Irvin Mayfield: For Love or Money?

22 11 2015
Irvin Mayfield. (Photo: Erika Goldring for Jazz Times)

Irvin Mayfield. (Photo: Erika Goldring for Jazz Times)

JAZZ TIMES, NOV. 22, 2015:

At the first-ever performance at the Peoples Health New Orleans Jazz Market, the sleek new theater that will serve as the permanent home for Irvin Mayfield’s New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, the bandleader grinned and told jokes. He praised the legacies of musicians like Buddy Bolden and Louis Armstrong, then smiled broadly as soloists channeled their styles. He kept the vibe upbeat, lacing songs with humorous flourishes like the long, playful licks he eked out of a plunger mute.

The Grammy-winning trumpeter, 37, had plenty to smile about on that night in March. In addition to previewing the soon-to-be opened venue, he was about to release New Orleans Jazz Playhouse (Basin Street), a lush, 304-page coffee-table book featuring photos by Herman Leonard and Gordon Parks, essays about the various muses that inspire Mayfield, and seven CDs of music recorded over nine days at Mayfield’s club in the Royal Sonesta Hotel. He had also completed recording Dee Dee’s Feathers(OKeh), a collaborative effort that showcases what Mayfield has described as “New Orleans through the lens of Dee Dee Bridgewater.”

That spring evening, however, Mayfield was focused on the $9.6 million venue he and his business partner, Ronald Markham, were busily preparing to open in the following month.

Conceived as a mixed-use concert hall and community center, the polished and modern space boasts a 360-seat theater with crisp acoustics designed specifically for the presentation of jazz. In the building’s front lobby, what Markham described to me as “a non-profit bar owned by NOJO” provides a space for casual jazz performances plus coffee, cocktails, free Wi-Fi and various community programs. “This is a public space which we’re partnering with the Public Library Foundation [on] to provide a satellite location for residents here, kind of as a storefront branch of the public library,” Mayfield said in late January, as he breezed through the building’s sunlight-drenched foyer during an interview for a local music magazine. At the time, that partnership was key to the project’s community-center angle.

The Jazz Market had been heralded as a public library resource where residents of the surrounding Central City neighborhood could access the library system’s jazz holdings through a digital archive. Mayfield led me to a section of walls to the right of the bar where he said interactive touch screens would provide access to information about jazz artists and jazz-related city library books. A book return was also in the works, as well as a special library-card sign-up for visitors.

He went on to describe plans for the Jazz Market to house a copy of the first jazz coverage in New Orleans’ Times-Picayune—“even though it was a shitty review,” he quipped. A few months later, however, it was not jazz but Mayfield who found himself at the center of a firestorm of negative press.

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A celebrated cultural ambassador for the city with a history of advocacy and fundraising work within the library system, Mayfield seemed like the perfect candidate to bring jazz, education and library access to an underserved community. Doing so through a multiuse Jazz Market seemed like a creative approach to utilizing real-estate tax credits while providing a boon for local libraries, musicians, jazz fans and residents. And it may well have been.

But on May 5, two days after the end of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, WWL-TV reported that Mayfield had funneled at least $863,000 from the New Orleans Public Library Foundation to the Jazz Market. “Public records show that in 2012, the library’s foundation gave the city’s cash-strapped public library system $116,775, a typical annual gift from the earnings off its $3.5 million endowment,” wrote WWL reporter David Hammer. “But that same year, the foundation also gave $666,000 to the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra for the $10 million New Orleans Jazz Market that ended up opening with fanfare in Central City just last month. And in 2013, the library foundation gave the Jazz Orchestra, or NOJO, $197,000 more.”

Both the New Orleans Public Library and the Library Foundation, a private nonprofit created to raise funds to support the library, had long maintained high-profile relationships with Mayfield. The trumpeter served on the boards of both groups from 2007 to 2011, following a controversial appointment by former Mayor Ray Nagin. In 2011, Mayfield gave up his role as chair of the Public Library board after it was determined that board members should not serve on both committees simultaneously. Mayfield retained his seat on the Library Foundation board until this year.

WWL’s report went on to note that Mayfield and Ronald Markham, the CEO of the Jazz Orchestra and Mayfield’s friend since high school, earn six-figure salaries from the non-profit Jazz Orchestra. “[Mayfield and Markham] were also two of the five members of the Library Foundation board when it gave the majority of its grant money that year to the Jazz Market project,” Hammer wrote. “In 2012, NOJO reported paying two salaries: $148,050 to Mayfield and $100,000 to Markham. It also paid $109,441 to Mayfield’s publishing company for ‘concert productions.’”

