, Mardi Gras in New Orleans, Whole Lotta Lovin’, What is Success?, Java, Working In the Coal Mine, Fortune Teller, Holy Cow, Mother-In-Law, ‘Taint it the Truth, Junker Blues, Tipitina, and Southern Nights.
Palfi himself is the subject of an 11-minute extra, a specially licensed distillation of Mark Sindler’s and Al Godoy’s excellent and long-neglected 1987 public television special, SOUTHERN INDEPENDENTS: STEVENSON J. PALFI. Interviews with Al Rose, Eddie Kurtz, Alice Byrd, Arnold Bourgeois, Burwell Ware, Julius Cain, and Stevenson Palfi are featured, as well as an excerpt from THIS CAT CAN PLAY ANYTHING with Preservation Hall banjoist Emanuel “Manny” Sayles.
Disc two is FESS UP (2018, 95 minutes), a conversation at the piano with Henry Roeland Byrd at Tipitina’s in New Orleans, in January 1980, just two days before Fess died. It is as close to a Professor Longhair autobiography as we will ever see. In his own words and music, Fess takes us from his childhood on the streets of New Orleans, playing in spasm bands, to the triumphant release of his final LP, “Crawfish Fiesta.” Along the way he performs and annotates the songs Bald Head, In the Wee Wee Hours, Mardi Gras in New Orleans, Go Ahead and Cry, Hey Now Baby, Gone So Long, Tipitina, and others. Longhair demonstrates how he writes songs, using a riff of “Stormy Weather,” called “Coolization.” Rare 1929 Fox Movietone News film shot in New Orleans in March 1929 of an actual New Orleans sidewalk spasm band (featuring contemporaries of the 10-year-old Byrd) represents a triumph of archival library science.
The 38-page booklet contains photos (many previously unpublished) ranging from the 1930s to the 1980s, from Professor Longhair to poignant production stills from PIANO PLAYERS RARELY EVER PLAY TOGETHER. Essays complement the photos throughout the booklet: Johnny Harper’s “Radiatin’ the 88s,” a critical overview of PIANO PLAYERS celebrating Fess, Toussaint, Tuts, and Stevenson Palfi; Bruce Boyd Raeburn’s “Fess In Full,” a personal remembrance of Professor Longhair; Michael Oliver-Goodwin’s “Interview in E Minus: A Fess Up Glossary,” a whimsical glossary of some of the unique terminology (alternately hilarious and endearing) that Fess uses in his feature-length interview; and Oliver-Goodwin’s “Three Cylinder R&B,” his 1984 Village Voice review of PIANO PLAYERS, leading up to its national PBS broadcast.
The FESS UP package was meticulously and lovingly created by a dedicated group of filmmakers, writers, designers, and producers who knew and worked with Stevenson J. Palfi.