Jun 12, 2010
A Golden Trumpet and a Midas Touch
There was a time when accomplished jazz trumpeter Irvin Mayfield served as a spokesman for the city of New Orleans, as he was formally appointed the Cultural Ambassador of New Orleans to provide his expertise in articulating the history and significance of jazz and of the arts.
by Craig Cortello
There was a time when accomplished jazz trumpeter Irvin Mayfield served as a spokesman for the city of New Orleans, as he was formally appointed the Cultural Ambassador of New Orleans to provide his expertise in articulating the history and significance of jazz and of the arts. With a consistent record of accomplishment and success in the world of music and beyond, Mayfield’s counsel is now being sought on a national level, and his success can only shine a brighter light on the richness of the Crescent City.
Mayfield was recently appointed to the National Council on the Arts for a six-year term. The Council is the advisory body of the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA). The opportunity to have the President’s ear and to affect policy and resources on a national scale will allow Mayfield to discuss the unique elements of New Orleans culture as a model for other cities. In particular, an NEA leadership initiative known as The Mayors’ Institute on City Design will allow Council members to advise mayors in effective urban design.
“We need to take a serious look at what being educated really means. The mandate has to be across the board that in New Orleans, every kid is going to know the sound of Louis Armstrong’s trumpet and the recipes of Leah Chase. Those things are not less important than what Hemingway wrote. A dish, a word, and a sound are equals. This city brings about economic opportunity through the combination of those things.
“If you’re going to really change America and stop the growth of American cultural ignorance, the Mayor’s Institute is a great way to do it, because with the mayors, you can get right down to the level of people that are doing things every day. When you’re talking about cities, you’re talking about folks who are living right in the neighborhood. You don’t live in a state. You live in a neighborhood. That’s where a lot of the opportunity lies.”
The uniqueness of New Orleans, as Mayfield expressed, begins with its “not so ordinary” citizens.
“Everybody here has a unique life. No one here is allowed to go off in a corner and just die. Here in New Orleans, people care about the shoeshine guy. They care about what he used to do. They know his mother. He’s not just the shoeshine guy. He’s the Mardi Gras Indian. He also may do some landscaping on the side, and he also makes the best pot of red beans. Everybody’s got a very unique, individual story here.
“Even those who are not from here can come here and become that. There are guys who come from England and become a unique New Orleans personality.”
As this city moves forward and we begin to put the Hurricane Katrina experience behind us, Mayfield finds that hard work and community service are the best forms of catharsis. He serves in various capacities and on boards that serve causes such as homelessness, literacy, mental health, redevelopment, justice, and of course, the arts.
“I believe the work that I do is a part of the rebuilding process—playing music and the work that we do with the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra (NOJO)—serving on various boards.”
And that hard work has been rewarded, as Mayfield has put together an impressive string of successes, both from an artistic and an entrepreneurial standpoint. The man with the golden horn seems to have the Midas touch. The partnership that he established with the Royal Sonesta Hotel launched Irvin Mayfield’s Jazz Playhouse, now the leading employer of musicians among music clubs in the city. The lineup of musicians is first class, and the club has re-established a Bourbon Street hub for great jazz.
Mayfield has succeeded in creating the formula that can sometimes be elusive in the jazz world, the marriage of artistic and commercial success. “Authentic, high-quality, artistic offerings, financially stable and successful,” Mayfield stated as the vision of the Jazz Playhouse. “You bring those two things together, and that’s every great music venture. We’ve been able to do that for the first year and a half.”
His new record label, Poorman Mayfield, has signed local musical sensation Amanda Shaw as the inaugural artist. Good Southern Girl, Shaw’s debut album on the label and fourth overall was the top seller at Jazz Fest 2010 amidst impressive competition and a recent “Pick of the Week” selection by USA Today.
“It’s not a jazz label. It’s a music label,” Mayfield clarified. “Amanda is a young prodigy. Great songwriter, has a clear vision. She’s a soon-to-be icon. We’re really lucky to have her in what we call ‘The House that Amanda Built.’
“We’re really looking to have good partners in that business and to be able to invest in music,” he explained. “That’s the big story for the label. We’re spending money on artists—directly to them to do the records, and on infrastructure around them to make successful music. I can guarantee you that we’re one of the few labels that are still doing that.”
