At his death in 2014, New Orleans jazz trumpeter Lionel Ferbos was the eldest statesman of his city's traditional jazz scene, at age 103 NOLA's single oldest jazz musician. For much of his life, Ferbos attributed his longevity to his wife, Marguerite, with whom he had been married for 75 years prior to her death in 2009.
Making music may have had something to do with that longevity factor too. Lionel Ferbos did not have to sit around listening to old records to learn the music of a bygone era. He was there the first time. He brought his first-hand knowledge of those days to his regular gig at the Palm Court, the French Quarter mecca for traditional jazz enthusiasts. Jazz masters Danny Barker, Pud Brown, George Lewis, and Chester Zardis were all regulars at the Palm Court. And then it was Ferbos, with his Creole Swingers, who held forth at the Decatur Street hot spot, thrilling audience with tunes like "Walkin' My Baby Back Home" and "The Sobbin' Blues." Ferbos played them the way Jelly Roll Morton said they should be played: "Soft and sweet, with plenty of rhythm."
The listener can hear some of those soft-and-sweet sounds on recordings Ferbos made. At the Jazz Band Ball, originally released in 1987, features Ferbos on trumpet and vocals, along with Lester Caliste on trombone; Bill Huntington and McNeal Breaux, both on bass; Les McCutt on banjo and guitar; David Grillier on clarinet and tenor saxophone; and Frank Oxley on drums. The group transports the listener to those golden days when "Let Me Call You Sweetheart" and "Pretty Baby" reigned on the radio. It turns out "Pretty Baby" enjoyed a reprise, with Louis Malle's 1978 film of the same name. Ferbos played on the soundtrack, recording with the New Orleans Ragtime Orchestra, headed by Lars Edegran. The aggregation put out two other recordings: Grace and Beauty (1979) and Creole Belles (1994), in which they played archival music of the ragtime era.
Ferbos also appeared with Edegran and his New Orleans Stompers on 5 Minutes More, along with dedicated traditional jazz musicians Freddie Lonzo, Bernie Attridge, Evan Christopher, and bandleader Lars Edegran. And the jazz aficionado can catch Ferbos, along with Pud Brown, Lester Caliste, Les Muscutt, and Peter Badie, performing as the New Orleans Jazz Wizards on their Jambalaya CD. Wizards indeed.
Remaining active past his centenary year, Ferbos had performed across the decades at the French Quarter Festival, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, and the Satchmo Summer Fest, where he would match other trumpeters less than half his age. He was also involved in raising money to renovate the Negro Musician's Music Hall, from back when the musicians' unions were segregated. Ferbos became a member in 1932, when he played in the big bands. Ferbos told his story as part of the Jazz Pioneers series sponsored by the New Orleans National Jazz Park -- and he had a lot to remember. After 70 years as a working musician, he won the Big Easy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2003. Lionel Ferbos died on July 19, 2014, having celebrated his 103rd birthday two nights before.