Fess Head Fest
3 p.m. – 9 p.m. Wednesday, April 28
3027 Chartres St.
For 22 years, a group calling itself the Krewe of Fess has made an annual pilgrimage from homes far and wide to the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. Twenty years ago, they began to mark their presence with what has become a constant fixture at the festival: the Fess Head.
"There were so many of us, we needed a way to find each other," says Fess Head bearer Joe "Joe Jazz Fest" Dyczewski, recalling the dark ages before cell phones and text messages. "Really, we needed to find each other so we could get a ride home."
After a long day at Jazz Fest in 1989, Dyczewski found himself stranded. Looking at a bust of Elvis perched on the flagpole of another group of festgoers, he realized his krewe needed its own totem. He enlisted a friend from New York City, where he lived at the time, to create a bust similar to the Professor Longhair one at Tipitina's.
"It's the icon of New Orleans," Dyczewski says. "And I absolutely love his music."
The golden Longhair head made its first appearance in 1990 at the main stage (now the Acura Stage) during a set by Ernie K-Doe. Every year, Dyczewski flew into New Orleans for the festival, carting the head with him. He used to hide the pole in secret locations and retrieve it the following spring. Every year, the head attracted more friends and followers, and starting in 1995, Dyczewski began organizing night concerts for the group at a Frenchmen Street club.
To mark its 20th birthday, the Fess Head will preside over its own mini festival. Slated for Wednesday in a lot owned by Bywater artist Dr. Bob, the lineup features the Rebirth Brass Band, Johnny Sketch and the Dirty Notes, Flow Tribe and the Never Was Brothers, a collection of non-Neville members of Neville bands: "Mean" Willie Green drummed for the Neville Brothers, guitarist Brian Stoltz played with the Funky Meters, and bassist Tony Hall has backed up Ivan Neville's Dumpstaphunk.
While New Orleanians are prone to elevating any repeated event into a nearly sacrosanct tradition, the cult of the Fess Head has been forged with a mix of tragedy and determination. After a dozen years, Dyczewski decided to hand off the torch for a year while he traveled to Thailand instead of New Orleans. But before Jazz Fest, the Fess bearer was killed in a car accident. The original golden bust was never recovered, but Dyczewski still occasionally wears a T-shirt with a portrait of Professor Longhair, and hidden in the reflection of Fess' sunglasses is the image of the lost friend.
A second bust was created by the original artist and has attended every Jazz Fest since. Dyczewski began to leave the new bust with krewe members in New Orleans. In the wake of the levee failures, before the city was officially reopened to its citizens, a friend in the National Guard was enlisted to take a boat to a home in Lakeview and recover the bust, which was floating in several feet of water.
Three yeas ago, Dyczewski finally moved to the city.
"I was living in a jungle paradise in Costa Rica and I was missing New Orleans," he says. "It's the only place I feel like home."