Saturday, May 26, 2007

Gigging for over 75 years: New Orleanian Lionel Ferbos

The Pages of History

By Jon P. Pult

Lionel Ferbos & the Palm Court Jazz Band

Friday, May 4, 12:30 p.m., Economy Hall Tent

“One day I was sitting down and wrote out a whole bunch of stuff,” 95-year-old trumpeter Lionel Ferbos says when he hands over the notebook, a small wire-bound affair with a blue floral cover. The first few pages contain a series of pell-mell notations. There are phone numbers and account numbers, a name here, an address there, some figures. After three or four pages of similar entries, the memoranda give way to pages of solid text, the first of them headed “Lionel Ferbos Biography.”

“I had more than that,” he says, pointing to the pages with a crooked, bronze finger, “but it went away in the flood.”

This biography, written in a mostly steady hand, starts simply enough: “Born July 17, 1911, New Orleans La. Adjacent Treme, Orleans Ave. N. Dorgenois,” and then briefly details his education, “Bayou Road School…Valena C. Jones School.” There are references to friends made and jobs worked. He writes that he became interested in music after hearing Phil Spitalny’s All Girl Orchestra at the Orpheum Theater (Pressed about this particular source of inspiration, he says, “I figured if they could do it, I could do it.”) Soon after, he started trumpet lessons, first with a man named Mr. Tennette and later with a Mr. Chaligny. In the late 1920s, he started to play with outfits like the Moonlight Serenaders, Handy’s Louisiana Shakers, and Walter Pichon’s Big Band. He met his wife while employed as a presser at the Haspell clothing factory, After courting Marguerite Gilyot, he married her on April 7, 1934. (73 years later, they’re still married). Ferbos also writes of playing at lakefront restaurants and downtown dances as a young man until he settled into the family trade, sheet metal work, which became his main profession, while he played music on weekends.

From here, his notes jump ahead some 30 years to the early 1970s, when he joined the New Orleans Ragtime Orchestra and toured the world. “Went to Europe and everything,” he tells me later, “well, I never dreamed of anything like that.” And then he started playing at the Palm Court, which remains his steady Saturday night gig.

It is all matter-of-fact, what Ferbos has committed to paper. Ninety-five years compressed into five-and-a-half small pages. Yet while the flood may have taken away the unabridged version of the biography of Lionel Ferbos, it didn’t take away the memories that it contained. When the various entries are used as cues, stories start coming out. Ferbos’ speech becomes vivid in the telling and his voice rises and falls as he inserts wry asides (on everything from gas prices to race relations), and he punctuates his speech with things like “you see, at that time,” or “let me tell you something, and not one word a lie.” His eyes widen, he grins and laughs at these small reveries. “Now you’ve put my mind together….”

Ferbos is a storehouse of small gems from another era, a time when riverboats were more transportation than tourism, and trains ran out Tulane Avenue to Jefferson Parish. “Let me tell you this,” he says. “When I first started out, we used to play what they called a ‘ballyhoo,”’ he says. “There were quite a few black theatres on Baronne Street near Poydras, up around there, and we’d play ballyhoo for the dances. You get on a truck and go from place to place and play to advertise the dances. You see, they didn’t have television or radio at that time so we’d advertise on a truck. It was really something different.”

What emerge from many of these stories are scenes from the daily life of a musician in the 1920s and 30s—the days when he was a young man looking for adventure, before he married, and he signed up to work with a touring company. “When I was playing in that vaudeville show,” Ferbos says as if this is nothing out of the ordinary, “we traveled in a seven passenger Cadillac automobile.” That show, “Eddie Lemon’s Dashing Dinah,” was an all-black revue that played the Theater Owners Booking Association circuit (or T.O.B.A., known among performers as “Tough on Black Asses”) throughout the ’20s and ’30s. “I was about 20, 21 years old and me and a friend joined the pit band.” For three months he played theaters in Texas, and Arkansas, and Mississippi. “Oh, it was a nice show,” Ferbos remembers. “We had a guy who sang just like Morton Downey [a popular singer of the period known as “the Irish nightingale”], a dialect comic made up to be Jewish, a man and woman comedy thing. I don’t know if it was Butterbeans and Susie but they were just like them, big tie and everything. They had four dancing boys, and about six or seven dancing girls and a woman—well they call it a leading lady now, but then it was called ‘Soubrette.’” He pauses. “I’m talking about 75 years back.”

