Offbeat April 2015
Irvin Mayfield debuts a new, permanent home for the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, a massive coffee table book and a slew of new recordings this month, just in time for French Quarter Fest, where NOJO performs a different program of music each day on the mainstage. He and his partner in crime Ron Markham gave me the rundown on their spate of new projects for Offbeat’s April cover.
Past a two-story wall of windows, up a wide set of wooden stairs, and set back from the concert stage at Irvin Mayfield’s newly christened New Orleans Jazz Market sits a room the trumpet player identifies as his office. There’s no desk in this office. No computer, no phone and no trumpet—just two places to sit and a chessboard. This is fitting enough, given the amount of strategizing that went into transforming an old Gator’s discount store into what Mayfield hopes will become a shining new beacon for jazz.
“Symbols matter,” says Mayfield on a Saturday afternoon in late January. Seated in the new office, he’s dressed in a navy blue T-shirt emblazoned with a fire department insignia—only instead of “NOFD,” the shirt bears the acronym for Mayfield’s New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, “NOJO.” He’s making a familiar argument to a reporter: New Orleans was “built on the DNA” of innovators like Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet and Danny Barker, he contends, but “we haven’t really embraced that.”
“I mean, there’s a problem here,” he says. “Have we really not built a monument for the one thing we built as a city?”
The Jazz Market, Mayfield hopes, is a step toward filling that void. He asserts that it’s the first concert space in New Orleans ever designed exclusively for jazz.
It’s certainly the most ambitious. Billed as NOJO’s permanent new home, the 340-seat theater is poised to elevate the local profile of the big band. Meanwhile, its acoustic and conceptual customization for jazz makes it a potential magnet for major touring acts. Plans are also in the works to give the Jazz Market a community space vibe. The latest phase of construction involves building technological assets like touch screens connected to the New York Public Library’s jazz archive, a “digital STEAM” education zone (a visual curriculum connecting science, technology, engineering, art and math), as well as Wi-Fi access in the foyer’s Bolden Bar area. Daytime programming targeted for senior citizens and a growing selection of music-related works of visual art round out the vision.
Ultimately, though, the Jazz Market is a form of brand extension for Mayfield—and that’s where the strategizing comes in. In conjunction with the venue’s opening—a ribbon-cutting celebration is planned for April 2—this month marks a large-scale push to launch NOJO and its trumpet-wielding artistic director onto a higher plane of visibility.
Leading up to the ticketed gala on April 24 where the Jazz Market makes its official debut, NOJO is slated to perform every day of French Quarter Fest, which runs April 9-12. The sets showcase a wide range of repertoire, including the music of Stevie Wonder, the Beatles and the Grateful Dead in one set, the music of Led Zeppelin, Nirvana and Queen in another set, and an entire day devoted to children’s music. The last day will focus on the New Orleans songbook.
“As a general rule, we try not to have duplicate performances by bands at French Quarter Fest,” said French Quarter Festivals Entertainment, Inc. Entertainment Manager Greg Schatz in an email. “Irvin proposed the idea of four shows and assured the entertainment committee that each performance would be a unique concert with a completely different program [featuring] different guest artists.”
Mayfield pitched the French Quarter Fest series as a celebration of his new venue, but he’s simultaneously celebrating the one he opened in 2009 at the Royal Sonesa Hotel on Bourbon Street.
On April 7, Basin Street Records releases “Irvin Mayfield: Jazz Playhouse,” a 304-page coffee table book devoted to the trumpeter’s venue of the same name at the Royal Sonesta. The hefty, photograph and design-heavy volume comes with a seven-CD box set culled from a week of live performances at the Playhouse featuring a smaller NOJO ensemble along with regular club guests like Don Vappie, Shannon Powell and James Rivers.
Both the book and the music that accompanies it are divided into sections based on the days of the week, highlighted by essays, lists and other musings about Mayfield’s sources of inspiration.
“The reason I did this,” he says, gesturing at a galley copy of the book he’s placed on the chessboard before him, “was because I knew this was coming.” He motions towards the Jazz Market stage outside his office door.
“I wanted to put that business, which is my personal business, in a really safe space and really say what that space was and what it was about. When I first started doing the CDs and looking at that, I started feeling that that space was a lot more than just the four walls in the Royal Sonesta… We live out these moments there,” he says.
Somewhat less romantically, he adds: “I wanted to really write about brand extension from a venue through music.”
