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Irvin Mayfield: The Cultural Ambassador of New Orleans

The prolific Grammy-winning trumpeter is investing in the city that he loves

Irvin Mayfield at his I Club, New Orleans
Irvin Mayfield at the Jazz Playhouse

On an oppressively hot summer afternoon in New Orleans, Irvin Mayfield strides into the JW Marriott Hotel and enters his newest venture, Irvin Mayfield’s I Club, a posh, elegantly furnished bistro which has been transformed into one of the Crescent City’s latest music venues. Mayfield dives headlong into business, greeting his publicist Laura Tennyson, the club’s sound engineer James Appello and the Marriott’s General Manager Ted Selogie in quick, casual succession and dispensing with small business matters at each turn. At the same time he’s focusing attention on me with a hearty greeting and brings me into the middle of his exchanges in a casual way. “See that trumpet up there?” He points to an instrument cradled above the bar next to the stage. “That’s Ted’s trumpet.” Selogie smiles and acknowledges that it is indeed his, but it will not be brought down and played. It’s there as a symbol of his and the hotel’s commitment to Mayfield’s musical vision.

Irvin Mayfield is one of the New Orleans musicians who have led the recovery of this stricken city since it was destroyed six years ago in the massive flooding that followed Hurricane Katrina and the systematic failure of the city’s levees. While major corporations fled and civil order at nearly all levels collapsed in the chaos, musicians returned in huge numbers to restore the city’s cultural identity and revive its institutions. Mayfield’s efforts in this endeavor stand out. A little more than two years after making a bold move to bring jazz back to Bourbon Street at Irvin Mayfield’s Jazz Playhouse, the trumpeter and entrepreneur could back up the claim that he presents more New Orleans jazz shows than any club in the city. “The Jazz Playhouse is a tremendously successful business,” says Mayfield. “We’re the number-one music emporium in the city. It’s impressive for a small room on Bourbon Street. We’re open nightly so we’re open more days than any other venue in the city, and we produce on some days three different bands. We do that all year.”

Mayfield has showcased a number of local musicians at the Jazz Playhouse, helping to promote the careers of the talented young jazz vocalist Johnaye Kendrick, trombonist Glen David Andrews, trumpeter Shamarr Allen and drummer/vibraphonist Jason Marsalis while at the same time providing a home for veteran bandleaders. One night a week Mayfield hosts a jam session at the club, featuring a wide range of local players.

The compact, wiry trumpeter runs his clubs, a small band, the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra and co-leads Los Hombres Calientes, a group that has since 1998 sought to highlight the joyful similarities between music from New Orleans, Africa, Cuba, Brazil and other groove-happy locales. He directs education programs at the University of New Orleans and sits on the boards of the National Council on the Arts and a handful of New Orleans institutions. And he takes it all on with the swift efficiency of a CEO. “I’m investing in the city because I love it,” Mayfield says simply.

Mayfield’s business acumen, organizational skill and work ethic have impressed numerous local businessmen and politicians who’ve been eager to work with him. Al Groos, general manager of the Royal Sonesta Hotel, approached Mayfield about opening a jazz club on Bourbon Street after meeting the trumpeter at his health club. “We were looking for something to upgrade what we had in there,” said Groos. “I knew that people wanted an upscale jazz venue and approached Irvin about it. He brought in his team, looked at the room, we sat down and the idea for the Jazz Playhouse came out. It was his brainchild.” Mayfield attracted a broad range of jazz styles and personalities, from neophytes to veterans, enforcing the brand by showing up to sit in, lead his own group or just hang and talk with customers. The concept caught on rapidly, progressing from three nights a week when the club first opened to five and then, within six months, seven nights.

Mayfield also saw a chance to incorporate the neo-vaudeville gaiety of the New Orleans burlesque scene into the mix with Burlesque Ballroom on Friday nights. The classic New Orleans burlesque houses devolved into sex clubs in the 1960s, but interpretative dancer Trixie Minx has been at the forefront of a New Orleans burlesque revival with her dance groups Fleur de Tease and now Burlesque Ballroom. “Bringing burlesque back to Bourbon Street has a deeper meaning to New Orleans burlesque dancers,” says Minx. “There was a golden era of Burlesque during the 1950s where dancers performed with great jazz bands. The girls were glamorous and the music fantastic, but unfortunately these productions dissolved to make way for clubs that featured DJs and strippers. Irvin wanted to celebrate the era where jazz music and musicians served as the musical backbone of burlesque. By creating Burlesque Ballroom we literally have re-established New Orleans Burlesque as an art form that has historical significance worthy of being brought back to its original home on Bourbon Street.”

