In the 1930s, people danced in New Orleans night clubs to the sweet and melodic jazz of Creole singer and trumpeter Lionel Ferbos.
Now they sit at tables and sip cocktails, watching the 97-year-old perform as one of the city’s oldest working jazz musicians.
Born July 17, 1911, Ferbos 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.
A birthday celebration is planned Saturday night for Ferbos at the Snug Harbor Jazz Bistro. 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.”
He played everywhere: From churches to prisonsEarly 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 was also 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 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. “She sings all his songs — ‘Jambalaya,’ ‘In the Sweet Bye And Bye.’ She loves them all.”
‘He’s dealt with a lot of adversity’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 is also the last living member of the WPA band, which was formed during the Depression by laborers in the city’s Works Progress Administration.
“I was digging out one of the lagoons at City Park when they asked me to join,” he said.
Manual labor was as much a part of his life as music, 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.”
Despite his long career, Ferbos made few early recordings. 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.
“Nobody does what Lionel does,” O’Connell said. “It’s something that can’t be copied, and when he’s gone, it’s gone.”