Dominic Massa / Eyewitness News
NEWORLEANS- Lionel Ferbos, a trumpeter and icon of New Orleans' traditional jazz scene hailed as the city's oldest musician who gained international attention for performing well past the century mark, died Saturday, just two days after turning 103.
Fans, friends and family members noticed Mr. Ferbos' frail health on Thursday night, but celebrated the fact that he was able to attend his birthday party at the Palm Court Jazz Cafe on Decatur Street.
He was unable to perform at the party, but posed for photos and greeted dozens of well-wishers and fellow musicians who turned out to honor a living legend.
His family said Mr. Ferbos died peacefully at home Saturday morning.
'I'm thankful that I lived to be this age, because very few people see that,' he said in an interview with Sally-Ann Roberts this past week to mark his 103rd birthday.
Mr. Ferbos remained active up until earlier this year, when his health forced him to give up performing. Prior to his decision to retire, Ferbos was a fixture at local jazz clubs and festivals, including the Jazz and Heritage Festival (having played at every one since the beginning), French Quarter Festival and Satchmo Summer Fest, playing alongside performers half his age or even younger.
His last public performance was in March. Still, Ferbos' longevity and legacy drew attention and admiration from around the world. USA Today and The New York Times even covered his 100th birthday celebration.
Each year for his birthday, friends and family would organize a letter and card-writing campaign, which brought in fan mail from around the world. His 103rd birthday garnered congratulations from President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama.
'We extend our best wishes for a wonderful birthday and we hope you get to spend the day surrounded by loved ones,' read 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.'
A native of the city's Seventh Ward, Mr. Ferbos had been performing 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, of which he was the last surviving member.
Health problems initially led to Ferbos' musical career, but almost ended it.
'I was always ill,' said Ferbos in 2010 for a profile by WWL-TV's Sally-Ann Roberts. 'I had asthma in every joint and I had about four or five operations. And the doctor told me, he said, 'You're doing alright, but you aren't going to live too long.' And so that was when I was round about 50,' he laughed.
A deeply-committed family man, Mr. Ferbos preferred to stay close to home in Pontchartrain Park, with most of his gigs here in New Orleans. He did, however, make eight tours of Europe with the New Orleans Ragtime Orchestra, which he helped form to revive the music unearthed on sheet music, recordings and other memorabilia in the Hogan Jazz Archive at Tulane University.
Since 1967, he performed with the New Orleans Ragtime Orchestra, of which he was a founding member. He also continued his regular weekly gig at the Palm Court on Decatur St., where he lead the Palm Court Jazz Band for more than two decades.
He was a founding member of the orchestra that brought Vernel Bagneris' Broadway musical 'One Mo' Time' to life in 1979.
Despite his long career, Mr. Ferbos made few early recordings. After he joined the Ragtime Orchestra and the Palm Court bands, he was recorded on several CDs on the GHB label. He remained a favorite among traditional jazz fans, well past the century mark.
'To me it's really nice, when they appreciate you,' he said. 'When it gets so they don't appreciate me, I'll stop. All through my life, I've been lucky. People have been very nice to me.'
Ferbos inspired many of the young performers he worked with in recent years, including trumpeters Irvin Mayfield and Troy 'Trombone Shorty' Andrews.
'Practice, practice, practice' was the advice he said he would give up and coming musicians. 'Do that and you'll make friends all over the world.'
'I want to thank everybody who has been very nice to me,' he said, fighting back tears of happiness in a July 2014 WWL-TV interview. 'I have very good friends.'
While active as a musician, Ferbos for many years also kept his day job as a tinsmith in his family's sheet-metal business. He went to work with his father in the family business in the 1940s, and became a master metal worker. He also worked at Haspel's Clothing Factory in the early 30s, where he met his future wife. Ferbos and his wife, Marguerite Gilyot, were married for 75 years, until her death in 2009. The couple had a daughter, Sylvia, and son, Lionel Jr., who died in 2006.
In addition to his daughter, Ferbos is survived by four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren as well as a host of nieces and nephews.
Funeral arrangements are pending.