Trumpeter Lionel Ferbos almost retired last year. After his performances at the 2002 Jazz Fest, Ferbos felt that problems with his eyesight were hindering his ability to read music, and he contemplated shelving his horn. But cataract treatment improved his vision, and Ferbos is currently preparing for his appearances at the 2003 Jazz Fest, in addition to steady work with the New Orleans Ragtime Orchestra, and holding down his regular Saturday night gig at the Palm Court Jazz Cafe.
For the 91-year-old Ferbos, it's business as usual.
In recognition of his distinguished career that spans almost a century, Ferbos will be honored with the Music Heritage Award on Monday, April 21, at the 16th Annual Big Easy Entertainment Awards. In typical form befitting a man who retired from his day job as a sheet-metal worker only 10 years ago, Ferbos surveys his career with equal parts dignity, humility, graciousness and humor.
"I've been really lucky," says Ferbos. "When I was young, I was asthmatic from 15 until my late 30s. My mother said, if you want to play music, you get a banjo. Then I went to see the Phil Spitalny Orchestra play at the Orpheum Theater, and the women were playing trumpet. I thought, if they could do it, I could do it."
Ever since he earned his first professional job in the late '20s with the Starlight Serenaders (and later the Moonlight Serenaders), native New Orleanian Ferbos has been consistently active in the New Orleans music community. In his early years, he played with acts such as Captain John Handy's Louisiana Shakers and pianist Walter Chapon's band. During the Depression, Ferbos played in the WPA band, which was comprised of stellar musicians such as Willie Humphrey. One of Ferbos' memories of playing in the WPA band illustrates his commitment to his craft.
"In that band, I had a fine trumpet player next to me named George McCullum, and I always wondered why I couldn't play marches like he did. So I started taking lessons with Angelo Castigliola, who taught me double-tongue and triple-tongue [technique]. Then I realized why George could play so well. I've had very good teachers."
Subsequent stints with Herb Leary's Society Syncopaters and the Mighty Four (featuring Ferbos alongside Harold Dejan) followed, but his 1970 induction into Lars Edegran's New Orleans Ragtime Orchestra has proved to be Ferbos' most enduring association.
"I'm very proud of being in New Orleans Ragtime Orchestra," Ferbos says. "We've traveled extensively, and it's been very educational, getting to go places I would have never gotten to see. I took advantage of every opportunity. We've recorded many albums, and I'm especially proud of the album Lionel Ferbos With Lars Edegran's New Orleans Band."
Besides that superb outing (which features Ferbos in the company of clarinetist Evan Christopher and trombonist Fred Lonzo), Ferbos has an understandable soft spot for the 1996 New Orleans Jazz Wizards Jambalaya CD, which features Ferbos alongside Pud Brown. On those recordings -- and in his live performances -- Ferbos' traditional musical values and unerring melodic devotion shines through.
"All the while I was the first trumpet player in Handy and Pichon's bands, and I had good lips when I was young," remembers Ferbos. "I was never much for improvising at first, because they always had the second trumpet player for that. That part came about from playing with small groups again. It changes your whole attack of playing, because you have to be softer. It's a different approach to the instrument.
"My idea of playing music is to play melody," continues Ferbos. "You don't have to play a simple melody, but if you don't play melody, how do people know what you're playing?"
While Ferbos' trumpet playing has received its share of accolades, Ferbos' warm, understated vocals have their devotees, too. It's hard to believe that Ferbos didn't start singing regularly until the mid-70s.
"It's a real joke," says Ferbos. "When I was working with Harold Dejan in a band on North Claiborne Street, I used to sing those melodies over there. One day I was playing in front of the cathedral [with New Orleans Ragtime Orchestra], and Lars said, 'You sang over there, why don't you sing now?' I told him, 'I'll do it if you can put up with it.' My son and his girlfriend were walking by the square, and he said, 'They have a singer in that ragtime band.' He looked again, and said, 'That's my dad! I didn't know he could sing.' I just try to say the words and keep with the melody.
At 91, Ferbos remains rock-steady. And given his track record, he just might have a few surprises still up his sleeve.
- Neil Alexander
- Esteemed trumpeter and vocalist Lionel Ferbos is the winner of the Big Easy Awards' 2003 Music Heritage Award.