Why We Should Remember Lionel Ferbos for More than His Trumpet

tags: Lionel Ferbos

Mary Niall Mitchell is Ethel & Herman L. Midlo Chair in New Orleans Studies at the University of New Orleans and author of "Raising Freedom’s Child: Black Children and Visions of the Future After Slavery" (NYU, 2008). One of her current projects is “Madame Couvent’s Legacy: New Orleans’s Creoles of Color and Historical Memory from the Gilded Age to the 1920s.”

New Orleans’s oldest living jazz musician, Lionel Ferbos, died this past week at the age of 103. Like all centenarians, he was a rare living link to the past—back to the Taft administration, to be exact. But to a historian of New Orleans, Lionel Ferbos wasn’t just from another era, or eras, he was a 103-year-old Creole of color who had never lived outside of the city, but for a brief exile to Plaquemine, Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina. Like many Creoles of his generation, and generations previous, he learned a trade from his father and carried on the family business as a tinsmith until he retired in his seventies.

But he always had a second career, too. Lionel had taken up the trumpet at age 15 after seeing Phil Spitalny’s All-Girl Orchestra play at the Orpheum Theater in the mid-twenties. “If they could do it, then I could too,” he later recalled. (Well, what teenaged boy wants to be bested by a bunch of ladies?) His dedication to the trumpet led to a job on Vaudeville’s TOBA circuit (Theater Owners Booking Association, a.k.a. “Tough On Black Asses”) in the early 1930s with Eddie Lemons’ Dashin’ Dinah Revue (“with Velvet Brown Chorus”), and earned him a spot in the WPA band. He played locally with groups such as the Moonlight Serenaders, Handy’s Louisiana Shakers, and Walter Pichon’s Big Band.

Ten years younger than Louis Armstrong, Ferbos was schooled in the bright, modern, evolving sound of New Orleans jazz. He earned a reputation as an excellent sight-reader and he kept his creased, handwritten music books with him on every gig. Not inclined to improvisation, he was to the end an orchestra musician, using melody as his map. Reflecting his same attachment to the tune, he also started singing a few numbers when he played with the New Orleans Ragtime Orchestra in the 1970s. He played and sang for the money and for the enjoyment of people, especially those on the dance floor, and he almost never stopped. His last gig was the bi-annual “Nickel a Dance” in March of this year.

Although most of the attention he received late in life sprang from his long years as a jazz musician, Mr. Ferbos was a part of a particular Creole heritage that is still little understood outside of New Orleans. Indeed, Lionel Ferbos was one of the last of a generation of New Orleans’s Creoles of color who dedicated themselves to both the skilled trades and the arts. Since the French colonial period, free men of color had begun to fill the demand for skilled artisans in New Orleans, and by the mid-19th century they dominated vital urban trades such as masonry, plastering and metalwork. But many of them were also active in the arts, playing in local orchestras and participating in politically charged literary circles.

Lionel Ferbos (foreground) playing with the WPA Band.  Uncredited photographer for the Works Progress Administration, Trumpet Players with WPA Band, 1937.

Lionel Ferbos was only a generation removed from some of the most prominent Creoles of color in the nineteenth century. Rodolphe Desdunes was still living when Ferbos was born, as was Homer Plessy. I gave Lionel a copy of my book when it was published, parts of which discuss the nineteenth-century community of Creoles of color in New Orleans and their political activism before and after the Civil War. After making his way through the first chapter (God bless him) on the 1850s and 60s, he said with a chuckle “my daddy knew some of those people!”

For jazz historians, and for the musicians who played with him for many years, Ferbos was another kind of link to the past. As one member of Ferbos’s Louisiana Shakers observed, he was one of the few remaining jazz musicians who honed his skills by listening to live musicians, rather than recordings. The sound of Lionel’s trumpet and his beautiful wavering voice were not echoes of the past. They were, for anyone lucky enough to hear them, priceless living fossils.

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