[Dixielandjazz] Oldest Jazz Musician?
Stephen G Barbone
barbonestreet at earthlink.net
Tue Mar 24 07:45:33 PDT 2009
Bill Haesler opined that probably someone playing jazz in New Orleans
was older than Graeme Bell. He probably knows, but here is a story
about 97 year old trumpeter Lionel Ferbos.
He's New Orleans' oldest working jazz musician
By Stacey Plaisance | ASSOCIATED PRESS
Saturday, August 02, 2008
NEW ORLEANS - In the 1930s, people danced in New Orleans night clubs
to the sweet and melodic jazz of Creole singer and trumpeter Lionel
Now they sit at tables and sip cocktails, watching the 97-year-old
perform as one of the city's oldest working jazz musicians.
Ferbos, born July 17, 1911, started playing professionally during the
Great Depression. He still performs regularly at French Quarter clubs
and has appeared at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival annually
since its beginning in 1970.
Recently, he sat with friends at a Canal Street restaurant to reflect
on his life and his music.
Over plates of fried seafood, Ferbos chatted about rebuilding his
downtown home, which was flooded during Hurricane Katrina, and his
career as a tinsmith, working with metal. But his music was the keynote.
"He plays the most beautiful melody, and his singing, it's straight
from the 1920s," said Brian O'Connell, a clarinet player who has
performed with Ferbos for the past 12 years.
"Lionel's not going to tell you this, but you had to be a very good
musician to play with the bands he's played with," O'Connell said. "If
you weren't good, you didn't work."
Early in his career, Ferbos performed with New Orleans society jazz
bands at venues such as the Pelican Club, which was among a string of
clubs along Rampart Street - the main strip that in the 1920s and '30s
was the epicenter of the city's bustling black entertainment district.
Ferbos said his ability to read music made him an in-demand musician
for gigs that took him to parks, schools, churches, dance halls and
He chuckled when he said his band used to play "Home Sweet Home" to
inmates, which would anger them.
Ferbos' inspiration didn't come from jazz greats Louis Armstrong or
Ferdinand "Jelly Roll" Morton, but rather lesser-known artists Walter
Pichon and Captain John Handy.
"They had great bands, and I really liked playing with them," he said.
When Ferbos performed with Handy and Pichon in the '30s, he was making
little more than a dollar a night.
"We never made much money, but we had a good time," he said.
Ferbos also recalled performing with blues singer Mamie Smith, who
would sit in a chair before shows, knitting or crocheting to pass the
time. "Then she'd hit the stage like a teenager," he said.
Ferbos also was part of the original stage band of the off-Broadway
hit "One Mo' Time," though he dropped out of the show in the '70s when
it moved to New York. He said he didn't want to move away from his
hometown New Orleans, where he met and married his wife, a Creole
seamstress named Margarite Gilyot.
"We've been married for 74 years," he said with a smile. "Can you
Though Margarite has Alzheimer's disease, she responds when Ferbos
talks and sings to her.
Andrea Duplessis said her 89-year-old mother was among those evacuated
when Katrina struck in August 2005. She now lives in an Oklahoma
nursing home, and her link to New Orleans is Ferbos' music.
"She falls asleep to his music every night," said Duplessis, smiling
If it were up to his parents, Ferbos might never have had a music
career. As a teenager, he suffered with asthma and his parents didn't
want him to take up a wind instrument. But when he saw an all-girl
orchestra perform at a local theater at age 15, "I said, If they can
do it, all those girls, I can do it.' "
He bought an old cornet, an instrument similar to a trumpet, at a pawn
shop on Rampart Street, he said.
Ferbos has performed almost exclusively in New Orleans, though he made
eight European tours with the New Orleans Ragtime Orchestra, a group
formed in the 1960s to revive music unearthed in the jazz archives at
He also is the last living member of the WPA band, which was formed
during the Depression by laborers in the city's Works Progress
"I was digging out one of the lagoons at City Park when they asked me
to join," he said.
Like many musicians of his time, Ferbos had a day trade, working for
decades as a metal maker in his father's French Quarter workshop,
eventually taking over the family business. The business made
everything from gutters and roofing material to air-conditioning
ducts. He retired from the craft in his 70s.
Ferbos said he knows how fortunate he is, even if living to see 97 has
meant enduring the death of his son - who he said was his best friend.
Lionel Ferbos Jr. died of colon cancer in 2006, the day before his
"He's dealt with a lot of adversity and still has a lot of spirit,"
said friend Al Kennedy. "He's what we all want to be if and when we
get to that age."
"Nobody does what Lionel does," O'Connell said. "It's something that
can't be copied, and when he's gone, it's gone."
More information about the Dixielandjazz