Mayfield’s pride in nurturing emerging musical talent is evident. When I asked his thoughts on Ms. Johnaye Kendrick, a graduate of the first Loyola University of New Orleans-based class of the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Performance and a guest vocalist on the NOJO Grammy-winning album Book One, Mayfield’s response was emphatic and concise.
“She is THE best jazz singer of her generation, at this time, in my opinion. So I think the future is very bright for her,” he said.
Though Mayfield’s career and accomplishments need no validation, he takes pride in the Grammy win for its significance to the city of New Orleans and as a reward for the efforts of the musicians involved.
“I think the Grammy was tremendous for the institution,” he said. “To receive that honor for the NOJO for the first recording—knowing the guys had put so much sweat equity into the touring and the music. I might have written the music, but they make the music come to life. It is a big honor for me to see them recognized.
“When the NOJO won a Grammy it was like when the Saints won the Super Bowl. Everybody in the city wins. The city has taken ownership of it. I hear a lot of people say ‘The Saints win the Super Bowl. New Orleans wins a Grammy. This is a great year for New Orleans.’”
I was intrigued by the song from Book One, entitled “In Love All Over Again” and Mayfield’s elaboration on the concept of the song provides insight into his work ethic, his philosophy, his passion for all of his endeavors, and his success.
“Relationships of all kinds have two sides—romantic and technical,” he explained. “It could be music. It could be marriage. It could be your kids. It could be your job. A lot of times people do things because of the romantic experience. I want to be a doctor. I think it would be fun to be a musician. I would like to live in the city of New Orleans. I want to be mayor. I want to be on this board. I want to teach at a university.
“Then the technical thing starts. Okay, I want to play music. Before you can play this instrument, you need to sit around 10,000 hours before you can really produce this kind of sound. What happens is that the technical experience robs you of the romantic experience. In order to get past that, you must truly love it. Because when you love that entire experience, you love the whole process. A person that loves a car loves the car when it’s working and when it breaks down because they love to fix it—they love every aspect of it. It’s like a mother and a child—she loves the child even when everybody else says this guy isn’t worth anything. Mom steps up and still sees the opportunity and the value—that the person still wants to become something and be somebody.
“In this city, the people who have been here for five years really love this city. Why? Because they’ve dealt with FEMA, they’ve dealt with the government, they’ve dealt with the city, they’ve dealt with the state, they’ve dealt with their house, they’ve dealt with their neighbors, they’ve dealt with the things that don’t work, and they’ve dealt with the beautiful things that work, too.
“Jazz is interesting because you find a lot of jazz musicians who become jaded or fall out of love with this music. But they have this moment. A lot of times I hear from musicians that they heard a recording and they remember why they wanted to play this music all over again.
“That song (“In Love All Over Again”) is about what it takes to be committed to anything. To be committed to anything, you’ve got to fall in love with it every day.
“For different reasons, for the same reasons—that’s the commitment that’s required to succeed at something.”
Fresh from the success of Book One, the NOJO moves ahead with an upcoming tour that will culminate in a Carnegie Hall performance. On the day that I visited, the band was rehearsing Mayfield’s most recently commissioned piece that will be featured on the tour, Elysian Fields Jazz Suite.
“Every piece of music that I write for this band is all about playing for people who don’t know anything about jazz,” Mayfield explained. “You don’t have to know anything about jazz to know you’re seeing something exceptional. All of the audiences have fallen in love with the music because we get to teach them what the music is about.
“When these guys play, you never know what’s going to happen. I think that’s the inherent beauty of New Orleans. That’s the inherent beauty of jazz—the unexpected. The unexpected, but with parameters – —with expectations of success. We try to do that in as many different ways for each instrument.”
Mayfield expressed the power of the people of New Orleans in facilitating positive change, as we move forward to a historic anniversary of the Crescent City.
“What New Orleans needs more than leadership is advocacy,” he stated. “That’s what we’ve been missing. That’s where there’s a large void. By 2018 when we get to our 300th anniversary as a city, how do we get more people advocating for the things that are really important.”
As we concluded, he couldn’t resist a quip only appropriate from one member of the short list of Grammy-winning New Orleans jazz artists and acclaimed ambassadors of the city to another.
When I asked for his closing thoughts, he simply replied, “Tell Wynton Marsalis to work on his chess game.”