New Orleans Trumpeter Lionel Ferbos Still Playing Gigs at 97

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NEW ORLEANS -- In the 1930s, people danced in New Orleans night clubs to the sweet and melodic jazz of Creole singer and trumpeter Lionel Ferbos.

Now they sit at tables and sip cocktails, watching the 97-year-old perform as one of the city's oldest working jazz musicians.

Born July 17, 1911, Ferbos started playing professionally during the Great Depression. He still performs regularly at French Quarter clubs and has appeared at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival annually since its beginning in 1970.

A birthday celebration is planned Saturday night for Ferbos at the Snug Harbor Jazz Bistro. Recently, he sat with friends at a Canal Street restaurant to reflect on his life and his music.

Over plates of fried seafood, Ferbos chatted about rebuilding his downtown home, which was flooded during Hurricane Katrina, and his career as a tinsmith, working with metal. But his music was the keynote.

“He plays the most beautiful melody, and his singing, it's straight from the 1920s," said Brian O'Connell, a clarinet player who has performed with Ferbos for the past 12 years.

“Lionel's not going to tell you this, but you had to be a very good musician to play with the bands he's played with," O'Connell said. “If you weren't good, you didn't work."

Early in his career, Ferbos performed with New Orleans society jazz bands at venues such as the Pelican Club, which was among a string of clubs along Rampart Street - the main strip that in the 1920s and '30s was the epicentre of the city's bustling black entertainment district.

Ferbos said his ability to read music made him an in-demand musician for gigs that took him to parks, schools, churches, dance halls and even prisons.

He chuckled when he said his band used to play “Home Sweet Home" to inmates, which would anger them.

Ferbos' inspiration didn't come from jazz greats Louis Armstrong or Ferdinand “Jelly Roll" Morton, but rather lesser-known artists Walter Pichon and Captain John Handy.

“They had great bands, and I really liked playing with them," he said.

When Ferbos performed with Handy and Pichon in the '30s, he was making little more than a dollar a night.

“We never made much money, but we had a good time," he said.

Ferbos also recalled performing with blues singer Mamie Smith, who would sit in a chair before shows, knitting or crocheting to pass the time. “Then she'd hit the stage like a teenager," he said.

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