Lionel Ferbos: Celebrated New Orleans jazz trumpeter who began in the Depression and was still performing at 102

 

The centenarian jazz musician Lionel Ferbos died at his home in New Orleans a few days after celebrating his 103rd birthday on July 17. 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 also performed at his 102nd birthday party and at every New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival until this year.

Ferbos was believed to be the oldest working jazz musician. He was also the last living member of the city's WPA band, which was formed during the Depression by labourers through the federal Works Progress Administration. He had recently become too weak to hold his trumpet. His granddaughter, Lori Schexnayder, said, "He missed it so much, but his arms just weren't strong enough to hold it up,".

Early in his career, Ferbos performed with New Orleans society jazz bands at well-known venues such as the Pelican Club in Rampart Street –a downtown strip that in the 1920s and '30s was the epicentre of the city's black entertainment district. He performed with Walter Pichon and Captain John Handy in the 1930s, earning little more than a dollar a night. He also played with saxophonist Harold Dejan and trumpeters Herbert Leary, Gene Ware and Sidney Desvignes, as well as blues singer Mamie Smith. "He was very advanced and technical for his time," recalled the Dixieland jazz musician Lars Edegran, who performed with Ferbos for decades with the New Orleans Ragtime Orchestra, " He was very professional on stage, a beloved person, and there's just nobody else like him."

Ferbos had a unique voice and a knack for soft, sentimental hits like "When I Grow Too Old to Dream". Though he performed almost exclusively in New Orleans, Ferbos did tour Europe eight times with the ragtime orchestra. He was also part of the original stage band of the off-Broadway hit "One Mo' Time". He met his wife, a Creole seamstress named Margarite Gilyot, in New Orleans. The couple married in 1934 and were together for 75 years until she died in 2009.

When Danny Barker founded the now-famous Fairview Baptist band to train a young generation of New Orleans musicians, Ferbos was asked to write out all their charts. In the 1940s he played on New Orleans' Lake Pontchartrain at the Happy Landing and Mama Lou's, and in the 1950s he worked with Harold Dejan at the Melody Inn, where he recorded with the "Mighty Four." In the 1960s he played with Herbert Leary's Orchestra.

Like many musicians of his time, Ferbos had a day job, working for decades as a metalworker, first in his father's French Quarter workshop, then taking over the family business.

STACEY PLAISANCE

Lionel Charles Ferbos, musician and metalworker: born New Orleans 17 July 1911; married 1934 Margarite Gilyot (died 2009; one daughter, and one son deceased); died New Orleans 19 July 2014.

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