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While paying tribute to the centennial birthday of notable musical figures is not uncommon, actually having the honoree alive and still performing at the age of 100 is almost unheard of. Trumpeter and singer Lionel Ferbos was born on July 17, 1911 – three months before Mahalia Jackson. He grew up and spent most of his life in the downtown Creole section of New Orleans. He began taking lessons at age 15 and soon found himself playing New Orleans-style jazz and dance music at house parties. Ferbos toured the south in late 1920s, playing shows on the vaudeville circuit where he backed up singers like the legendary Mamie Smith.
During the 1930s Ferbos played in bands led by Captain John Handy and Walter “Fats” Pichon. During the Depression he began playing with the Works Progress Administration Band, which lasted into World War II. In 1934 Ferbos married Marguerite Gilyot and had two children. He also began a long-time trade as a sheet metal worker. Except for a few years of laying off for health reasons, he has continued to play music all of his life. During the 1940s and ’50s he played in the Mighty Four, a group that worked for several years at the Melody Inn and also recorded.
In the 1960s Ferbos played with Herbert Leary’s dance orchestra for society events and Carnival balls. In 1970 he joined Lars Edegran’s New Orleans Ragtime Orchestra, with which he toured internationally, recorded several times and appeared in the film Pretty Baby. In 1979 Ferbos became the original trumpet player and a featured singer in Vernel Bagneris’ hit musical One Mo’ Time. Since 1991 Ferbos has performed every week at the Palm Court Jazz Café.
Recent years have been difficult for Ferbos. His home was severely damaged, and most of his possessions were lost in 2005’s Hurricane Katrina. In 2006 his son, Lionel Jr., died. Three years later, he lost his beloved wife of 75 years. Today he lives with his daughter, Sylvia, and enjoys the company of family and friends. He continues to play at the Palm Court and does occasional jobs with the Ragtime Orchestra.
As he approaches his 100th birthday, Lionel Ferbos is the oldest active jazz musician in New Orleans. In a strict sense, he has never been the typical improvising jazz musician. Although he has memorized dozens of tunes, during performances he still reads most songs from sheet music. He also writes out and reads his trumpet solos.
He puts a personal spin on written melodies by changing note lengths and by adding other notes. His excellent reading skills have kept him working throughout his life and made him a favorite among bandleaders who featured challenging music charts. His beautiful sweet trumpet tone and warm vocal style have endeared him to musicians and audiences worldwide.
I first met and got to know Lionel Ferbos in the early 1980s when we performed many times together in the local production of One Mo’ Time at the Toulouse Theater. Since then he has remained a mentor and friend. Over the years we have played a number jobs together, sometimes in my Original Liberty Jazz Band. From the start, he represented the highest standards of professional musicianship and was always willing to give helpful advice to an inexperienced young musician. Some of his insights and shared experiences in music and life in general continue to inspire and enrich my life to this day. His keen sense of humor, gentlemanly manner and dapper dress style have made it easy for him to be instantly accepted and well-liked by everyone he meets.
Despite recent hardships and having lost many close friends and relatives over the years, Ferbos remains positive, upbeat and thankful for a good life, loving family and a rewarding music career. He attributes his longevity and good health to paying devotion to God, eating right and not getting too upset about anything. He remains strong and amazingly spry for his age. Though he moves a bit slower, he gets around without the benefit of a cane or assistance. When asked how he planned to celebrate his upcoming birthday, he says: “I’d just like to eat a nice piece of cake.”
Lionel Ferbos’ value as a long-time figure on the New Orleans music scene is almost immeasurable. He is on a short list of performers who has played nearly every Jazz Fest since it began in 1970. This year he will appear with two of his long-time groups in the Peoples Health Economy Hall Jazz Tent: on Saturday April 30 with the New Orleans Ragtime Orchestra from 12:30- 1:20; and there will be a Centennial Celebration for Lionel Ferbos with the Palm Court Jazz Band on Friday May 6 from 1:40-2:30.