On Sunday, July 17, the incomparable Lionel Ferbos will be one hundred years old. In order to maintain his chops, he still practices his horn from 45 minutes to one hour every day. Musically, Ferbos goes back to another time, that critical formative era when jazz as we know it was beginning to take shape. The first recordings generally agreed to qualify as “jazz” did not appear until six years after he was born.
The trumpeter’s longtime bandmate, clarinetist Brian O’Connell, has suggested that his style of playing is what we might have heard around the turn of the last century, when ragtime was the rage. Ferbos has been billed as “the oldest performing jazz musician in New Orleans,” but he disagrees. “They think I’m a jazz player,” he says quietly, “but I’m not a real jazz player. I’m not much of an improviser, you know.”
Whether or not that is true, there is no doubt that he is an excellent reader. He can pretty much read anything that is put on the music stand in front of him. That ability is the result of his first lessons on cornet with the highly respected local trumpet teacher, “Professor” Paul E. Chaligny, at the age of 15 (1926) and subsequent work with the likes of Angelo Castigliola. Ferbos recalls that Castigliola “didn’t teach black people, but he said, ‘You’re advanced. So I’ll take you.’”
That year, 1926, was an exciting one in the early history of jazz. It was then that some of the first recordings from Jelly Roll Morton’s Red Hot Peppers and Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five were released, but those recordings do not seem to have had a significant effect on Ferbos. “It’s a funny thing,” he says many years later. “There were those real good blues players. I never had the feeling, and my mother didn’t like the blues records in the house. She wouldn’t have them, so all I heard was a nice type of music all the time.”
That—plus his reading ability—led to many jobs as a lead trumpet player in larger dance bands or society orchestras, not to mention his days with the legendary WPA Band during the Great Depression, but the money was never enough to support a wife and two children properly. Despite a desire to go to Chicago as so many other New Orleans musicians of his generation had done, he stayed close to home. To make money, he followed in his father’s footsteps by running a sheet metal business.
It was not until Ferbos reached his late 50s that his music career truly blossomed. Pianist Lars Edegran, leader of the popular New Orleans Ragtime Orchestra, was looking for a trumpet player to fill a spot in his band in 1970, and encouraged by the late Dick Allen, hired Ferbos. Edegran later recalled that “Lionel had been the best possible choice for that role,” noting not only his “excellent” reading ability but his “wonderful skills as a vocalist.”
Joining NORO opened an entirely new world for Ferbos. “We rehearsed a whole year to play one job, and after that everything started happening,” he remembers. It led to countless tours through the States and abroad, including his first trips to Europe; an appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival; films (including Pretty Baby, which he considers a career highlight); the hit show, “One Mo’ Time;” and numerous recordings.
Ferbos today plays Saturday nights with the house band at the Palm Court Jazz Café, and he appears occasionally with the core of that group under the name “the Louisiana Shakers,” a handle borrowed from a band formed and headed by the famed Captain John Handy in the 1930s. Ferbos started out as lead trumpet with Handy’s band at the age of 21.
Lionel Ferbos’ career has been long and distinguished. He has been the recipient of countless awards over the years, most recently being recognized by the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation at this year’s Jazz Fest. Despite occasional episodes of ill health and the loss of two of the people closest to him—first, his son, Lionel, Jr., then his dear wife of 75 years, Marguerite—he continues to do what he loves to do. And there are no signs of his putting his horn down anytime soon.
I close on a personal note that illustrates his dry sense of humor. I dedicated my new book to him and wanted to get him to sign my personal copy, so I approached him at this year’s French Quarter Festival while he was seated in a wheelchair waiting to go onstage. I asked him if he could take a moment to sign my book. He looked at me in the eye sternly and said, “Don’t have the time.” Before I could slink off into hiding, he chuckled and wrote a nice inscription.
There will be a birthday celebration for Ferbos on July 17 at the Palm Court Jazz Cafe, but it is sold out. Those wishing to extend birthday wishes can do so on the preceding evening, which is the trumpeter’s regular Saturday night gig at the Palm Court.