Lionel Ferbos, the longest-tenured jazz trumpeter in New Orleans, dies at 103
Trumpeter Lionel Ferbos, who enjoyed a late-in-life celebrity as the oldest active jazz musician in New Orleans, died early Saturday, July 19. He celebrated his 103rd birthday two nights earlier, on July 17, at a party at the Palm Court Jazz Café, a favored venue of his.
His life in music spanned the Roosevelt administration to the Obama administration, the Great Depression to the Internet era. Louis Armstrong was only 10 years his senior, but Mr. Ferbos outlived Armstrong by more than 40 years.
Mr. Ferbos was the personification of quiet dedication to one's craft. Few people in his 7th Ward neighborhood realized he was a musician — they knew him as a tinsmith who had taken over his father's sheet metal business. That occupation sustained him and his family for decades.
But he always nurtured a musical career on the side.
"He proved that the greatness of the city of New Orleans is that ordinary people can be extraordinary on a daily basis," said trumpeter and New Orleans Jazz Orchestra founder Irvin Mayfield. "Everyone has an opportunity to be something special. The culture gives us the opportunity. He was an example of that."
He was never a "hot" player. He wasn't flashy, wasn't prone to showy improvisation. He never promoted himself as a bandleader or soloist — his horn was part of whatever ensemble he was with at the time. As a result, he made relatively few recordings in his lifetime.
Born in 1911, he represented one of the last living links to the earliest years of jazz. His understanding of the music, and how to play it, were formulated by primary sources unavailable to musicians today. As a result, his style was subtly different, especially his sense of time.
With Mr. Ferbos and his contemporaries, "there's a certain way that they play melodies — it's a different beat, a different rhythm," Mayfield said. "When you listen to King Oliver or Jelly Roll Morton, you hear it. I would describe it like sitting on the note, as opposed to playing in back of the note. Every time I played with Mr. Ferbos, that was apparent to me. That's one of the lost things that we won't be able to hear in person again."
Mr. Ferbos' first professional gigs were in the 1930s with society jazz bands — the Moonlight Serenaders, the Starlight Serenaders. He was the lead trumpet player in the Works Progress Administration jazz band during the Great Depression.
In the 1970s, he played trumpet for the house band of the musical "One Mo' Time," but declined to move with the show to New York. He toured Europe several times with the New Orleans Ragtime Orchestra. A skilled reader of sheet music, he wrote charts for the Danny Barker-led brass bands that helped revive the brass band tradition. More recently, he fronted his band the Louisiana Shakers weekly at the Palm Court Jazz Café on Decatur Street, his home away from home.
Across all those decades, he never stopped practicing. As long as he played — well into his 102nd year — he also practiced.
"There was nothing more beautiful that to watch this man in his 90s, and then at 100, and then 101, saying that he had to practice," Mayfield said. "I'd call his house and they'd say, 'Paw-Paw is practicing.'"
Over the past decade or so, Mr. Ferbos received more attention and accolades that at any point in his career. His longevity became his claim to fame, a fact that was not lost on him. Being the oldest active jazz musician in New Orleans — and possibly the world — had a cachet to it. He truly earned the Lifetime Achievement Award he received at the 2003 Big Easy Awards — at that point, he'd been a musician for 70 years.
As one longtime friend put it, he loved the attention he received late in life, but didn't seek it. At gigs, he was there to do a job. And ultimately, that job was pleasing the public.
For his 100th birthday, the Palm Court Jazz Café hosted a gala celebration. The event sold out quickly. Mr. Ferbos spent most of the evening — more than two hours — onstage with the jazz band, playing, singing, or just taking it all in. USA Today profiled him in advance of the party. The New York Times sent a writer to cover the event.
In August 2013, he and the Louisiana Shakers were featured for one of the monthly house party concerts Mayfield hosts at his home in the Broadmoor neighborhood.Mr. Ferbos brought tears to the eyes of some attendees as he gamely sang "When I Grow Too Old to Dream." Despite a nearly 70-year age gap, he and Mayfield sat side by side, finding common ground as they raised their trumpets in tandem. After the gig, Mr. Ferbos gladly accepted congratulatory pecks on the cheek from a progression of women decades younger than him.
This year, however, Mr. Ferbos slowed down considerably. He last performed publicly on March 30 for a Sunday afternoon gig at the "Nickel-a-Dance" traditional jazz series at the Maison on Frenchmen Street. He missed both the 2014 French Quarter Festival and the 2014 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival presented by Shell.
He grew increasingly frail in recent months, confined to a relative's home. Family and friends hosted a party for him on July 17 at the Palm Court on his 103rd birthday. Palm Court proprietor Nina Buck had offered to bring the birthday party to his home, but members of his family insisted he would prefer to celebrate at the Palm Court, in public. Far too weak to perform, Mr. Ferbos instead posed for pictures and greeted dozens of well-wishers in what turned out to be his final public appearance.
He outlived his wife of 75 years, Marguerite Gilyot, who died in 2009, as well as his son, Lionel Ferbos Jr., who died in 2006. Survivors include his daughter, Sylvia, three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
Funeral arrangements are pending.
Music writer Keith Spera can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 504.826.3470. Follow him on Twitter @KeithSpera.