On Nov. 17, 2005, when most of the population was struggling to get back home after Hurricane Katrina, jazz trumpeter Irvin Mayfield led the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra in a concert at the Episcopal Christ Church Cathedral on St. Charles Avenue. The 12-member orchestra had resumed its touring schedule despite the scattering of most of its members. The group's first home concert after the storm, "All the Saints," was commissioned by the church. Some 1,200 people packed the pews, hungry for a sense of hope. Mayfield cut a lithe figure onstage as he leaned toward the orchestra, like a reed in the wind. At other moments he assumed the crouch of the jazzman, knees half bent, like a fencer with a foil. Midway through the concert, as he hit upper register, people in the aisles were crying.
Moments like that, in the post-Katrina world, carry long memory. The night air was cold and dry; people bunched into the vestibule to stand because all the seats were taken; others spilled outside, down the steps. A spiritual need to be with others filled the cathedral and with it ran a palpable ache for the tearing human losses and battered areas of the city. The musical simulation of a funeral ceremony put mood and moment in balance.
The sense of urgency heightened when Mayfield said: "My father is still missing."
He gave few other details; he didn't have to. A current of sorrow charged the audience. Although the crowd was mostly white and upscale, everyone knew of people uprooted, missing or deceased. Mayfield announced a song for his father, "Just A Closer Walk With Thee," the most common dirge in brass bands' funeral repertoires. He unfurled the melody in layered passages, a warm vibrato turning cool as clarinetist Evan Christopher sent up a quavering line of sorrow in response, like a widow wailing to the preacher's voice on the horn. People in the pews shifted in place, fixated on the orchestra, comforting each other with hugs, fighting off tears.
The rocking applause at song's end subsided. Mayfield's authority over the room was utterly complete. Sounding more like a pastor or politician, he said simply: "If we don't believe in our city, nobody else will."
The orchestra launched into a new composition, "Ninth Ward Blues." The trumpeter's floating tones of melancholia segued into a jaunty jump that sent up a movement in the pews, the people caught in the exaltation of a second-line rhythm that suggested a glimpse of resurrection rising from the wreckage of the city. When the song was done, cheering broke out, the musicians took their bows, and the catharsis was complete.
The next day, Mayfield got news that his father's remains had been found near Elysian Fields, not far from the family home in Gentilly. His father's identity had been confirmed by DNA testing.
It is now a cool, mid-April morning in 2007. Mayfield sits in the writer's solarium, casual in a pair of running shoes, pale shorts, a windbreaker zipped to his neck, coffee mug in hand. He has come to talk about the orchestra, which will play at this year's Jazz Fest on Sunday (April 29) at 2:30 p.m. in the WWOZ Jazz Tent. Mayfield also performs with an ensemble on Friday night (April 27) at a $60-a-head venue in the Windsor Court.
Up close, the chiseled features and smooth tan skin resemble a young Harry Belafonte. Mayfield, who has done a string of CDs on Basin Street Records, puts in serious time with elected officials, CEOs and leaders of cultural institutions to generate support for the orchestra's $1.3 million operating budget. Gov. Kathleen Blanco and Mayor Ray Nagin appointed him Cultural Ambassador of New Orleans several years ago. To say that Mayfield has keen political instincts is like saying the sun rises in the East. He has to be a public figure to maintain support for the orchestra, which he considers "an image of the city, a symbol of who we were and what we can be."
Before Katrina, Nagin had committed $400,000 in city funds to help support the orchestra, a move that many artists took to heart. Since the flood, much of that funding has been curtailed because of the city's flood-damaged finances. "I don't blame the mayor for that -- the city was in a freefall," says Mayfield, who supported Nagin in his re-election bid last year at this time. Mayfield is quick to point out that he also counts Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu, who lost to Nagin in the runoff, as a friend. He says Landrieu, a gifted singer in his own right, has shed his political stress by singing with Mayfield in a private studio.
