Lionel Ferbos' birthday bash was worthy of his 100 years
Published: Tuesday, July 19, 2011, 6:01 AM
When you live to be 100, people often smile when they speak to you. They also pin $100 bills to the lapel of your suit coat.
And your birthday party, like you, may be a bit slow getting started, but then – watch out.
On Sunday night at the Palm Court Jazz Café on Decatur Street, trumpeter Lionel Ferbos, the oldest active jazz musician in New Orleans and beyond, celebrated his 100th birthday.
He is better known now than at any previous point in his career. He was always an ensemble player – his credits include a Works Progress Administration band of the 1930s – who preferred not to solo or otherwise call attention to himself. He eventually took over his father’s sheet metal business; jazz remained an after-hours passion.
But longevity has its rewards. USA Today profiled Ferbos last week, in advance of his birthday. The New York Times dispatched a freelance writer to cover the party itself.
His life in music spans the Roosevelt administration to the Obama administration. Louis Armstrong was only 10 years his senior, but Ferbos has outlived Armstrong by 40 years — and counting.
His Sunday night party at the Palm Court, where he has fronted the band on Saturday nights for two decades, sold out well in advance. Dozens of seats were reserved for relatives who traveled from California, Texas, Virginia and Maryland.
Ferbos usually keeps an oxygen tank nearby, but doesn’t always need it. That he can play at all is remarkable.
“The trumpet is a beast,” said Mark Braud, the young trumpeter who fronted the birthday party jazz band. “It is very difficult. I hope I’m playing five years from now. To be playing at 100 is an unbelievable accomplishment.”
Ferbos had informed the Palm Court’s Kathy Edegran that he planned to enjoy his party and would perform only “if he felt like it.”
As usual, he felt like it.
Seated on the Palm Court’s stage alongside musicians decades his junior, he opened with “When You’re Smiling.” His voice is more gravelly than it once was, but still game.
His affection for the music is obvious, and contagious. Such early jazz standards and singalongs are, like Ferbos, ageless.
He sang the first verse and chorus of “You’re So Pretty” sweetly, then inverted the sentiment:
“The clothes you wear are so out of style … I hate you, you alligator bait … the curse of the family must have fell on you … you so ugly, you some ugly child.”
Just having a little fun.
On a night such as this, proclamations would be made. The demands of moving into a new house prevented City Council President Jackie Clarkson from attending. Instead, she dispatched correspondence secretary Anicia “Nee-Cee” Cheri.
Cheri brought her 84-year-old mother, Gladys E. Cheri. Gladys was the last-minute substitute flower girl at Ferbos’ wedding to his late wife of 75 years, Marguerite.
Last year, Gladys attended Ferbos’ 99th birthday party. They had not seen one another in decades. Gladys asked if he knew who she was.
“He reached into his pocket,” Anicia Cheri recalled, “and pulled out a picture of his bridal party. And he pointed to my mother and said, ‘That’s you.’”
Seated nearby were trumpeter Irvin Mayfield, keyboardist Davell Crawford and bandleader Deacon John Moore, all friends and admirers.
Deacon John, the president of the local musicians union, took a turn onstage. “As I stand here with you today, I am overwhelmed with joy,” he said. Ferbos “has truly outlived the competition.”
With that, he lofted his soaring tenor on “Stardust Melody.” Ferbos hiked up his trousers and posed with his certificate.
“The man of the hour!” Braud announced. Ferbos shrugged, exaggerated and comic, as if to say, “Who, me?”
He held court as the band played. Al “Carnival Time” Johnson stepped up to pose for a picture. Mayfield added a C-note to the expanding bankroll on Ferbos’ lapel.
The party picked up steam. Chairs pushed back from tables, second-line napkins took flight. As dancing commenced, Mayfield marveled at the scene.
“What other city would you see this many people dancing like this to someone this old?”
He and Ferbos, both committed night owls, occasionally hang out.
