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Jazz trumpeter Lionel Ferbos dies two days after turning 103

28th July 2014   ·   0 Comments

By Geraldine Wyckoff
Contributing Writer

Lionel Ferbos, who began playing music at the age of 16, enjoyed not only a long life but a happy one. The trumpeter and vocalist was overwhelmingly admired for both his musical abilities and his good nature. Ferbos passed away on Saturday, July 19, 2014, just two days after his 103rd birthday.

Ferbos always credited his musical instructors, including his first teacher, Mr. Chaligny, for his ability to read music. It became a skill that was essential when, in the 1930s, he was a member of such legendary ensembles as Captain John Handy’s and Walter Pichon’s big bands that played on the riverboats and also toured. Incidentally, both bands performed at his wedding to Marguerite Gilyot in1934, a union that would last for 75 years until her death in January 2009.

LIONEL FERBOS

LIONEL FERBOS

“It makes life a whole lot easier, having a partner that you love,” Ferbos sweetly said in a 2012 interview. “She made everything real good.”

Growing up in the 7th Ward, Ferbos’ first jobs were at house parties with small combos perform ing many of the same tunes like, “St. Louis Blues,” that he would play decades later as the leader of the Palm Court Jazz Band.

Early in his musical career, Ferbos primarily worked day jobs and picked up gigs through the 1950s and 1970s to play for such events as Mardi Gras balls with the likes of the Herbert Leary Orchestra.

“He had a sheet metal workshop behind his house,” says pianist/bandleader, Lars Edegran who was instrumental in giving Ferbos greater exposure when, in the early 1970s, he hired him to play with the New Orleans Ragtime Orchestra. Needing a replacement trumpeter for the ensemble, Dick Allen, a respected jazz historian and the head of Tulane’s Hogan Jazz Archive, recommended Ferbos for the position having heard the trumpeter play at many “segregated dancehalls” in the 1950s.

“I met Lionel then and he turned out to be really the perfect trumpet player for the Ragtime Orchestra because he was such a good reader. He had really good training as a young man and he studied with a number of great teachers in New Orleans,” Edegran says. “Lionel was the first trumpet in Handy’s and Pichon’s and the WPA’s {1930’s federally-funded Work Progress Administration} bands – because he was such a good reader.”

Because the Ragtime Orchestra performed such high-profile events as the first Jazz Fest, the highly-regarded Newport Jazz Festival and eventually toured the U.S and Europe, people started noticing Ferbos who until then played mostly at local social functions. Further recognition came when Ferbos started singing with the Ragtime Orchestra, an ensemble with whom he recorded 10 albums.

“He became famous as a vocalist,” Edegran fondly remembers. “His family was really surprised when they heard him sing because they never heard him sing before. He was very shy in the beginning. He was so shy, he wouldn’t stand up for his solos. He got more and more confident as he went along. His vocals became a big part of the Ragtime Orchestra and people really enjoyed them. They were very much in the old era of singing – pre-jazz kind of singing.”

Ferbos and the core members of the Ragtime Orchestra also lent their talents to actor/producer Vernel Bagneris’ very successful musical “One Mo’ Time” that opened in New Orleans in 1979. When it hit the road, however, Ferbos bowed out, preferring instead to stay close to home.

Though the term old-school is perhaps an adjective too modern to accurately describe Ferbos’ style, his heartfelt renditions of classics like “When You’re Smiling” were timeless in delivery. Leading his band weekly at the Palm Court, where he began playing with the wonderful clarinetist Pud Brown, he captured a warmth that should be a part of all lives.

“He was the greatest personality in the world,” says the legendary trumpeter, arranger and composer Dave Bartholomew, who also played trumpet for Pichon’s band several years after Ferbos. For a time he lived around the corner from Ferbos and would often stop by his home for a chat. Bartholomew remembers that whenever he tried to compliment Ferbos, he would turn it around. “He was a man of few words but he always told me how proud he was of me,” adds Bartholomew explaining that Ferbos was referring to him coming up, like Louis Armstrong, under the instruction of the Colored Waifs’ Home bandleader Professor Peter Davis.

“He had a very nice attitude towards people in general – and no hang-ups!” declares Edegran, a sentiment with which most everyone who came in contact with Ferbos’ ready smile and wit would agree. “It served him really well when he was in the sheet metal business because he had both Black and white customers back in the old segregation days but he managed to get along with everybody. He picked that up from his father because his father ran a hardware store years ago in the French Quarter together with an Italian guy. That was very unusual at that time.”

Somewhat ironically, Lionel Ferbos, an always spirited man and musician, said on the eve of his 101st birthday that he’d never really been healthy. He explained that from the time he was 15 years old until he was 40 he suffered with asthma. After decades of treatments by doctors, he finally found relief from an Italian woman whose son owned a bar on the corner of North Claiborne Avenue and Dumaine Street. “She treated me with olive oil and garlic,” Ferbos explained. “It cured it. It went away and never did come back.”

When Lionel Ferbos was onstage at his regular gigs at the Palm Court or closing out the popular Nickel-A-Dance traditional jazz series, a certain aura of pleasantness and pleasure filled the room. He made audiences believe that when you’re smiling, the whole world does smile with you.

Funeral services for Lionel Ferbos includes a wake to be held on Friday, August 1 at Char­bonnet-Labat Funeral Home, 1615 St. Philip St. with viewing beginning at 6 p.m. and a tribute at 7 p.m. A mass will be conducted at Corpus Christ-Epiphany Catholic Church at 10:30 am on Saturday, August 2, with viewing at 8 a.m. The Tremé Brass Band and the Black Men of Labor Social Aid & Pleasure Club will lead a jazz funeral procession from the church to the Mt. Olivet Cemetery, 4000 Norman Mayer Avenue.

This article originally published in the July 28, 2014 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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