It’s one thing to appreciate New Orleans jazz history. It’s quite another to have lived through much of that history and still have the chops to burn up the stage every weekend. Those bragging rights belong to trumpeter Lionel Ferbos.
Born in 1911, he’s been playing professionally in New Orleans since the 1930s. He still graces the stage of the Palm Court Jazz Café in the French Quarter, and that’s where he will celebrate his 99th birthday this Saturday, July 17, with a gig and party open to all.
Mr. Ferbos is widely recognized as the oldest active jazz musician in New Orleans, and in my mind, he’s a national treasure. It isn’t just his extraordinary longevity. It’s the resilient beauty of his playing and the genuine character that shines through. It’s something that must have been accrued through all those generations of making music in New Orleans and through all those relationships with so many New Orleans jazz people, the greats who have since passed on and the others who have followed in their footsteps. Great jazz has context, and it has perspective. Ferbos has context and perspective like no one else.
In past interviews, Ferbos said he started playing trumpet at age 15 (that would be in 1926, for those keeping count), and that his first horn came from a pawnshop on Rampart Street. Although he’s done other types of work in his life, he has never stopped performing or practicing. Ferbos played at Jazz Fest this past April, and he has a regular Saturday evening engagement at the Palm Court.
Located a block from the French Market, the Palm Court is also a showcase for players from other generations who carry the torch of traditional jazz. It looks like a classic music hall, with broad, curtained windows, brick walls, tile floors and bentwood chairs surrounding linen-draped tables.
The kitchen turns out a menu of steaks and Creole-style seafood, so some guests come for dinner and a show while others retire to the tables only between dances. There’s a compact but welcoming mahogany bar, decked out with lots of polished detail and complete with a brass foot rail. This is where you’ll find quite a few other local musicians and jazz aficionados hanging out, watching their friends or heroes perform on stage and chatting with the many tourists who come through here and also with Palm Court owner Nina Buck.
An irrepressible English expat, a native of Yorkshire, Buck opened the club in 1989, when it also doubled as a showroom for the many jazz recordings collected, curated and brokered by her husband. George H. Buck Jr. is a passionate jazz preservationist, and he manages a large family of vintage jazz labels. Some of the LPs from these labels, including Jazzology Records and G.H.B. Records, now decorate the walls at the café.
It all makes fitting décor, but attention is mostly fastened on the stage and the living legends who perform on it. There’s no doubt the Palm Court caters heavily to tourists, but for people who love traditional New Orleans jazz, this venue is a modern classic. After all, this is where Danny Barker held court so often in the early 1990s, during the last years of his life, playing the songs of old New Orleans and telling the cleverly ribald stories he’d picked up along the way.
Trombonist Lucien Barbarin, vocalist Topsy Chapman and banjo man Lars Edegran are among the headliners who frequently lead the Palm Court Jazz Band, the house ensemble that will back up Ferbos this Saturday for his 99th birthday bash. There’s no telling just who will join in during the evening, but I’m betting on some high-caliber talent turning up.
But if you happen to miss his birthday party, don’t fret. You can always pay your respects when Ferbos plays again next Saturday evening, taking up his usual weekend gig at the Palm Court as he plays on through his 99th year.
Saturday’s show is scheduled from 8 p.m. to 11 p.m.
Palm Court Jazz Café
1206 Decatur St., New Orleans, 504/525-0200