NEW ORLEANS - A living legend of the New Orleans music world turns 103 on Thursday - Lionel Ferbos, the city’s oldest living jazz musician, who was born July 17, 1911. As a trumpeter, he has performed all over the world and even now the family patriarch continues to inspire.
“I’m thankful that I lived to be this age because very few people see that,” he said this week in an interview.
Even fewer are playing the trumpet past the age of 100. Ferbos was performing regularly at the Palm Court Jazz Cafe on Decatur Street and even at the French Quarter Fest, Satchmo Summer Fest and Jazz and Heritage Festival, up to the age of 102.
He's no longer able to hold a trumpet but he has inspired countless musicians over the year, from Irvin Mayfield to Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews.
“Practice, practice, practice” is his advice for up and coming musicians. “Do that and you’ll make friends all over the world.”
Ferbos has friends all over the world wishing him a happy birthday. His daughter Sylvia holds up a card signed by musicians in Japan and shows off the hundreds of birthday cards he has received from Europe, Asia and the United States, including one very special greeting – from President and Mrs. Obama.
“We extend our best wishes for a wonderful birthday and we hope you get to spend the day surrounded by loved ones,” reads the Obamas’ letter. “Your generation helped guide America through extraordinary and uncertain times, leaving an indelible mark on our nation. As you celebrate 103 years, we trust you reflect with great pride on your achievements and on contributions made over the course of your life.”
The only thing possibly nicer than that is to have the love and respect of his family.
“I watched my daddy from growing up and I know he was a hard worker. He’d play music every night for $1. Can you imagine that?” said his daughter Sylvia Schexnayder.
“I love my daddy with all my heart and he loves everybody. He never says anything bad about anybody,” she added. Ferbos and his wife, Marguerite, were married 75 years before she died in 2009.
A native of the city’s Seventh Ward, Ferbos performed since he was a teenager during the Great Depression. Since he suffered from asthma as a child, his parents would not let him take up a wind instrument. He said when he as 15, he saw an all-girl orchestra at the Orpheum Theater and argued that he ought to be able to do anything a girl could. He bought an old cornet from a pawn shop and began taking lessons.
His first professional music jobs were with society jazz bands at well-known venues such as the Pythian Roof Garden, Pelican Club, San Jacinto Hall, Autocrat Club, Southern Yacht Club and the New Orleans Country Club as well as smaller dance halls, clubs and churches.
In 1932, he joined Captain John Handy’s Louisiana Shakers and played the Astoria and toured the Gulf Coast. He later backed blues singer Mamie Smith while playing with the Fats Pichon Band.
During the Depression, he worked as a laborer in New Orleans City Park for the Works Progress Administration, then played first trumpet in the WPA jazz band.
This week, Ferbos himself became emotional when he reflected on his extraordinary life and friendships made in the music world.
“I want to thank everybody who has been veery nice to me,” he said, fighting back tears of happiness. “I have very good friends.”
Ferbos will celebrate with friends and fellow musicians Thursday night at the Palm Court.
If you would like to wish him a happy birthday you can mail him a card. His address is 5543 Press Drive, New Orleans, LA, 70126.