Finally, Hammer reported that the then five-person Library Foundation board made two important changes in 2012 when they rewrote the organization’s bylaws. First, they decided that going forward the organization would raise funds to support “literacy and community organizations” as well as library needs. They also effectively handed the power of the foundation’s purse over to Mayfield.

The board “resolved to grant powers specifically to Mayfield to ‘sign any and all acts, agreements, contracts, and documents that he deems fit and appropriate, all containing such terms and provisions as he, in his sole and uncontrolled discretion, deems necessary,’” Hammer reported. It didn’t help that the story broke days after New Orleans residents voted to increase local property tax for the benefit of the library system.

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While Mayfield declined to speak to WWL regarding the allegations, Markham told the station that he had been upfront about the use of all funds on his tax forms, adding that all of the money had gone toward the market, not to anyone’s salaries. Mayfield gave up his position on the Library Foundation board in late April; Markham did the same in May. But the resignations did little to dam the flood of fallout sparked by the report.

New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu released a statement urging, among other things, NOJO to return the money and the city library to separate itself from the orchestra. In a statement released on May 12, NOJO said it would return the money but implied there had been no wrongdoing. “NOJO and its Board of Directors are disappointed in misperceptions about the appropriateness of a relationship between a public library and a musical heritage, cultural and performing arts center,” the statement began. “However, it is critical to our board and to our artists to remedy any misperceptions and we unanimously chose to aggressively move forward today, return the dollars from the library foundation and immediately refocus on our mission to put jazz musicians to work, celebrate our culture, and travel the world promoting New Orleans and performing jazz music.

“Despite returning the dollars to the library foundation, NOJO, its artists and its Board of Directors remain committed to providing unique access to books, archival materials, recordings, digital media and Internet that teaches our musical history and cultural heritage around the jazz art form to which our city gave birth.”

Speaking to WWL, Markham maintained that the idea to use library money for a satellite library setup in the Jazz Market was not duplicitous but rather “a forward-thinking and aggressive way to expand the footprint of the actual public library system, at no cost to the public.” Markham did not respond to JazzTimes’ requests for comment, but when I last interviewed him he cast the library-Jazz Market connection in similarly “forward-thinking” terms.

First, Markham cited the dearth of library services in Central City, a neighborhood long plagued by crime and blight that’s recently started showing signs of gentrification. He also pointed out that the market’s expansive programming “is an incredible way to reach all parts of the community” that could potentially help “open doors” in people’s lives while expanding the audience for jazz. “Innovation being at the center of what we do at the Jazz Market,” Markham said, “if I can feed the whole individual by giving them culture and then giving them some other tools to assist them in living a fuller life, then we’ve done our jobs as a jazz orchestra and jazz market.”

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Mayfield and Markham’s approach to community and library programming could still provide a great resource for the city. That will depend, however, on the results of a federal investigation into NOJO and the legality of diverting $863,000 away from the cause donors to the Library Foundation believed that they were supporting.

While WWL has led the charge in covering the scandal, it was New Orleans watchdog group the Metropolitan Crime Commission that first brought the situation to light by reporting it to federal officials. “Some time ago we received some information from people alleging that while Mr. Mayfield and Mr. Markham were on the board of the New Orleans Library Foundation, they were directing money donors gave to the foundation for the library system … to the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra,” attorney and Crime Commission President Rafael C. Goyeneche told JazzTimes.

He added that the Library Foundation requires board members to disclose potential conflicts of interest and abstain from votes in such situations. Describing the commission’s standard process, Goyeneche said when his team uncovers information about potential corruption, they generally pass it along “to a proper law enforcement agency that has the authority to conduct a review.” He confirmed that he had done just that with the information about Mayfield and Markham, and that the matter remains under investigation.

Goyeneche added that the investigation should uncover “whether any laws were violated and whether the money was inappropriately diverted to the jazz orchestra.” In the meantime, Mayfield and Markham are conducting their own “thorough, independent investigation” into the matter, according to a representative for NOJO who stressed that her clients could not comment on the Jazz Market until the investigation was complete.

In the meantime, programming continued to expand at the Jazz Market ahead of the fall season, when the orchestra and other artists are expected to begin performing with some regularity in the Jazz Market’s main space.

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On a Friday night in July, members of local ensemble the Trumpet Mafia performed their regular weekly set in
the Bolden Bar before a handful of patrons—a typical-size crowd for low-key jazz on a quiet and hot summer night in New Orleans.

A crate of records sat next to a turntable on the bar, left over from that day’s “Miles Davis’ Living Room” program. The recurring event invites guests to test-drive jazz albums, use the free Wi-Fi and enjoy coffee or cocktails at the bar. In the space intended to hold interactive monitors displaying digital jazz archive information, jazz-related books for adults and children had been displayed against the walls, separated by a table where visitors could sit and peruse them.

