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Ferbos still tooting his horn at age 100

11th July 2011   ·   0 Comments

By Geraldine Wyckoff
The Louisiana Weekly

If he wishes to, Lionel Ferbos has the lung power to blow out all 100 candles adorning a glowing cake on his birthday on July 17, 2011. That the trumpeter and singer, who hits the century mark on that day, boasts the ability to lead his band every Saturday night at the Palm Court and practice his horn daily, proves he’s up to the task. Dispelling any doubts is the fact that Ferbos has been playing trumpet for an amazing 85 years. He’ll again be back at it during his weekend birthday celebration at the Palm Court. He’ll be on stage for his regular spot on Saturday, July 16, and as the guest of honor on July 17.

“The trumpet is a very demanding instrument on your body, your breath, your lip,” says fellow jazz trumpeter Wendell Brunious, who still remembers that it was Ferbos who installed gutters on his parents’ 7th Ward home back in 1949. “He could put on gutters seamlessly. He was as good at his trade as on his trumpet. Lionel is the last of the Creole trumpeters,” Brunious continues. “He was schooled so that’s why his reading is so great.”

Ferbos began playing trumpet at 15 and credits his instructors such as his first teacher, Paul Chaligny, as remaining his greatest influences. To this day, the trumpeter is noted for his excellence at reading music, a talent that, in part, gained him a position in such noted New Orleans ensembles as those led by the likes of Captain Handy, Andrew Morgan, Walter Pichon and Harold Dejan as well as membership in the W.P.A Band. While holding down a day job until the 1970s, Ferbos continued to perform at events like Mardi Gras balls with the Herbert Leary Orchestra. Later in life, this skill allowed Ferbos to pursue his musical career full-time. In 1971, he became a member of the New Orleans Ragtime Orchestra. That led to numerous recording opportunities and national and international tours. Ferbos’ trumpet is heard with the ensemble in the film “Pretty Baby.” Enjoying a greater presence on the scene, the trumpeter went on to perform with the musical “One Mo’ Time” and to pursue further musical endeavors.

“He’s too legit to quit,” offers trum­peter James Andrews of Fer­bos’ continuum. “He’s got longevity in music and in life. Playing trumpet is like boxing. It’s a tough gig even for a young person blowing all night. You have to have your energy and you have to be fit because you’re playing straight from your body. Mr. Ferbos has to be in great shape.”

“I just hope and pray that I’m able to do what Lionel Ferbos is doing right now – just to be able to reach that age and play a gig with no trouble,” says Kermit Ruffins, who first heard his elder perform at the Palm Court over 25 years ago. “I was there as much as possible. I’d finish playing with ReBirth at Jackson Square and I would stand by the door and have me a beer before I went home.

“I love to see Lionel playing over there at the Palm Court and he’s still sitting there reading his music and playing that old traditional New Orleans music – my favorite, of course,” Ruffins continues. “I love his singing. You don’t hear trumpeters sing like that anymore. At one time a bunch of trumpet players had that kind of little style. Lionel is one of the last of the crooners.”

At his weekly gig at the Palm Court and also as a regular at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and French Quarter Festival, Ferbos blows on many of the same tunes such as “St. Louis Blues” that he first performed at house parties in the 7th Ward. The songs and his warm demeanor still win over an audience. Off stage, Ferbos’ dry sense of humor engages people when he’s out and about as a member of the audience at events like the Nickel-A-Dance series, where he regularly performs.

“He’s out there everywhere,” Andrews agrees. “He has some hip stuff happenin’ with him.”

“I’ll tell you one thing, he dresses real cool,” Ruffins eagerly responds. “And he’s a good guy. I’m quite sure practicing for Lionel is pretty easy. Anything you do every day, it just makes you feel good. If you’re feeling bad – if you have a fever, or a little cold – and pick up the trumpet you’re going to feel better.”

“Yeah, Mr. Ferbos is looking good,” Andrews responds. “I think he’s got a great package. He’s the last of the generation that created jazz and ragtime. He’s truly a legend of New Orleans and the world. His chops are always up. He’s one of the nicest guys I ever met and he’s going to make history.”

“Lionel is in a class by himself,” Brunious declares, “as a man, as a family man and as a 100-year-old trumpeter.”

This article was originally published in the July 11, 2011 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper

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