NOJO: A Second Chance to Swing

Still healing after a nationally reported scandal, the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra reignites under new leadership

Adonis Rose, the new director of the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra (photo by Erika Goldring)

On Oct. 26, a year and a half after its last public performance, the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra (NOJO) returned to the New Orleans Jazz Market to kick off a new season—this time, without its founder and former artistic director, Irvin Mayfield.

The trumpeter resigned in July 2016 amid an ongoing scandal: Mayfield was accused of redirecting more than $1.1 million in funds from the New Orleans Public Library Foundation toward his non-profit orchestra and the $10 million venue he had built to serve as its home base. (Both Mayfield and his business partner, NOJO’s former president and CEO Ronald Markham, who also resigned from his position as director of the New Orleans Public Library Foundation board after the scandal broke, reportedly drew six-figure salaries.) After the alleged fraud was exposed, Mayfield stepped down and the orchestra ceased all activity. On Dec. 14, he was indicted by a federal grand jury on 19 counts, including conspiracy, money laundering and fraud; Markham was named as co-defendant. Until recently, it was unclear whether the band would reconvene and, if it did, whether it could overcome the shadow cast by Mayfield’s ignominious exit.

Despite the circumstances, NOJO’s fall showcase performance showed signs of renewed energy. The music was vibrant and swinging, facts to which the sold-out crowd attested with raucous cheers for soloists like saxophonist Khari Allen Lee, who burned his way into the climax of their take on Stevie Wonder’s “Golden Lady.” Subtler signs of change surfaced, too.

For starters, NOJO’s new artistic director, 42-year-old drummer Adonis Rose, featured percussion virtuoso Sheila E. as the night’s special guest. The move reflected Rose’s interest in casting a wider net with regard to material and styles.

After opening the show with an exuberant “Sing, Sing, Sing,” Rose climbed off his drum riser to address the crowd from his conducting post. “We missed y’all,” he said. After 18 months of lingering questions about the orchestra’s future, that tacit acknowledgment of the would-be elephant in the room seemed to affirm the group’s desire to move forward. “For me, and I think for the musicians, we’ve always believed that the mission of the organization has been bigger than one or two people. We’re here to preserve New Orleans music, and we’re here to educate people about our music and to perform on the highest level,” Rose said a few weeks later.

He was seated beside NOJO’s new president and CEO, Sarah Bell, in the light-flooded front room of the Jazz Market, which remained open through the orchestra’s silent period, offering community and education programs, live-music happy hours and special-event rentals. A wall of books and a digital music archive were the only visible signs of the organization’s five-year repayment contract with the library system. (Mayfield has maintained that the Jazz Market was intended to be a satellite library branch of sorts.) “I’ve always felt that we were in a good place to be able to come back strong,” Rose continued, “and I really believe that we have to perform our way back into good standing with the community and with the musicians of New Orleans.”

Rose and Bell’s programming and management decisions are now buttressed by the guidance of an artistic development committee made up of Ellis Marsalis, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Mikki Shepard and Cassie Worley, all of whom came on board shortly after Mayfield’s departure. Together, they provide a sounding board for both administrative and artistic ideas, although the changes Rose hopes to implement will likely be more prominent. “I have a different approach than Irvin had,” the drummer explained. “I think musically it’s sort of similar, but I like to cross genres. I like the idea of exposing new audiences to our music and to the band, and we weren’t doing that. I mean, we had been around for years and we did some of that, but mostly with New Orleans musicians.”

Rose wants to record more than the band has in the past, too. At press time, he expected to take the band into the studio before the end of the year and release an album in the spring. In the meantime, concerts have been announced for the remainder of the current season. Plans for the next few years of shows have been mapped out as well, he said, and will be announced as contracts are signed. Finally, Rose hopes to program more small-group projects featuring a seven- or eight-piece ensemble utilizing the band’s tuba and trombone players.

Meanwhile, the fulltime staff that initially operated NOJO has been reduced from 12 to three employees, and major sponsors have cut ties with the organization, adding an extra layer of complication to executing plans like Bell’s wish to expand NOJO’s music-education offerings. Still, she and Rose sound hopeful. “Adonis had monthly rehearsals for several months even before we had any dates on the calendar; [the musicians] were here just getting together. It was like a reunion,” Bell recalled.

According to Rose, the entire orchestra returned. Those who had been with the band since its founding in 2002 seemed unwavering in their interest to play again, he added. “We’ve had to overcome some things in the past. There was a period where we didn’t work for a few years and we had to get out here and make it happen again,” Rose explained. “In the very beginning, it wasn’t easy getting this thing started and playing free concerts and paying dues. From that perspective, it was easy to get the guys to see what we could do and where we were going. They know the potential.”

Victor Atkins, the group’s longtime pianist and one of its main arrangers, echoed that sentiment. “I had been looking at this organization as something that would survive us all,” he said.

As the severity of the allegations against Mayfield became clear and the band stopped playing, Atkins recalled missing “the dynamics of the NOJO” more than anything else. He described the experience of reading criticism of the band—which never had any involvement in or access to the purse strings Mayfield is accused of manipulating for his own gain—as “painful.” “When we first got together [again] over the summer, it was a little rusty. But the sound that we spent so many years cultivating isn’t the typical big-band sound, because we have banjo and sometimes tuba, we play Mardi Gras Indian grooves … And we were all worried that it would just go away. There was so much hope in that first day of rehearsing.”

Atkins admitted he worries about the diminished staff, but he believes Rose has the “innate leadership abilities” necessary to provide the group’s artistic direction. Ultimately, he said, he hopes the public can separate Mayfield’s scandal from the band, so he and his fellow musicians can return to playing regularly. “Irvin and Ron [Markham], I’ve been knowing those guys since high school and I love them,” Rose said. “But it’s not about them. It’s not about me. It’s about the mission of the organization. And as long as we stick to that, I think we’ll be fine.”