The next night, banjoist and singer Don Vappie—who contributed an expectedly lighthearted and fun rendition of “Buddy Bolden’s Blues” to the New Orleans Jazz Playhouse CD set—delivered a solo performance in the Bolden Bar. Other performers in July included New Orleans-based piano and organ player Joe Ashlar performing music from the Great American Songbook and pianist Oscar Rossignoli, who focused on Duke Ellington material.

Markham’s hope to expand the Jazz Market’s offerings beyond jazz and literacy was also starting to take shape, courtesy of wellness-related panels and free exercise programs sponsored by the insurance agency Peoples Health. Finally, Harlem’s Apollo Theater, which announced a NOJO and Jazz Market partnership in April, was in the process of developing programs to that end. While nothing was set in stone for the market in July, the theater’s executive producer Mikki Shepard said she and her team hoped to present an “Apollo Music Café,” curated by Mayfield, at the New Orleans venue.

Shepard had also lined up a weekend’s worth of activities at the Apollo on Oct. 30 and 31, pegged to the New York premiere of Dee Dee’s Feathers. In addition to performances by Mayfield, NOJO and Bridgewater, and the New Orleans-based Brass-A-Holics, the Apollo-NOJO team expected to host “a jam-inspired set” featuring young female vocalists curated by Bridgewater.

Shepard went on to describe her working relationship with Mayfield and Markham in glowing terms. Comparing the Apollo and Jazz Market’s shared goals of supporting emerging artists and building a younger, more diverse audience for jazz, she called NOJO “natural partners.” “Partnerships can be challenging, but not so in this case. We have a great working relationship with Irvin and Ron and we see so many possibilities and advantages to this relationship for both organizations,” Shepard said. “We respect and admire Irvin’s artistry and the way in which he continues to push the boundaries of jazz forward and innovate within the genre.”

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The Jazz Market’s relationship with the library is less clear-cut. Asked if the digital archive, monitors and other library amenities would still be installed in the Jazz Market, Library Foundation Board President Bob Brown said in an email that it was too early to know for sure. “The Library Foundation is in the midst of compiling and verifying all of the information related to contributions from the foundation to the Jazz Market and the use of those funds,” he wrote. “That will take at least a few more weeks. It would be premature to comment on this at this time.”

Meanwhile, Mayfield and NOJO’s programming director, Stephanie Mayne, both resigned from their positions at the University of New Orleans, where Mayfield taught a music class, a humanities class and ran the New Orleans Jazz Institute. Their resignations were announced in August. As for the future of the Institute, UNO music department chair Charles Taylor told JazzTimes that no decision had been made. “The future of the Jazz Institute is under discussion; the situation is giving us the opportunity to reassess the role of the Jazz Institute in the university and how best to incorporate it into our programs,” he wrote in an email. Taylor said he was not involved in the process of Mayfield’s resignation and therefore could not comment on why he left; however, WWL reported both Mayfield and Mayne stepped down due to “scheduling conflicts,” citing a statement from NOJO spokesperson Malcolm Ehrhardt. Shortly before the announcement, WWL reported NOJO had used part of a $125,000 grant to pay its own musicians for two concerts. The money was reportedly awarded to Mayfield’s organization for its assistance in putting together the opening of New Orleans’ Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Performing Arts.

Just before press time, two nights of NOJO music were announced for the Jazz Market in late October, a Jelly Roll Morton program with the ironic title “Truth, Lies & Gossip.” During the summer, Mayfield repeatedly declined to speak to press about the allegations against him as the federal investigation continued. But back in January, Mayfield said he and Markham hoped the Jazz Market would be the beginning of a larger foray into real estate. “We still want to build a $150 million, what I would call a ‘jazztarium,’” Mayfield mused at the time. “Like our chairman Ron Forman has done with all of his wonderful nature builds. I reference those to put into perspective what this project was. We didn’t see it as kind of like the end-all, be-all last building project that we will ever do. We see this as the first very important step in its mission to be a community space and really make a difference in this neighborhood and give the musicians a place to play.”

For that to happen, NOJO will need to follow through on its promise to return $863,000 to the Library Foundation. Mayfield will also need to come out of the federal investigation without being found guilty of breaking any laws. The stakes are a bit higher given NOJO’s nonprofit status, as the Nonprofit Risk Management Center recently reported an increase in the number of nonprofit organizations being stripped of their tax exemptions.

“Our mission statement at NOJO,” Mayfield said in January, “is the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra creates jazz to enhance life, transform place and elevate spirit through the tenets of truth, love and beauty.”

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