Meanwhile, Mayfield is gearing up for the August 11 release of “Dee Dee’s Feathers” (Sony Music) a collaboration with Grammy and Tony award-winning vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater, who also serves as NOJO’s Honorary Chairperson and the namesake of the Jazz Market’s main stage.
Following a string of international tour dates with NOJO, Bridgewater will help program the Jazz Market’s inaugural fall season.
Having run through descriptions of the market, the book, the new music, the tour and the festival series, Mayfield leans back in a crisp white leather armchair.
“Did I mention the E-book? There’s an E-book, too,” he says, grinning like a mischievous kid.
“It’s a lot of shit.” The grin erupts into a giggle.
“The whole idea is that the Jazz Market is just a physical extension of what we have been doing. The CDs are the musical extension of what we’re doing. Then there’s the book extension,” Mayfield says. “Our work is about conveying truth, love and beauty—it’s a lot of stuff, but it’s really the same thing in different ways.”
Juggling multiple projects is hardly a new experience for Mayfield, who also helms a jazz education program (the New Orleans Jazz Institute at UNO) and sits on the boards of the Soledad O’Brien’s Starfish Foundation, the New Orleans African-American Museum and the Tulane School of Architecture, among others.
At times, his wide-ranging extra-curricular activities have raised questions about his methods and goals. As the newly-named chairman of the New Orleans Public Library system in 2008, he revamped budgets and staffing so drastically that the Times-Picayune ran a lengthy feature focused on the resignations, some of which were reportedly forced, that resulted from Mayfield’s leadership. (Writer David Hammer, Mayfield suggests, seemed bent on proving a musician had no place in library administration. “He’s doing investigative journalism on TV now,” Mayfield cracks, “and I think he’s enjoying that.”)
Asked why he feels the need to diversify the way he has, Mayfield says it’s a valid response to the music industry’s decline.
“If you saw Martha Stewart was on 12 boards, would you really be that shocked?” he asks. “You would expect she would be diversified.”
Some of his music-related ventures have faltered in recent years (the I Club at J.W. Marriott is now shuttered and the label Poorman Mayfield Music Group was scrapped last year). But there’s a palpable cohesion to his ventures these days.
Mayfield and his team also have the benefit of hindsight, having backed other recent jazz center proposals. In 2006, Mayfield, along with then-Lt. Governor Mitch Landrieu and Mayor Ray Nagin, publicly supported hotelier Laurence Geller’s plan to build a $716 million jazz park downtown along Loyola Avenue. By 2007, Geller seemed to blame everyone around him for the project’s lack of progress, telling a Reuters reporter, “New Orleans is a study in ineptitude at every level.” A revised, smaller-scale vision for the park also failed to get off the ground. Two years later, Mayfield backed a controversial proposal to renovate the Municipal Auditorium into an entertainment center featuring, among other things, a jazz museum and a permanent home for NOJO. Again, the plan failed to launch.
“We weren’t completely in charge of those projects, we were partners,” Mayfield says. “It wasn’t 100 percent our project like this from the cradle to the grave. We built it. We designed it. This was my vision. It wasn’t a shared vision with any other institutions.”
But he did have help. Mayfield is prone to speaking in broad strokes and superlatives—a fair mix given his dual roles as artistic director and businessman. Ronald Markham, the President and CEO of NOJO—and a pianist who has been Mayfield’s best friend since childhood—has a way of filling in the blanks.
Mayfield’s explanation of the orange accents in the new theater, for example, involves a recollection of the sunset-inspired color scheme in Wynton Marsalis’ home. Mayfield says he borrowed the sunset idea for NOJO’s logo because it reminded him of the brilliant colors over Lake Pontchartrain at nightfall.
Markham, once a mechanical engineering major at UNO, recalls that the pair spent about 100 hours planning the building’s design. He says he sent the Atlanta, Georgia-based architecture firm Kronberg Wall examples not only of arts centers they liked, but also arts centers they hated in order to be as clear and detailed as possible about their vision.
“The warm tones, that’s Irvin’s dream,” Markham said in a phone interview. “The glass, concrete, clean lines, the modernity? That’s me.”
Markham oversees the nuts and bolts of NOJO’s projects, including the financial aspects of buying and opening the Jazz Market.
“We had to figure out a lot of very new things in a short period of time,” he says.