“One time he gave some advice. He said, ‘Don’t smoke no marijuana cigarettes.’ I’m like, ‘Mr. Ferbos, I don’t do that.’
“You consider somebody like (drummers) Herlin Riley or Shannon Powell elder statesmen. And then Mr. Ferbos walks in.”
Micki Ferbos-Blackwell was married to Ferbos’ late son, whom he often described as his best friend. Micki has since remarried, but remains close to the senior Ferbos, and was there Sunday to celebrate.
“He’s not just a musician,” she said. “He’s a beautiful, humble man, which is why so many people love him.”
As for his birthday? “He’s enjoying every minute of it.”
At 10 p.m., the honoree received a cake ablaze with dozens of candles. After a drum roll, Palm Court proprietress Nina Buck led a rousing “Happy Birthday” singalong. She and Ferbos extinguished the bonfire; he grinned.
“I think he’s surprised about all this,” said Krystle Ferbos, a granddaughter and recent law school graduate. “He said, ‘I never would have foreseen this.’”
But his granddaughter had no trouble imagining him celebrating deep into the night.
“A friend was like, ‘That’s kind of a late party for a 100-year-old man.’ But this is how he rolls. He likes to go out.”
Cake formality fulfilled, the evening achieves lift-off. As he mounts the stage, James Andrews, in a seersucker suit, kisses the top of Mayfield’s shaved head for luck.
Andrews dials up “Treme Song,” John Boutte’s theme from the HBO show of the same name. Against Gerald French’s stuttering cadence, Rosalie “Lady Tambourine” Washington materializes onstage, punching the heck out of her tambourine, eyes closed, lost in the spirit.
Jennifer Jones, in red stockings and a matching sash, second-lines next to the guest of honor, who calmly munches cake as the room falls out. He is the only one still seated.
“How low can you go?” Andrews chants. “Mr. Ferbos, how low can you go?”
Ferbos shrugs and smiles.
With “Caledonia,” the party teeters on the brink of pandemonium, like that moment during a New Orleans wedding reception when the in-laws from Kansas let their hair down and shake it like the locals.
“Nina Buck, she puts on one helluva party for 100 years!”Andrews shouts into the microphone.
“I said 100 years!!”
If the momentum of most parties follows a Bell curve, the summit has just been reached.
Ferbos spent time in the house band of “One Mo’ Time,” the New Orleans-set musical. Vernell Bagneris, the show’s creator, reprises the soundtrack’s “Honky Tonk Town,” after engaging a delighted Ferbos in a hug. Sharon Nabonne, Thelma from “One Mo’ Time,” powers through “Down By the Riverside.”
Mark Braud fires up the bawdy “Shake That Thing” and sings, “Jack and Jill went up the hill/Jill came down with a $20 bill, she must have shook that thing.”
Ferbos leans back, thumbs hooked in the waist of his pants, taking it all in. To his right, clarinetist Tom Fischer solos. To his left, Jennifer Jones sashays and twirls a white umbrella.
It is a fine party.
Finally, after two-and-a-half uninterrupted hours onstage, singing, smiling, laughing, shrugging, he signals that he’s had enough. He is assisted to a table, surrounded by friends and relatives.
Off to the side of the room, a disturbance breaks out among a contingent of California relatives as they gleefully shake that thing.
As the party wound down, so, too, did the Palm Court. Sunday’s show was the last before the venue’s annual summer hiatus. It reopens Sept. 21.
In the meantime, don’t expect Ferbos to remain idle. He has already made plans to preview Mayfield’s new club this week. He and his horn will likely find their way to a stage somewhere.
At 11:20 p.m., he finally slips out and bundles into the back of a black limousine. Nina Buck leans in for a final hug.
Seeing him off, a beaming Sharon Nabonne suggests he “sleep for three days.”
Keith Spera can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 504.826.3470. Read more at nola.com/music
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