Recounting his vaudeville days, he suddenly alights on another memory. “Let me tell you this funny incident,” he says emphatically, gesturing with an open palm, and then describes coming back to New Orleans and checking-in to a Rampart Street hotel, “one of the nicer ones they had at that time for black people.” He was soon approached by a woman, the owner of the establishment, “She came up and said, ‘If I hadn’t seen you come in with that show, I would swear you were from New Orleans because you look just like a friend of mine.’ I told her I was from New Orleans and asked her who I look liked and she said ‘Louise Richeaux,” and I said, ‘Well, I ought to. That’s my momma!”

During the Depression, Ferbos joined the Works Progress Administration band, which he says was 100 men strong. “Anybody who had their hand on an instrument seemed to be in it,” Ferbos says. A published photo of the band shows more than a half-a-dozen trumpets, four banjos, a bank of reeds. “That band played pretty music, ‘Poet and Peasant,’ you know, light classical stuff, and then we played jazz and popular numbers. We played schools, jailhouses, churches, and open parks. They kept us going. We played almost every day.”

What Ferbos describes in these brief vignettes is a world that most of the living have never seen. When he played at the Pythian Roof on Gravier and South Saratoga, for instance, he remembers the view he had onto the nearby parish prison. While the band played for the paying customers, another party went on below. “You could look down into the prison yard and see the inmates dancing together.”

Dancing. Making music for people to dance to, right on the spot. Bands served a purpose, beyond listening and applause. In his lifetime, Ferbos has seen the music he plays move from the dancehall to the concert hall. “For me it was strange,” he says of playing for a static audience. “The dancers give you a certain atmosphere.” But the music is the same. Asked what sorts of tunes the Starlight Serenaders played, or the Herbert Leary Big Band, he responds, “Do you like the music we play at the Palm Court? Well, it’s the same music as that.” As one of his sideman there, clarinetist Brian O’Connell, points out, “Lionel might be the only person playing this music who didn’t learn it from records.”

You’d think, being the oldest active jazz musician in town, maybe anywhere, that these songs he’s been playing for more than 75 years—“Shake it and Break It,” and “Girl of my Dreams,”—and the rest, that these songs would be a part of him, embedded in his D.N.A. But if you see him play, he always has a music stand and sheafs of bound manuscript paper. “I know about a hundred numbers,” he says, “but some night we might have someone might request a number I haven’t played in 40 years and I can’t remember, so that’s why I have all those the stock arrangements. After a while, the music stand became my nameplate. Like one trumpeter might have a beard, another a hat. Well I have my stand.”

He always plays the melody, following the notes laid out on the dog-eared pages in front of him. With a slightly quavering tone, he animates, however briefly, his story. Retrieving the city of his youth, New Orleans of dance halls and picnics and house parties, he is creating that “certain atmosphere.” And his singing, warm and understated, with an odd hum at the end of each line, does the same. Like his stories, there is a sweetness to his performance, a generosity. It is not used to prop himself up, but rather to prop up the spirits of the listener. “I was never worried about being in front,” he says of leading the Palm Court band, “I was always just a member, just one of the men.”

The last full page of Lionel Ferbos’s little notebook records the past two years in a few short sentences. “Then the storm Katrina appeared….” He lived with family in Plaquemines until, with some assistance, he and his wife moved into an apartment in town, “where we are now.” In the interim, his son, Lionel, Jr., his best friend, who worked alongside him in the sheet metal business and took him to every gig, succumbed to cancer. He gets to his gigs now with the help of friends. And at 95, in this changed city that is still home to him, he has nearly finished rebuilding his house.

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