I arrived in New Orleans the night after trumpeter Lionel Ferbos celebrated his 103rd birthday, which was July 17, at the Palm Court in the French Quarter, where he’d held a longstanding gig. On Saturday morning, word quickly passed that Ferbos had died.
As Keith Spera’s obituary in the Times-Picayune explained:
His life in music spanned the Roosevelt administration to the Obama administration, the Great Depression to the Internet era. Louis Armstrong was only 10 years his senior, but Mr. Ferbos outlived Armstrong by more than 40 years.
Mr. Ferbos was the personification of quiet dedication to one’s craft. Few people in his 7th Ward neighborhood realized he was a musician — they knew him as a tinsmith who had taken over his father’s sheet metal business. That occupation sustained him and his family for decades.
But he always nurtured a musical career on the side.
And there were some lovely quotes in there from trumpeter Irvin Mayfield:
“He proved that the greatness of the city of New Orleans is that ordinary people can be extraordinary on a daily basis…. Everyone has an opportunity to be something special. The culture gives us the opportunity. He was an example of that.”
Ferbos liked to say that he was “a melody man,” which is to say that he knew a lot of tunes and the correct way to state each melody.Mayfield addressed this aspect within the playing of Ferbos and his contemporaries.
“There’s a certain way that they play melodies — it’s a different beat, a different rhythm,” Mayfield said. “When you listen to King Oliver or Jelly Roll Morton, you hear it. I would describe it like sitting on the note, as opposed to playing in back of the note. Every time I played with Mr. Ferbos, that was apparent to me. That’s one of the lost things that we won’t be able to hear in person again.”
The last time I heard Ferbos play, he was just leaving the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival’s Economy Hall Tent on a sweltering Saturday in 2012. He would play two sets that night at the Palm Court Jazz Café in the French Quarter, just like he did every Satruday night. He was 101 years old. He seemed to imbue rare authority to the lyric, “I may be late/ but I’ll be up to date if I could shimmy like my sister Kate.”
Ferbos told me he’d played 42 jazzfests. “It’s still here,” he said, “and so am I.”
The photo of Ferbos above, taken by Skip Bolen, was named “Jazz Photo of the Year” at the 2013 year’s Jazz Journalists Association Awards. (More on Bolen here.)