Music — jazz music — is what keeps Lionel Ferbos going at 102.
The Creole jazz singer and trumpeter celebrated his 102nd birthday July 17 by blowing the high notes for friends and family at the French Quarter club where he’s had a standing gig for decades. He also sang at a recent birthday bash at the National World War II Museum, breaking into “When You’re Smiling” as swing dancers shimmied.
Impeccable in a button-up shirt and tie, he posed for pictures all smiles. He cracked jokes about his age. And he relished the attention as he was serenaded both times with upbeat renditions of “Happy Birthday.”
“I thought I’d be dead at about 60,” he said, laughing.
No jazz funeral for Lionel Ferbos just yet. Yet even he finds the longevity surprising.
“Isn’t that something?” he said. “But you know, I never dreamed of that. I figured if I could go to about 50 I’d be doing good.”
Not bad for a guy born on July 17, 1911, several months before the Titanic sank and a few years away from World War I.
Ferbos bought his first cornet at a French Quarter pawn shop at age 15. Now he’s believed to be the oldest actively working musician in New Orleans — the Mississippi River port city where aging jazz musicians thrive.
His body isn’t without signs of age. He’s been in and out of the hospital in recent years and had a pacemaker implanted last year. He sometimes uses a wheelchair to get around. Despite a century of wear and tear, he’s still determined to sing and blow.
“He has such a memorable singing voice, and it’s always a treasure whether he’s playing his trumpet or singing,” said Al Kennedy, a longtime friend and fan. “He is somebody that younger musicians should know about, from the way that he shows up, the way he is dressed, the way he cares for his horn, the way he plays his horn.”