After 39 Jazz Fests, oldest jazz musician in New Orleans, Lionel Ferbos, still gets the jitters
Published: Thursday, May 05, 2011, 10:15 PM
The oldest living jazz musician in New Orleans shook awake last Friday to feel the label peeling off.
"I thought I was gonna die. I've never had my neck and my head feel that bad. Everything hurt," said Lionel Ferbos. "I said to myself, 'I think this is it.'"
Instead, the venerable 99-year-old trumpeter rallied, so much so he made it to the Fair Grounds the next day to blow a little horn and sing ragtime at his 39th Jazz Fest. That evening, he played his weekly gig with his band at the Palm Court Jazz Cafe in the French Quarter.
After 84 years with mouth to brass, Ferbos rarely misses showtime. He's played at Jazz Fest every year since it started in 1970, but for two, he says: "One year the water was too high, and another time there was a police strike."
Last month, a day after returning home from bladder surgery, Ferbos cleaned his trumpet -- with the mouthpiece he's relied on for 77 years -- took a rest and played the French Quarter Festival, then another show.
He plays today at 1:40 p.m. in the Peoples Hall Economy Health Tent. He turns 100 on July 17 and says he still practices every day to stay sharp.
"It's the muscles. You have to practice, or your lips go down," he said last week, sitting beside a new fedora in the home he shares with his daughter and caretaker, Sylvia, 76.
"Just keep going, that's all. That's it," he says. "I'm pretty lucky. Lots of friends and everything, they take me around. It keeps me alive, I guess."
Musically, Ferbos put his stamp on the dance-hall jazz tradition. He picked up a trumpet at 15, in 1926, after seeing Phil Spitalny and his All-Girl Orchestra at the Orpheum Theater. He played in 1930s bands led by Captain John Handy and Walter "Fats" Pichon and worked on a crew digging a City Park lagoon before getting hired on with a Depression-era Works Progress Administration band.
Ferbos said he made about $13 a week for the WPA. From an old black-and-white photo, he names many of the 35 musicians in the band -- by their postures, not their faces. He's the last survivor.
"They all disappeared right quick," he said.
Ferbos rose through the bandstand ranks while working as a sheet-metal tradesman, like his father and grandfather. He owned a shop until it flooded in Katrina.
He worked installing air conditioners and ducts while playing in the 1960s with various bands for society events and Carnival balls. Ferbos joined Lars Edegran's New Orleans Ragtime Orchestra in the early 1970s, which toured in Europe, and in 1979 played trumpet and sang in the touring musical "One Mo' Time." Ferbos started at the Palm Court more than two decades ago.
Still gets the jitters
At least a few thousand performances later, he said he still gets the jitters.
"If I'm playing and a distinguished musician sits in front of me, different things go through my mind," he said, flitting creased fingers about his bare temples. "Always I'm the nervous type. It's not unusual."
A few weeks ago Ferbos got a $20 request for "Pretty Baby" and fumbled to remember the tune, he says. Ferbos had appeared in the 1978 Brooke Shields movie of the same name, set in Storyville.
"It could have been two bucks, coulda been 50 cents," he said. "I was so nervous, I coulda gone home."
Michael White, the jazz clarinetist, composer and Xavier University professor, said he first played with Ferbos in the "One Mo' Time" show, and the two have remained friends since.
"He's really demonstrated the highest level of professionalism. Very serious about music, very concerned about performing right, playing good music," said White, who considers Ferbos a mentor. "He developed his own unique, beautiful tone on the trumpet and his own vocal style, which is very much in line with what New Orleans musicians did all along.
"In a strict sense -- and this is a difficult thing -- he's not really a typical jazz musician. He does add and take away notes in the melodic parts he's playing, but he's not improvising all the time in the strict sense of jazz."
'I'm a melody man'
Ferbos wouldn't argue. He proudly describes letters and visits he receives from fans overseas, but tends to brush off praise for his musical talents.
"I never thought I was good. I just tried to please myself. ... I'm not one to broadcast myself, even when I sing," he says in a husky rumble. "I don't know modern jazz. I just hope I make the right notes. You see, I'm a melody man. I don't do too much improvising, because I don't know how."
Regardless of his modesty, appreciation for Ferbos should extend well beyond his longevity, said Allen Toussaint, the legendary New Orleans composer and pianist.
"Not just that he was a trumpet player from New Orleans, but he was so darned good," said Toussaint. "With his chops, he could have played anything, the way his soul comes out. ... It's good that people respect and receive him when he's alive."Personal loss has taken its toll on Ferbos over the past several years. His wife of 75 years, Marguerite Gilyot, died in early 2009. His son, Lionel Jr. -- "his best friend, like an extension of him, the humorous side of him," said White -- died from cancer in 2006. Another close friend, drummer John Robichaux, drowned in Katrina, when Ferbos and his wife lost their Annette Street home and his shop flooded.
"It unnerves me when you think of what I had, and don't have," he says.
More recent health problems have plagued him. A heart condition landed him in the hospital two months ago, with circulation problems that run down one leg and leave him short of breath when he walks -- but not when he plays, he says. A friend recently bought him a folding wheelchair and a portable oxygen bag.
There are other aches too -- shoulders, feet -- the product of 99-plus years of living. Ferbos says he isn't quite ready to make plans for hitting the century mark. "You have to get there first," he says smiling.
He quit smoking early and barely drinks -- probably helping his longevity in marriage and life, he concedes. Asked about vices, Ferbos pauses: "Yeah. I like beautiful women! It makes you feel alive. There's nothing else involved."
What keeps him going? A wide circle of friends, he said, and the next show on the schedule.
"I like playing, period, but I know it's going to run out. If I didn't have my teeth it would be something else," he says. "I've been very fortunate. My character seemed to agree with other people. You have to invite yourself into other people's lives."
John Simerman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 504.826.3340.
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