Lionel Ferbos, a trumpeter and icon of New Orleans’ traditional jazz scene who was hailed as the city’s oldest active musician and gained international attention for performing well past the century mark, died Saturday, just two days after turning 103.
Fans, friends and family members noticed Ferbos’ frail health 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 he posed for photos and greeted dozens of well-wishers and fellow musicians who turned out to honor a living legend.
His family said 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 WWL-TV’s Sally-Ann Roberts to mark his birthday.
Ferbos remained active until earlier this year, when his health forced him to give up performing. Before retiring, he was a fixture at local jazz clubs and festivals, including the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival (having played at every one since the beginning until he had to miss this year’s), the French Quarter Festival and the Satchmo Summer Fest, often playing alongside performers half his age or younger.
His last public performance was in March.
He had recently become too weak to hold his trumpet, but family members would occasionally hold it to his mouth so that he could blow into it, granddaughter Lori Schexnayder said.
“He missed it so much, but his arms just weren’t strong enough to hold it up,” she said.
Ferbos’ longevity and legacy drew attention and admiration from around the world. USA Today and The New York Times 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 7th Ward, Ferbos began performing as a teenager during the Great Depression.
Because he suffered from asthma as a child, his parents would not let him take up a wind instrument. However, he said that when he was 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 New Orleans Country Club, as well as smaller dance halls, clubs and churches.
In 1932, he joined Captain John Handy’s Louisiana Shakers 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 they also almost ended it.
“I was always ill,” Ferbos said in 2010 for a profile by 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 all right, but you aren’t going to live too long.’ And so that was when I was ’round about 50,” he said with a laugh.
A deeply committed family man, Ferbos preferred to stay close to home in Pontchartrain Park, with most of his gigs in New Orleans. He did, however, make eight tours of Europe with the New Orleans Ragtime Orchestra, which he helped form to revive the early 20th-century music unearthed on sheet music, recordings and other memorabilia in the Hogan Jazz Archive at Tulane University.
Since 1967, Ferbos 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 Street, where he lead the Palm Court Jazz Band for more than two decades.
“He was very advanced and technical for his time,” said Dixieland jazz musician Lars Edegran, who performed with Ferbos for decades with the New Orleans Ragtime Orchestra.
“You needed advanced music reading skills to play in the orchestra, and Lionel was a very well-trained musician,” Edegran said. “He was very professional on stage, a beloved person, and there’s just nobody else like him.”
Ferbos had a unique voice and a knack for soft, sentimental hits like “When I Grow Too Old to Dream” and “Beautiful Dreamer.”
He was a founding member of the orchestra that brought New Orleanian Vernel Bagneris’ New York-bound musical “One Mo’ Time” to life in 1979.
Ferbos made few early recordings, but after he joined the Ragtime Orchestra and the Palm Court band, 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 to up-and-coming musicians. “Do that and you’ll make friends all over the world.”
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 business in the 1940s and became a master metal worker. He also worked in the early ’30s at Haspel’s clothing factory, where he met his future wife.
Ferbos and Marguerite Gilyot were married for 75 years, until her death in 2009. The couple had a daughter, Sylvia, and a son, Lionel Jr., who died in 2006.
In addition to his daughter, he is survived by three grandchildren, two great-grandchildren and many nieces and nephews.
Funeral arrangements are pending.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.