Not yet 38, Irvin Mayfield is a trumpeter and force of the cosmos who leads the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra (NOJO). Now in its 13th year, the Grammy-winning group has a travel schedule, like that of classical symphonies, that relies on foundation, corporate and civic support to achieve its mission.
As rainmaker for Jazz at Lincoln Center, Wynton Marsalis pioneered the role of jazzman as urban statesman, at no loss to his prolific recording career. Mayfield, who lived with Marsalis in New York for a stretch as a young college dropout, headed back to New Orleans with his own designs on how to expand the model provided by Wynton.
Mayfield teaches in the University of New Orleans jazz program, sits on several public boards, has a nightclub called the Jazz Playhouse in the Royal Sonesta Hotel on Bourbon Street, and several years ago toyed with the idea of running for mayor in 2010. He didn’t, and that was smart. Mitch Landrieu demolished the opposition in winning election as mayor after deep public disillusion with the outgoing mayor, Ray Nagin, who now holds an endowed chair in a federal penitentiary.
Besides, the political meat grinder doesn’t deliver things like The People’s Health Jazz Market, a $9.6 million concert venue in a long-abandoned central city department store that Mayfield and his alter-ego, NOJO President and CEO Ronald S. Markham guided to its opening last month. Kronberg Wall, an Atlanta architectural design firm, oversaw the 400-seat auditorium with pristine jazz acoustics, and the bar in the lobby, named for the seminal jazzman Buddy Bolden.
NOJO’s kickoff concert at People’s Health Jazz Market with guest vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater is April 24. The chanteuse also performs with NOJO April 26 at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival presented by Shell, and the band has a summer tour lined up with Bridgewater, before the August release of the NOJO collaboration, Dee Dee’s Feathers on Sony.
The People’s Health Jazz Market will hold concerts for NOJO and visiting jazz acts through the year.
“We’ve played a lot of places internationally,” NOJO president Ron Markham told The Daily Beast, “and there are few if any concert halls designed specifically for jazz. The acoustics for jazz are very different from the needs for a classical venue. Piano and violin are at the center of classical music, a softer sound. At the center of jazz you have trumpet and drums—a more strident sound. When you’re building a concert hall that is supposed to support those instruments, the acoustic design is almost the polar opposite from a space for classical music. One reason to create the People’s Health Jazz Market was for NOJO to have a home.”
The cornerstone investment of $600,000 went for purchase of the building, an old department store that had been dormant since Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Goldman Sachs’s Urban Investment Group provided the lead capital for the project. “We raised close to $3 million initially,” says Markham, ”through two state tax credit programs and the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority under Mayor Landrieu. We obtained a key construction loan with Prudential Financial on a five-year pay down schedule. We play jazz. We don’t run bars. For a 12,000 square foot building we have basic operations at about $130,000 a year.”
The People’s Health Jazz Market occupies a corner of the boulevards Martin Luther King Jr. and Oretha Castle Haley, named for a ’60s civil rights leader. Just three blocks from the St. Charles Avenue streetcar line, the intersection was a site of inner city decay in the ’80s and ’90s. Since the Katrina devastation, an urban restoration policy begun under Nagin has flourished under Landrieu as redeveloped apartments, stores, theaters, and restaurants have sprouted on O.C. Haley Boulevard, rather like the gentrification of Harlem in the ’90s.
The jazz market is developing a digital jazz archive as an extension of the public library system. The lobby area becomes a coffee shop space and community center by day, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Friday and Saturday.
Markham and Mayfield met as music students in the early ’90s at New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts, a high school whose jazz program was pioneered by the pianist and patriarch Ellis Marsalis.
The friendship deepened at UNO, where Ron earned a degree in mechanical engineering, and gravitated to the executive role after NOJO came together in 2003. A solid pianist in his own right, Markham runs the NOJO and Jazz Market; Mayfield is artistic director.
The scope of Mayfield’s ambition registers in a new 288-page coffee table book that bears his name above the subtitle, New Orleans Jazz Playhouse. The cover of his likeness seated at a piano stool, working on a sheet score, is an illustration by John H. Clark IV. Released by Basin Street Records, the book retails at $120; however, that also includes seven CDs (one for each day of the week) by various artists who perform at Jazz Playhouse, the club in the Hotel Sonesta.
