Lionel Ferbos, the oldest jazz musician in New Orleans, dies at 103


Lionel Ferbos, performing at his 102nd birthday party in New Orleans in 2012. He was New Orleans’ oldest living jazz musician when he died July 19 at 103. (Gerald Herbert/AP)
July 19

Lionel Ferbos, who had played trumpet in New Orleans since the early 1930s and was believed to be the oldest working musician in the city known as the birthplace of jazz, died July 19 at his home in the Crescent City. He had celebrated his 103rd birthday on Thursday.

His family confirmed the death to the New Orleans Times-­Picayune and other media outlets. The cause was not disclosed.

Mr. Ferbos (pronounced FUR-bus), who began playing trumpet at 15, had become the living embodiment of the venerable jazz tradition of New Orleans. He continued to perform through March of this year, playing and singing the tunes he had grown up with decades earlier.

“I don’t know modern jazz,” he told the Times-Picayune in 2011. “I just hope I make the right notes. You see, I’m a melody man.”

Mr. Ferbos never sought the spotlight and did not aspire to the bravura style of soloing made famous by New Orleans trumpeters Joe “King” Oliver and Louis Armstrong. Instead, he became known for his ability to blend into an ensemble and play the intricate harmonic parts that give New Orleans jazz its special flavor.

He performed in vaudeville shows in the 1930s, in dance bands and in the nightclubs that lined Rampart Street, the city’s historic black entertainment district. After finding little work as a musician in the 1950s and 1960s, Mr. Ferbos returned to the bandstand in the 1970s, when there was renewed interest in traditional jazz.

In recent years, he appeared almost every week as a trumpeter, singer and bandleader at the Palm Court Jazz Cafe in the French Quarter.

“A lot of young musicians come in just to watch him,” Nina Buck, the Palm Court’s owner, told USA Today in 2011.

“Mr. Ferbos has captured the sound of these legends that we talk about,” 36-year-old trumpeter Irvin Mayfield told the Advocate newspaper of Louisiana this year. “When we hear his trumpet, we hear the sound of Jelly Roll Morton, of Kid Ory, of King Oliver or Louis Armstrong or Buddy Bolden. Mr. Ferbos has heard a lot of those musicians himself. Their sound is a part of his, and his sound is a part of mine.”

Mr. Ferbos performed on the soundtrack of the 1978 Louis Malle’s “Pretty Baby,” which was filmed in New Orleans, and he made several tours of Europe with the New Orleans Ragtime Orchestra. In 1979, he was in the band of the musical revue “One Mo’ Time,” but he turned down an offer to go to New York when the show went to Broadway.

He preferred to stay close to home, cultivating his craft and his home town’s musical legacy. He practiced his trumpet every day.

“There was nothing more beautiful than to watch this man in his 90s, and then at 100, and then 101, saying that he had to practice,” Mayfield told the Times-Picayune. “I’d call his house and they’d say, ‘Paw-Paw is practicing.’ ”

Lionel Charles Ferbos was born July 17, 1911, in New Orleans and grew up in the city’s Treme neighborhood. Because he had asthma as a child, his mother encouraged him to take up the banjo. But after hearing the trumpet players in an all-female band, he went in another musical direction.

“I thought, ‘If they can do it, I can do it,’ ” he recalled in 2007, “and I went and bought a used cornet at a pawn shop on Rampart Street.”

He learned to read music, which put him in demand for many dance bands in New Orleans. He was also the lead trumpeter in a 48-piece orchestra sponsored by the Works Progress Administration, a Depression-era federal jobs program.

“I’ve had a wonderful life with music,” he told USA Today in 2011. “As long as I have teeth, I’ll keep playing. You can’t play trumpet without teeth.”

Mr. Ferbos’s wife of 75 years, Marguerite Gilyot Ferbos, died in 2009; a son, Lionel Ferbos Jr., died in 2006. Survivors include a daughter, Sylvia Schexnayder of New Orleans; three grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

Throughout much of his life, Mr. Ferbos worked in his family’s sheet-metal business, making and installing gutters, roofs and air-conditioning ducts. He was so talented at metalworking that some of his creations have been featured in museums.

But he never gave up on music, and in time, tastes returned to the classic songs that he learned when they were new.

“He plays the most beautiful melody, and his singing, it’s straight from the 1920s,” clarinet player Brian O’Connell told the Associated Press in 2008. “Nobody does what Lionel does. It’s something that can’t be copied, and when he’s gone, it’s gone.”

