Lionel Ferbos was a living link to New Orleans history. Born in 1911, he lived through the last century of development and change that most of us read about in books. His memory was sharp and he could remember things like they happened yesterday. I loved talking to him about growing up in the city, being a fourth generation New Orleanian myself. In his stories, I could hear echoes of my mother telling me about life during the Great Depression, and of trips to West End and Milneburg. We talked about Lionel playing music at those lakefront resorts, and mused over the possibility that she might have heard him play trumpet at those amusement parks on the shores of Lake Ponchartrain.
We talked about the old French Quarter, when it was still a working class neighborhood. His dad, a Creole, had a metal shop on one street and the Brocatos, Sicilian immigrants, had their original ice cream parlor around the corner. He told me how his dad fabricated tin forms for the Brocatos to shape Cannoli at their shop. How wonderfully their cultures intertwined almost a century ago.
Once I compiled a CD for him. It contained a few tracks that I found of Phil Spitalny’s All-Girl Orchestra, the very orchestra that inspired Lionel to play trumpet when he heard them perform live at New Orleans’ Orpheum Theater in the twenties. I played it for him, and we also listened to early recordings of Johnny Dodds, Jimmie Noone, Eddie Lang, Frankie Trumbauer with Bix Beiderbecke, Ethel Waters, Mildred Bailey, John Handy, the Halfway House Orchestra, Louis Prima, and Louis Armstrong. He leaned forward in his chair and listened to every track with the utmost attention and obvious enjoyment. I asked him if he had ever played with the Halfway House Orchestra, and he said no, but he used to “run books” out to the Halfway House. Incredulous, I asked him if he gambled. No, he replied, but if they knew he was headed out that way, they gave him the book to deliver.
His first visit to my show on WWOZ was just before his 100th birthday. Lots of people were there to talk about Lionel: Nina Buck, Lars and Kathy Edegran from Palm Court Jazz Cafe, and Jason Patterson from Snug Harbor. Alvin Smith picked him up in a limo and drove him to the station. He talked nonstop in the station until the mic was on him, and then he stopped. When the mic was turned off, he started chattering again. I tried it twice - same thing both times. It was when he asked me if I had something written for him to say that I realized he was as uncomfortable talking on a mic without a script as he would be playing onstage without his sheet music. Jorge Fuentes, our operations manager, saved the day. He told me to just keep talking to Lionel while he manned the board. Jorge slowly faded the music and, unbeknownst to Lionel, turned on the mic, and then we had a wonderful interview.
When I walked him back down to the limo after the show, I found out that although he liked riding in the limo, he preferred riding in the front seat next to Alvin, the driver, so they could talk during the ride. The fancy car was lost on him; he just loved the company.
The radio station has a recorded digital library of various musicians saying “ You are listening to WWOZ, 90.7FM in New Orleans…” (our station ID) that we play periodically. Somehow we overlooked having Lionel record one while he was at WWOZ for his 100th birthday. We never thought we’d get another chance, but we did when the amazing Mr. Ferbos came in a year later for his 101st birthday. You can still hear it today on WWOZ.
Trumpeter Wendell Brunious said upon hearing of Lionel’s passing, “He was the last of the real old style New Orleans trumpet players. A great and outstanding Creole-American. As of last night, there’s a large void in the music world.”
As news stories and tributes started appearing from lands near and far, Krystle Ferbos, Lionel’s granddaughter said “It’s amazing. His life is being celebrated all over the world.”
As we continue to celebrate the life of Lionel Ferbos, remember to keep listening for his voice and the melodic sound of his “old style” trumpet on the air right here in his hometown, New Orleans. His music will always be played on WWOZ, especially on Thursday’s Traditional Jazz Show.