Groos admitted that burlesque was one instance where he had to trust Irvin’s judgment. “I scratched my head on that one [laughs], but every Friday night for the midnight jazz and burlesque show we have a line at 11:30 waiting to get in. The club has been a tremendous success for the hotel. The Jazz Playhouse is just special, and Irvin chose the name for a reason. He said, ‘I want jazz to be approachable, and I want people to understand that the Playhouse is a place where they can go in and have fun.’ The idea factory that comes out of Irvin’s camp is still churning. He’s opened up a second club now that features more of a variety of New Orleans music; ours is jazz-specific. It’s sort of like a chef that has a steak house and then opens a Creole restaurant.”

Mayfield takes the stage regularly at both of his clubs, hosting his own bands and sitting in with others. In addition to the weekly jam session at the Playhouse, Los Hombres Calientes is the regular Saturday night band at the I Club. “The first thing I do when I get up in the morning, I get paid to play the trumpet,” says Mayfield. “At the end of the day that’s what you are. That’s what Quincy Jones does, that’s what Wynton does. We all fill that out in different ways. New Orleans is a city built on the imagination and creativity of the musicians who came before us. I’m trying to bring people back to the music.”

Mayfield’s dynamic personality and scene-building work tend to overshadow his trumpet playing, which has no overwhelming trademark characteristic but serves his eclectic tastes well. A superb technician, Mayfield has great rhythmic sense and knows what kind of approach fits for the particular arrangement he’s delving into, whether it’s Latin jazz, brass-band music or big-band work. His personal expression probably comes most to the fore on his ballad playing, which features beautifully phrased melodic statements and a warm, emotional tone.

His latest artistic project is A Love Letter to New Orleans, a coffee-table book with short pieces written by Mayfield about his family and musical influences. The book includes a disc, also available separately, consisting of selections from his 10-album career with Basin Street Records, including tracks from his band Los Hombres Calientes and recordings with pianist Ellis Marsalis. (The cover shot was taken by the late, great jazz photographer Herman Leonard.) “All these things are just links to what you’re trying to represent,” says Mayfield. “I meet so many people and I’m doing so many different things that it’s kind of difficult to distill who I am at a particular moment.”

Thirteen years ago Mayfield was a brash 20-year-old trumpeter in a city full of hotshot horn players, a product of the New Orleans Center for Contemporary Arts and a partner with percussionist Bill Summers and drummer Jason Marsalis in Los Hombres Calientes. Mayfield took no prisoners, sashaying in front of the Hombres with the stage presence of a young Dizzy Gillespie. The band was notable for its appeal to both seasoned jazz fans and a young audience that didn’t care what the music was called as long as they could dance to it. A chance meeting with Mark Samuels, whose fledgling local record company Basin Street had only a live record by trumpeter Kermit Ruffins in its catalog, led to Los Hombres Calientes’ first release and a career-long relationship between Mayfield and Samuels.

“I had read glowing reviews of the band,” recalls Samuels. “Irvin at that point was a cocky, talented musician with flair. When I first saw him play he was wearing a flashy red tail tuxedo jacket. He had stage presence. Those aspects of being cocky and colorful helped build his success. I think every musician who is talented is bound to have some cockiness to them. That aspect of his personality also allows him to gain support for his causes, whether it be the Jazz Orchestra or some of the nonprofits he works with.”

Early on, Mayfield saw his role as a musician encompassing something bigger than merely playing in bands-a calling inspired and encouraged by Wynton Marsalis. Mayfield lived with Marsalis in New York for a time during the late 1990s and saw his friend and mentor establish himself as a cultural entrepreneur who could sit down with mayors, wealthy benefactors and corporate sponsors and sell them on his ideas. When he returned to New Orleans Mayfield became involved in the civic and political life of the city, following Marsalis’ direction by founding the Institute of Jazz Culture at Dillard University and creating the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra (NOJO) in 2002. Mayfield immediately produced a major work with the orchestra, the powerful 2003 suite Strange Fruit, recorded with NOJO, the Dillard University choir and actor Wendell Pierce as narrator. “Lynch Mob,” an excerpt from the work, is part of the Love Letter compilation. In September of that year he was appointed Cultural Ambassador for the City of New Orleans.

Mayfield opened his first club, Ray’s Over the River, in 2005 at the top of the New Orleans World Trade Center building, but it was destroyed by hurricanes Katrina and Rita later that year. Even more tragic, Mayfield’s father, Irvin Mayfield Sr., was lost in the flood. It took nearly three months before his death was confirmed.

