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New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival

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Henry Butler
Henry Butler, Donald Harrison, Wynton Marsalis and more

The older he gets, the more New Orleans pianist Henry Butler resembles Professor Longhair. When Butler, now 59, performed Friday, the opening day of this year's New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, his tall, lanky frame, bald, narrow head and wraparound sunglasses gave him the gaunt look of Henry Roeland Byrd, the musician immortalized as Professor Longhair (or Fess).

And when Butler started rattling his Roland electric piano with two-fisted chords, adding the severe form of syncopation that gives New Orleans its signature second-line rhythms, the connection between the citys two native-son pianists was complete.

Byrd died in 1980 at age 61, but he hovers over the city and its premier festival like a guardian angel. A bas-relief of him at the piano sits atop the festival's biggest stage, which old-timers still refer to as the Fess Stage rather than its current corporate name.

The citys most famous nightclub, Tipitinas, is named after Byrds most famous song. His tunes are still heard in the citys clubs and on the dozen stages scattered inside and outside the racetrack where Jazzfest is held on the New Orleans Fairgrounds. Even more than his songs, Professor Longhairs piano licks -- a dizzying combination of American boogie-woogie, Cuban rumba and New Orleans blues -- are echoed whenever a musician begins pushing and pulling at the time with that hometown flavor.

Nowadays, no one plays those licks better than Butler, a Katrina refugee living in Denver.

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