[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.

Steve Barbone

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  
even prisons.
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  
believe that?"
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  
through tears.
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  
Tulane University.
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  
69th birthday.
"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 mailing list