Music, jazz music, is what keeps Lionel Ferbos going at 102.
The Creole jazz singer and trumpeter celebrated his 102nd birthday July 17 by blowing the high notes for friends and family at the French Quarter club where he’s had a standing gig for decades. He also sang at a recent birthday bash at the National World War II Museum, breaking into “When You’re Smiling” as swing dancers shimmied.
Impeccable in a button-up shirt and tie, he posed for pictures all smiles. He cracked jokes about his age. And he relished the attention as he was serenaded both times with upbeat renditions of “Happy Birthday.”
“I thought I’d be dead at about 60,” he said, laughing.
No jazz funeral for Lionel Ferbos just yet. Yet even he finds the longevity surprising.
“Isn’t that something?” he said. “But you know I never dreamed of that. I figured if I could go to about 50 I’d be doing good.”
Not bad for a guy born on July 17, 1911, several months before the Titanic sank and a few years away from World War I.
Ferbos bought his first cornet at a French Quarter pawn shop at age 15. Now he’s believed to be the oldest actively working musician in New Orleans — the Mississippi River port city where aging jazz musicians thrive.
His body isn’t without signs of age. He’s been in and out of the hospital in recent years and had a pacemaker implanted last year. He sometimes uses a wheelchair to get around. Despite a century of wear and tear, he’s still determined to sing and blow.
“He has such a memorable singing voice, and it’s always a treasure whether he’s playing his trumpet or singing,” said Al Kennedy, a longtime friend and fan. “He is somebody that younger musicians should know about, from the way that he shows up, the way he is dressed, the way he cares for his horn, the way he plays his horn.”
Asthmatic as a child, he might never have played a wind instrument at all if it had been up to his parents.
“My mother wanted me to play the banjo,” he said, adding that when he saw an all-girl band playing horns, “I said if they can play, I can play.”
Ferbos began lessons with Professor Paul Chaligny, who wouldn’t let him blow his horn until he knew how to read music. His early professional jobs were in the early ’30s with society jazz bands like the Starlight Serenaders and the Moonlight Serenaders. He also performed with Captain Handy’s Louisiana Shakers. He’s still adored by fans for his big band and ragtime jazz style. His band packs the Palm Court Jazz Cafe on Saturday nights, with locals and tourists alike.
In his early career, his ability to read music put him in demand for gigs that took him to parks, schools, churches, dance halls and even prisons. He has performed at every New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival since its 1970 inception. And for more than two decades, he’s had his gig at the Palm Court Jazz Cafe where he was toasted on his birthday.
“You could throw anything in front of him, and he knows it,” Kennedy said. “And because of his professionalism, that’s why so many bands wanted him and were happy when they signed him up.”
He was making little more than a dollar a night when he played with Handy and Pichon in the 1930s. Yet Ferbos went on to perform with some of the biggest names in traditional jazz, among them Captain John Handy, Walter Pichon and blues singer Mamie Smith. He also performed with saxophonist Harold Dejan and trumpeters Herbert Leary, Gene Ware and Sidney Desvignes.
“He comes from that era where jazz started,” said Ron Schexnayder, Ferbos’ grandson. “Even though a lot of his friends are all gone, he’s met all these big guys; so it’s wonderful to have him still alive and still on stage and still performing.”
Ferbos is believed to be the last living member of the New Orleans WPA band, a group formed in the Great Depression by laborers in the Works Progress Administration under President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Ferbos said he was digging out one of the lagoons at New Orleans’ City Park for the WPA when he was asked to join the band.
Manual labor wasn’t something foreign to him.
Like many musicians of that era, Ferbos had a day trade. He worked for decades as a tinsmith, first in his father’s French Quarter workshop, then eventually taking over the family business and building his own workshop. The business made everything from gutters and roofing material to air conditioning ducts for homes and businesses.
“Everywhere you drive with him around the city, he’s pointing to a place where he had at one time worked,” Kennedy said. “He did a lot of work putting tin up in bars.”
Ferbos retired from the craft while in his 70s. His artistry in metal making was featured in the acclaimed exhibition on Creole building arts at the New Orleans Museum of Art.
Despite his long music career, Ferbos made few early recordings. He played at clubs on South Rampart Street, the city strip that in the 1920s and ’30s was the epicenter of a bustling black entertainment district. After he joined the Ragtime and the Palm Court bands, he was recorded on several CDs on the GHB label. He is also featured on other recent recordings with New Orleans musicians.
“I just admire his dedication to his music,” said Krystle Ferbos, the musician’s granddaughter, who attended both birthday celebrations. “The discipline that he’s exhibited with his craft is something that I aspire to do with the things that I enjoy in life.”
Ferbos was part of the original stage band of the off-Broadway hit “One Mo’ Time,” though he dropped out of show in the ’70s when it moved to New York. He rarely performed outside his hometown New Orleans, which is where he met his wife, Creole seamstress Margarite Gilyot.
The couple married in 1934 and remained inseparable for 75 years. Friends and family say they were rarely seen apart before his wife’s death in 2009.
“When you talk to Lionel you realize how quick a life goes,” Kennedy said. “For him, those 75 years vanished in the blink of an eye. It’s a lesson to all of us out there to really treasure what life you have at the moment because it’s so fleeting.”
Ferbos won the “2003 Big Easy Lifetime Achievement Award” and has frequently been called on to tell about his experiences in the Depression, as well as in music and with metal making, on panels and in history classes.
He plays weekly at the Palm Court Jazz Cafe, where he leads the Palm Court Jazz Band on Saturday nights. At home, he practices often.
“He believes in being prepared,” Kennedy said. “He will go through his song list to make sure that if he can be bandleader one more time, he’s going to be ready.”