Matt Schudel has been an obituary writer at The Washington Post since 2004.
SECTION: {section=entertainment, subsection=null}!!!
INITIAL commentConfig: {includereply=true, canvas_permalink_id=washpost.com/8bvh5zpd9k, allow_comments=true, commentmaxlength=2000, includeshare=true, display_comments=true, canvas_permalink_app_instance=m6yzjj840m, display_more=true, moderationrequired=false, includefeaturenotification=true, canvas_allcomments_id=washpost.com/km4ey0dajm, comments_period=14, defaultsort=reverseChronological, includevoteofftopic=false, allow_videos=false, includesorts=true, markerdisplay=post_commenter:Post Commenter|staff:Post Writer|top_commenter:Post Forum|top_local:Washingtologist|top_sports:SuperFan|fact_checker:Fact Checker|post_recommended:Post Recommended|world_watcher:World Watcher|cultuer_connoisseur:Culture Connoisseur|weather_watcher:Capital Weather Watcher|post_contributor:Post Contributor, childrenitemsperpage=3, includeheader=true, includeverifiedcommenters=true, defaulttab=all, includerecommend=true, includereport=true, maxitemstop=3, source=washpost.com, allow_photos=false, maxitems=15, display_ugc_photos=false, includepause=true, canvas_allcomments_app_instance=6634zxcgfd, includepermalink=false}!!!

UGC FROM ARTICLE: {allow_comments=true, allow_photos=false, allow_videos=false, comments_period=14, comments_source=washpost.com, default_sort=, default_tab=, display_comments=true, is_ugc_gallery=false, max_items_to_display=15, max_items_to_display_top=3, moderation_required=false, stream_id=}!!!

FINAL commentConfig: {includereply=true, canvas_permalink_id=washpost.com/8bvh5zpd9k, allow_comments=true, commentmaxlength=2000, includeshare=true, display_comments=true, canvas_permalink_app_instance=m6yzjj840m, display_more=true, moderationrequired=false, includefeaturenotification=true, canvas_allcomments_id=washpost.com/km4ey0dajm, comments_period=14, defaultsort=reverseChronological, includevoteofftopic=false, allow_videos=false, includesorts=true, markerdisplay=post_commenter:Post Commenter|staff:Post Writer|top_commenter:Post Forum|top_local:Washingtologist|top_sports:SuperFan|fact_checker:Fact Checker|post_recommended:Post Recommended|world_watcher:World Watcher|cultuer_connoisseur:Culture Connoisseur|weather_watcher:Capital Weather Watcher|post_contributor:Post Contributor, childrenitemsperpage=3, includeheader=true, includeverifiedcommenters=true, defaulttab=all, includerecommend=true, includereport=true, maxitemstop=3, source=washpost.com, allow_photos=false, maxitems=15, display_ugc_photos=false, includepause=true, canvas_allcomments_app_instance=6634zxcgfd, includepermalink=false}!!
Comments
SECTION: {section=entertainment, subsection=null}!!!
INITIAL commentConfig: {includereply=true, canvas_permalink_id=washpost.com/8bvh5zpd9k, allow_comments=true, commentmaxlength=2000, includeshare=true, display_comments=true, canvas_permalink_app_instance=m6yzjj840m, display_more=true, moderationrequired=false, includefeaturenotification=true, canvas_allcomments_id=washpost.com/km4ey0dajm, comments_period=14, defaultsort=reverseChronological, includevoteofftopic=false, allow_videos=false, includesorts=true, markerdisplay=post_commenter:Post Commenter|staff:Post Writer|top_commenter:Post Forum|top_local:Washingtologist|top_sports:SuperFan|fact_checker:Fact Checker|post_recommended:Post Recommended|world_watcher:World Watcher|cultuer_connoisseur:Culture Connoisseur|weather_watcher:Capital Weather Watcher|post_contributor:Post Contributor, childrenitemsperpage=3, includeheader=true, includeverifiedcommenters=true, defaulttab=all, includerecommend=true, includereport=true, maxitemstop=3, source=washpost.com, allow_photos=false, maxitems=15, display_ugc_photos=false, includepause=true, canvas_allcomments_app_instance=6634zxcgfd, includepermalink=false}!!!

UGC FROM ARTICLE: {allow_comments=true, allow_photos=false, allow_videos=false, comments_period=14, comments_source=washpost.com, default_sort=, default_tab=, display_comments=true, is_ugc_gallery=false, max_items_to_display=15, max_items_to_display_top=3, moderation_required=false, stream_id=}!!!

FINAL commentConfig: {includereply=true, canvas_permalink_id=washpost.com/8bvh5zpd9k, allow_comments=true, commentmaxlength=2000, includeshare=true, display_comments=true, canvas_permalink_app_instance=m6yzjj840m, display_more=true, moderationrequired=false, includefeaturenotification=true, canvas_allcomments_id=washpost.com/km4ey0dajm, comments_period=14, defaultsort=reverseChronological, includevoteofftopic=false, allow_videos=false, includesorts=true, markerdisplay=post_commenter:Post Commenter|staff:Post Writer|top_commenter:Post Forum|top_local:Washingtologist|top_sports:SuperFan|fact_checker:Fact Checker|post_recommended:Post Recommended|world_watcher:World Watcher|cultuer_connoisseur:Culture Connoisseur|weather_watcher:Capital Weather Watcher|post_contributor:Post Contributor, childrenitemsperpage=3, includeheader=true, includeverifiedcommenters=true, defaulttab=all, includerecommend=true, includereport=true, maxitemstop=3, source=washpost.com, allow_photos=false, maxitems=15, display_ugc_photos=false, includepause=true, canvas_allcomments_app_instance=6634zxcgfd, includepermalink=false}!!
Show Comments
Most Read Entertainment