The book is a Cecil B. DeMille approach to New Orleans, with mini-essays by Marsalis, Ernest Gaines, and Walter Isaacson, and impressive images by photographers Gordon Parks, Herman Leonard, Michael P. Smith and Matt Anderson, among others.
The CDs cover a range of thematic groupings from the traditional New Orleans Style (“Lil Liza Jane” sung by Gerald French and the Original Tuxedo Jazz Band); mainstream songbook (Davell Crawford singing a blues-moody “Yesterday”); another take on Adele (“Skyfall” as sung by a shimmering Sasha Masakowski); and from the country canon, the inimitable “You Are My Sunshine” (sung by a gravelly Shannon Powell, better known as one of the hardest working drummers in town.)
Other featured instrumentalists include drummer Jason Marsalis, tenor saxophonist James Rivers, banjoist and vocalist Don Vappie, the Meter’s bassist George Porter, bassist Adonis Rose, and pianist Peter Harris.
Like the musical selections, the book covers a large swath of New Orleans culture, devoting several pages to the legendary Creole chef Leah Chase, with color plates and a black-and-white photograph of the beaming culinary influence, now in her 90s.
The book also features color images by the late artist George Rodrigue of Blue Dog fame—images of Al Hirt, Pete Fountain and Louis Armstrong, as well as photographs in which Mayfield appears alongside people such as Gordon Parks (with whom he collaborated on a CD several years ago), Soledad O’Brien, Dee Dee Bridgewater (plus her elfin cocker spaniel), and trumpeters Marsalis and Kermit Ruffins. Other photos
include vistas of the city, Mardi Gras Indians, a jazz funeral, and other front line musicians such as Benjamin Jaffe, leader of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, pianist David Torkanowsky, and an exotic dancer in a feathered boa, name of Trixie Minx, who sometimes appears at the Playhouse.
Irvin Mayfield: New Orleans Jazz Playhouse is unlike any coffee-table book about the city or its music. If the text at times reads like A World According to Irvin, the ego weight is offset by some surprisingly moving prose, as when he reflects on his father’s death.
At the first jazz concert after the Katrina flood, on a chilly fall night in 2005, at Christ Church Cathedral on St. Charles Avenue, Mayfield told the packed pews, 95 percent of them white folks, that his father was still missing in the flood. Audible gasps went up. Bodies were still being discovered in those early weeks after the flood. The rest of Mayfield’s family had evacuated. After the announcement, his performance of “Ninth Ward Blues” left a lot of people crying. His father’s remains were found a few weeks later.
“My parents’ home is located in the Gentilly neighborhood,” he writes in the book. “Where I grew up, neighbors, black and white, all knew one another.” He continues:
“The only street in New Orleans that touches both Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi River [is] named after the famous Parisian avenue, Champs Elysées. The origin of the name comes from Greek mythology and, according to Homer, was the final resting place for virtuous and righteous men chosen by the gods. That’s the street, Elysian Fields in New Orleans, where my father’s human vessel would lay eternally lifeless. The rising water had required more of a swim than he could handle…
“I miss my dad, yes. But I try to honor his memory, as well as all the victims of Hurricane Katrina, through the love I have for all humanity, a love I try to express through my music.
“Life is not about waiting for the storm to pass; it’s about dancing in the rain. I chose New Orleans because New Orleans chose me. This city gave me my dad and my love of life.”
Mayfield is a voracious reader with an outsized personality to keep painting his ideas across the sky. Ron Markham is the guy who has his back, a self-described “paper pusher” who plays a respectable take on James Booker at piano, and is equally at home discussing tax subsides, the arcania of Goldman Sachs’ role in arranging the jazz market financing with Prudential Financial, state historic tax credits and other prosaic matters that in the right hands give the world a wider berth for jazz.
“There was a lot of faith in this project and positive energy,” says Markham of The People’s Health Jazz Market. “The difficulty was building something beautiful and unique in an extremely short period of time. The traditions and legacies that people like Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong, Sweet Emma Barrett, and James Booker left, to name a few, serve as formidably large shoes to fill—if they’re even able to be filled.”
Jason Berry’s books include Up From the Cradle of Jazz: New Orleans Music Since World War II.