He points out that NOJO was only established in 2002, making it a young organization.
“But even for the most experienced person, putting together the financing for a multi-million dollar project, buying the building, certifying all the tax credits, getting all that in place, then building it in 11 months is hard,” he says.
“We bought the building in August 2013. It was very risky to buy that building because you had to have site control before you sit down and talk to anyone about putting millions of dollars into a project.”
Prospective lenders wanted to know what made the Jazz Market project special.
“When the response was, ‘We have an opportunity to build the first high quality space for jazz in the city that created it … they said, ‘Absolutely,’” Markham recalls.
“Then our job is to take that and figure out just how far we can stretch it and just how many opportunities we can create for people around music.”
Markham closed on an estimated $10 million worth of major financing with Goldman Sachs on Christmas Eve 2013.
“If anything says how complicated a new market tax credit is, the fact that I had to sign 600 pieces of paper on Christmas Eve should say it,” he says, laughing.
They broke ground on the project at 1436 Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard in February 2014, by which time local realtors were already pitching the once bustling Central City corridor as New Orleans’ next big region for growth. Markham, who recalls playing piano at churches in the neighborhood with Mayfield when they were kids, was well aware that words like “gentrification” would come into play once they began developing the property.
“When I say, ‘I know that community,’ I’m not pandering,” he says. “I know pastors in the community. I used to play at Israelite. I played at Pure Light. I know all the guys over at New Home and New Hope. Same thing with Irvin.”
Markham and Mayfield both envision the venue as a way to bring new resources into the neighborhood, positing jazz as a fulcrum for community development. And because the project relied heavily on public money—particularly state historic tax credits and theater infrastructure tax credits—Markham points out the NOJO organization must deliver on its promises.
“Outside of music, we’re talking to partners about getting people in to do things like job fairs, a homework help center,” he says, adding that he’s working with the Jazz Market’s title sponsor, People’s Health, to bring a mobile health unit into the center. Discussions are also underway about hosting a farmer’s market, which would be a boon to one of the many neighborhoods in New Orleans where fresh produce is not readily available.
“The Jazz Market for us is a physical representation of the real power of this music to be a door opener.”
The plot of land at 1436 Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard represented the opening of doors long before NOJO got there. The venue’s name refers in part to the Dryades Market that once stood in its place on the corner of what were then Dryades and Melpomene Streets. The busy, two-building cluster of grocers and other vendors served a mostly black clientele, though shop owners there refused to hire black employees for jobs paying better than janitorial work.
As Adam Fairclough details in “Race & Democracy: The Civil Rights Struggle in Louisiana,” shoppers and civil rights activists (including future CORE leader Oretha Castle) banded together in 1960 and boycotted the stores that would not desegregate. Many stores closed, contributing to a generation of economic decline in Central City. But an estimated 30 jobs were created for black residents and similar boycotts followed in other parts of town. The protest is often cited as the first major Civil Rights action in New Orleans history.
On a Friday night in February half a century after that protest, a few hundred well-heeled philanthropists, arts administrators and local tastemakers took seats in an intimate theater space where vendors once sold meat, poultry and fish. NOJO had invited them to watch their first practice run on the stage, which opened with 15 minutes of stop-and-start bars of music as techs toyed with the adjustment of curtains and lobby doors to get the sound just right.
Once the room was tuned, the band launched into a high-energy concert, punctuated by a gut-rattling solo from saxophonist Ed “Sweetbread” Petersen, a warm and blues-drenched take on Stevie Wonder’s “The Life of Plants” and a stage-stomping rendition of Queen’s “We Will Rock You.”
It was the first time the entire orchestra had performed for an audience in their new home. They had just returned from a long tour, and as trombonist and NOJO Music Curator Emily Frederickson later recalled, seeing a New Orleans crowd respond to music they’d been playing for people across the country was “electric.”
More electrifying though, was to experience ensemble playing in a space created just for them. “It was the first time we were able to hear ourselves acoustically,” she marveled. “We weren’t used to hearing our own sound, which is strange and beautiful.”
Frederickson described the feeling it evoked as a mix of happiness and confusion. She was also proud, which is something her boss says he wants for all the musicians who perform in the new venue.
“If you can imagine New Orleans as a person, I’m just trying to help New Orleans feel good,” Mayfield says. “Because if New Orleans feels good, there are a lot more possibilities.”