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Jazz, Love and Violence

In his composition Strange Fruit, Irvin Mayfield uses jazz to address interracial relationships, lynching and the almighty dollar.

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Irvin Mayfield has high musical hopes for his new composition, Strange Fruit. "Imagine Moses Hogan's chorus on top of the Duke Ellington Orchestra -- that's what I'm going for," explains Mayfield, who studied with the late choral genius Hogan.

This weekend, the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra and the Dillard University Concert Choir perform the premiere of Strange Fruit in two performances at Dillard University. The university is also presenting a lecture, "Lynching in its American Context," from 7 to 9 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 16, in Cook Auditorium. The lecture will be led by lynching-narrative expert Deborah Barnes from Western Michigan University's Walker Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnic Relations.

When finished, Strange Fruit will be a 500-page work, composed in three parts and nine movements. Earlier this month, rehearsals had begun, but the piece was still a work in progress. "Until you turn it in, it's not done," Mayfield says, with a trademark rise of the eyebrow.

It's a sunny afternoon, and the sun streams in through the blinds and onto the polished wood floors of Mayfield's Carrollton-area house. Opposite a Frenchy painting of Mayfield onstage is a framed poster of a work by famed Harlem Renaissance painter Jacob Lawrence. In the next room sits Mayfield's grand piano with a modernist chess set on top.

Mayfield has just wrapped up an intense business conversation conducted while pacing around the house with his cordless phone, whose batteries will no doubt run down long before the super-energetic Mayfield will.

Within the coming weeks, the U.S. State Department will officially name Mayfield a cultural ambassador, a role that comes with a stepped-up international schedule for Mayfield and his trumpet. At 25, this native New Orleanian has already released eight solo CDs and been nominated for a Grammy for his work with percussionist Bill Summers in Los Hombres Calientes. He has penned a program of sacred music for the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra, a tribute to photographer Gordon Parks for the New Orleans Museum of Art, and an original composition for his own quintet called How Passion Falls, recorded on the 2001 Basin Street CD of the same name. In December, he'll curate the music for the Words & Music festival (aka Faulkner Fest) and debut another full-length work of words and music, written with jazz and literary critic Stanley Crouch.

Last year, Mayfield was named director of Dillard University's newly formed Institute of Jazz Culture and the artistic director of its 21-piece jazz orchestra. This is the orchestra's first commission.

The institute came at a perfect time, says Mayfield. "Right now, we're surviving on the fumes of jazz," he says. "But what we have is so powerful that the fumes still outshine other places." What the town needed was something structured and new, he says, and the institute and its orchestra are ready to provide that.

Mayfield chose to write Strange Fruit after seeing dozens of lynching postcards in the nationally acclaimed Without Sanctuary exhibit. But a live musical performance can outshine a photo exhibit, he believes, because it's more of an interactive experience -- the audience is engaged through listening, dancing, clapping, and call-and-response.

To Mayfield, the community of New Orleans needed to be involved. Both performances are free (but with first-come, first-served seating), to encourage people from all walks of life, especially those who live "in the ghetto -- where jazz was created and where it still lives," he says.

Nearly a decade ago, Wynton Marsalis' Pulitzer Prize-winning jazz opera, Blood on the Fields, showed the importance of blues during slavery, says Mayfield. Strange Fruit carries on that tradition as a healing work, one that shows the way ahead. "People hang onto the blues -- they say, 'it will be better,'" he says. "Jazz is the answer to that. It gives you the way to move forward. Jazz is what that better is."

Strange Fruit chronicles a 1920s romance between a white woman and a black man. "Some people say, 'Those things happened so long ago.'" Not so, he says. "Today, we can talk about the death penalty -- whether or not you think that's lynching -- or we can talk about that man (James Byrd Jr.) being dragged from the truck in Texas."

Injustice can also be economic, which is why Mayfield wrote a scene in Strange Fruit where the lynching has been scheduled, the hotels are full, and then becomes clear that the man scheduled for lynching isn't guilty.

The lynch mob discusses it, and then the sheriff says, "Man, the governor's coming," -- so the lynching must go on. "The issue becomes much bigger than black and white," says Mayfield. "It becomes economic development versus self-worth and integrity."

Jazz is the perfect art form to address these topics, he says, since its structure is all about conflict resolution.

He explains that, in order to be a skilled jazz musician, you must always deal with what another musician is doing. "Everyone improvises, does their own thing," Mayfield says. "But to be successful, they have to do their own thing together."

"Right now, we're surviving on the fumes of jazz. - But what we have is so powerful that the fumes still - outshine other places," says trumpeter Irvin - Mayfield, whose composition Strange Fruit - is the Dillard jazz orchestra's debut commissioned - piece.
  • "Right now, we're surviving on the fumes of jazz. But what we have is so powerful that the fumes still outshine other places," says trumpeter Irvin Mayfield, whose composition Strange Fruit is the Dillard jazz orchestra's debut commissioned piece.

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