At first Mayfield wouldn’t talk about his father’s death in public. “It’s very hard to wrap your brain around,” he explains, “because it’s unexpected, it’s very serious and you’re also dealing with something that’s very visible. And during that time, while it’s so highly visible, people are looking for three or four sentences to talk about it on a news program, on a radio program or in their writing, so they’re looking for these sound bites that they can get from you, and you can’t sound-bite losing your dad as a victim of the storm. You can’t. And you can’t sound-bite supporting a bunch of musicians who are now all out of work. And you can’t sound-bite what it is to lose all your pictures from your family history. It’s very challenging, it’s very traumatic.

“But I knew my dad loved me,” he continues, “and that’s what you go back to, that’s what’s so important. I hear people talk about losing a loved one all the time. You go back to the love. I have a chapter in the book about being in Florence and visiting Michelangelo’s David and trying to explain what it was like. What it was like is the ability to love. That’s what we get from Louis Armstrong’s records. That’s what we get from Shakespeare’s words. It’s the aspiration to create love through your art. We try to come up with words to express it, and we might get close, but it’s never as powerful as the feeling of love you get from your dad. It’s difficult to get over it, especially when you can’t find the right words.”

Mayfield discusses how he grieved over his father’s death very directly. “I played,” he says. “That’s what we do here. When we lose somebody we play. We try to always remember those who’ve gone before us. That’s one of the great things about this city and the art that we create here. Jazz gives us an opportunity not just to hear those who are around and practicing the form now but it gives us the opportunity to have a conversation with those who’ve gone before us. It’s a unique art form in that sense. I think that’s one of the elements that make this city so special. I’ll never forget Sharon Scott, the visual artist, said that New Orleans is a place where if you walk the sidewalks and it’s quiet enough they’ll speak to you. I live in that kind of town.”

Mayfield’s career has taken a different trajectory since his father’s death. He’s spent less time releasing new records and more time developing his teaching, writing and arranging for his bands, and serving on public benefit projects. Los Hombres didn’t play together again after the flood until the band reunited early last year for a Haitian benefit concert at the House of Blues. The one new recording he did release with the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, Book One, won a Grammy in 2010 for Best Large Jazz Ensemble.

In 2008 Mayfield established the New Orleans Jazz Institute at UNO, where he teaches and runs a charter school program staffed by UNO graduate students. “Those kids are getting real hands-on instruction, a lot of instruction per student,” says Mayfield. “If you look at it from the industry standpoint, industry is a system. It’s a product; it’s the people using the product; it’s the people creating the product; it’s the people who package the product. So one of my responsibilities at the University of New Orleans is to be an example for the kids who graduate to have a real opportunity to understand what the jazz industry is, and take a look at what we’re doing right now inside of it at the Playhouse and the I Club.”

Mayfield extends those responsibilities outside of Louisiana as well. Also in 2008, he was named Artistic Director for the Minnesota Orchestra. Mayfield puts together a program of concerts each season and writes jazz pieces for the orchestra to perform. “I was commissioned to write a piece for a small-group jazz ensemble and 80-piece orchestra,” he says. “It’s called The Art of Passion. It was very successful and it still can be explored a little more. The difference between the European classical tradition and the jazz idiom is really that you have intent and execution. In jazz intent is first and in classical music execution is first. Of course, with the greatest musicians and composers intent and execution are at the same level.”

Inevitably, Mayfield sees all the programs he’s dealing with as opportunities for honest work. “People say, ‘It’s just music,’ but is it?” Mayfield asks. “Or is it hundreds and thousands of jobs? Is it opportunities to get people to be literate? Is it an opportunity to get folks to understand how to transform love into something else? Is that love so strong that it’s powerful enough to remake a city after the storm comes and we have the greatest engineering failure in the history of America? The people said, ‘No, this city is going to come back.’ It reminds us what it is about to be an American, in the sense that being an American means living a democratic life. And we really live a democratic life in this town. You get to be who you want to be when you want to be. We’ve got enough space for [singer and guitarist] Walter Wolfman Washington; we’ve got enough space for [vocalist] Germaine Bazzle. And they get to be who they are.

“The more beautiful experiences people have the better off they are,” concludes Mayfield. “Jazz can do that-jazz can take anybody’s life and give it a beautiful experience. Our job as artists is to create that, to inspire that, to create the environment for a beautiful experience. Our job is to connect people to beauty in their life.”

Originally Published