Lionel Ferbos reportedly woke up on July 17, 2014, his 103rd birthday, and said, “What time is the party?”
The “party” was his birthday bash at the Palm Court Jazz Café, where he showed up right on time and impeccably dressed, as usual. Those that knew Ferbos would expect nothing less from the always-dapper, always-professional trumpeter. But Ferbos was more than a trumpet man. He was a family man, a tinsmith by trade and a good human being.
Ferbos was born in the Tremé neighborhood of New Orleans of old Creole heritage. He suffered from asthma and had given up hope on playing trumpet until, at age 15, he saw an all-girl orchestra at the Orpheum Theatre and decided that, if they could do it, he could, too. He took lessons from Paul Chaligny, Albert Snaer, Eugene Ware, Manuel Perez and Salvadore Castigliola; in the ’30s, Ferbos started working with society bands around town. In 1932, he joined Captain John Handy and the Louisiana Shakers. Also in the ’30s, Ferbos gigged around New Orleans with Fats Pichon’s band, in which he backed blues singer Mamie Smith. In 1935, during the Great Depression, he played lead trumpet in the Works Progress Administration (WPA) band and was the last surviving member of that band in his final years. In the ’40s, he played at the Happy Landing, Mama Lou’s and went to work in his father’s sheet-metal shop.
During the ’50s, Ferbos held a three-year residency at the Melody Inn with the Mighty Four, led by Harold Dejan and including Creole George Guesnon and Alex Bigard. In the ’60s, he played with Eureka Brass Band and Herbert Leary’s Orchestra. It was around this time, when Ferbos was in his 50s and suffering from asthma, that a doctor told him he didn’t have long to live. That doctor has probably been dead for years by now.
Around 1969, Ferbos joined Lars Edegran’s New Orleans Ragtime Orchestra (NORO) and (reluctantly) passed the sheet-metal business on to his son and best friend, Lionel, Jr. While playing with NORO, he did many tours in Europe and across the United States; Ferbos played every New Orleans Jazz Fest, on stage with Louis Armstrong at the 1970 Newport Jazz Festival, and was heard and seen playing trumpet in the 1978 film, Pretty Baby.
In 1979, Ferbos held the trumpet chair in the hit off-Broadway musical, One Mo’ Time. Ferbos’ other notable gigs include working with “Sweet” Emma Barrett, Papa Celestine, A. J. Piron and Sidney Desvigne. Since 1990, Ferbos worked a weekly Saturday night job at the Palm Court Jazz Café as well as doing local festivals and spot jobs. Ferbos also wrote band arrangements from the ’30s up until the ’70s, including charts for Danny Barker’s Fairview Baptist Church Marching Band.
In the past decade, Ferbos gained the attention of national television, the President of the United States, a Jazz Legacy Award (1998), a Lifetime Achievement Award (2003), and was interviewed dozens of times. His most recent recording was a collaboration with Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews. Ferbos was also featured leading his own band at the Palm Court on an episode of HBO’s third season of Tremé.
For over 23 years, Ferbos led his band at the Palm Court Jazz Café, playing the same music he played in his ’30s society bands: dance music. Though he never played flashy solos, he always played with conviction. Ferbos was greatly admired by his peers. The sincerity and devotion he brought to his craft was evident from the moment he walked into a room to the last note he blew on the bandstand.
On my first visit to Ferbos’ home, he happily introduced me to his wife, who, though not well at the time, was his pride and joy. They were married for over 75 years; when I asked him what the secret was he replied with a wink, “Two people can’t argue if one of them keeps their mouth shut!”
Ferbos was an inspiring man to be around. He was a charming Creole with a classic New Orleans approach to music. His life is testament to the healing power of music. Music kept Ferbos mentally, socially, physically and spiritually active. He played and performed well into his 102nd year of life.
Ferbos is survived by his daughter, Sylvia Schexnayder, four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.