NEW ORLEANS — At midnight last Saturday, friends and well-wishers sang “Happy Birthday” to the trumpet player who led the band that night at the Palm Court Jazz Cafe. When they finished, the trumpet player turned to a few young women sitting behind him.
“Have you ever kissed a hundred-year-old man?” he asked.
The next night, jazz royalty from around the city turned out for Lionel Ferbos’s birthday party, amazed that one of their colleagues could have made it a full century. The wide Ferbos brood of tan-skinned Creoles with thin faces, pointy noses and impossible grace dominated the room, but men in seersucker suits with white straw hats and other appropriate characters filled it out. It being New Orleans, there was also a sparkly gold top hat, a red feathered sash and copious fleurs-de-lis.
Mr. Ferbos himself, with a brown suit, thick plastic glasses, deep jowls and bushy eyebrows, held court in the middle of the room, collecting birthday cards and hundred-dollar bills to pin to his chest in the New Orleans birthday tradition.
After a little while, he took the stage the way he has done every Saturday night for two decades, crooning old standards in a smooth, muddy voice. The bands are smaller than they were in the 1930s, he says, but most everything else is the same.
“It’s the same music,” he said. “We’re playing the same numbers we were playing 80 years ago.”
In a city obsessed with keeping its particular past breathing into the present, Mr. Ferbos stands as a rare example of the long journey that early jazz has taken to come to 2011 intact. He and his songs have stayed the same not just through Hurricane Katrina, but through Hurricane Betsy and the flooding in 1995 as well. They saw Vietnam, World War II, the Great Depression (he is the last surviving member of the New Orleans Works Progress Administration jazz band) and the invention of rock and roll. His face shows some of the wear of eight decades of playing. His music does not.
After the break, some local celebrities in attendance took the stage and modernized the music by a couple of decades. James Andrews, “The Satchmo of the Ghetto,” worked the crowd as audience members pulled out parasols and napkins and started parading. Irvin Mayfield, a bandleader and club owner, joined him in a slim-cut black suit and a white shirt with no tie.
Mr. Ferbos stayed in the corner, his knees bouncing in time with the music, his face occasionally appearing behind the outsize personalities dancing in front of him.
Mr. Ferbos was never a star. Until his considerable talent for longevity eclipsed his musical prowess, he was always an ensemble player. He played dance halls when his music was pop, and sit-down restaurants like the Palm Court later on. Unlike nearly every other musician in the city, he still reads his melodies off sheet music. He started playing before Louis Armstrong made improvising popular.
He was a worker, and still is, practicing every day to stay sharp. At his party, much younger men were yawning while he was still receiving a near-endless stream of birthday wishes.
A man went up to him and said, “Hope to make it next year!”
“Me too,” Mr. Ferbos replied, and laughed.
Tuesday, July 26, 2011
By DAVE THIER