Besides a publicist for the orchestra, Mayfield has a full-time assistant who organizes his schedule and travels with him on the road. It has been 10 years since Mayfield dropped out of UNO, with his grades going south. At 29, he has come far professionally and is in a serious hurry to go farther.
"My parents got married after being together 25 years. My mom, Joyce Alsanders, is from Gentilly and Boscoville," he begins. "My mom is a school teacher at Lorraine Hansberry in the Upper Ninth. She teaches pre-K. My mother had three sons before (she married) my dad. I'm the youngest of five sons, and my half-sister is 12 1/2 years older. I'm named for my dad, Irvin Sr. He was from Seventh and Dryades. My grandmother lived in that house with us when I was growing up, from about age 4 to 10. ... The Elks parade began at the Elks Lodge around the corner from Dryades -- where the Mardi Gras Indians come out today. A big chief lived down the street."
The family ended up moving several times, first to Gentilly, followed by a "little stretch in the Ninth Ward." But, as Mayfield puts it, "Uptown is where I got a sense of the culture. I saw my first funeral and the majority of second lines Uptown. The smell of the bricks in the alleyways, guys playing chess and checker games outside, the old men standing on the corner -- I remember those scenes. I was in the fourth grade going to Holy Ghost School [on Louisiana Avenue] and my best friend Jeffrey Fazand was making straight A's. Jeff had a trumpet, and he had all the girls. I wanted that thing with the buttons on it. My dad said, 'If I get you that thing with the buttons, you are going to play it.' I said, 'Yessir.'"
He pauses at the memory. Light sifts through the blinds. His eyes fix on the bookshelf. "My dad was very disciplined. He was a drill sergeant in the Army and a boxer," he continues.
"As a kid I was reading a lot. My dad was very technical; what the words meant weren't as important to him as long as you read. My mom would illuminate the larger purpose of art. She was the inspiration, my dad was the facilitator. In the summers he would come up with various exercises, including making me write reports on the books I was reading. When I was 3, I had to read Goldilocks and the Three Bears. It was a pretty heavy book. When I was 8 or 9, he'd say, 'Go outside and write about the front of the house.' So I'd go out and write a description of the house. That stuff is pretty hard for a kid, when you think about it. I began to read voraciously."
He rattles off the authors whose works he has read in recent years: "Ellison, Hemingway, Faulkner, Yeats, Salmon Rushdie -- that guy really has something. And [the jazz critic and historian] Albert Murray, I got exposed to him when I lived in New York in my early twenties."
He segues back to his childhood. "So my dad gives me the horn in fourth grade and I start trying to blow. I can't get a sound. My dad had played trumpet in high school in the Walter L. Cohen band. He blew a note, and I got started. He happened to go to high school with Aaron Neville. What was so special to me about my dad is that he was an average New Orleanian. He worked at the post office 25 years. My dad was not a big jazz fan -- he liked jazz, but he loved R&B: Fats Domino, Tommy Ridgley, Irma Thomas, and he knew K-Doe. My dad was a talented, smart guy who grew up in New Orleans and played a little trumpet. That's what made him an average New Orleanian. My dad was a student of Valmore Victor."
An unsung shaper of New Orleans jazz, Valmore Victor taught music in Orleans Parish Public Schools from 1928 to 1953 at Lafon Elementary and later Ricard Elementary. Victor's students included Ellis Marsalis, bandleader Thomas Jefferson, Earl Turbinton and Sing Miller. In an interview years ago, Turbinton told me that Victor "had a house which must have had a thousand instruments; tuba, maybe 20 or 30 saxophones, 20 or 30 trumpets and trombones. You'd bring your mouthpiece and Professor Victor would say, 'Go in there and get an alto 'til you find the one that feels good to you. Play all these horns."
"It was highly unusual for African Americans to have a full-time music teacher," writes Al Kennedy in Chord Changes on the Chalkboard, a history of music in the public schools. "Under Professor Victor, Lafon put together what must have been one of the first elementary public school marching bands, which played for funerals and community events. ... Victor was the first person to point out to students that the same elements that prevailed in jazz could also be heard in much of the church music."
"The first song I played was 'Just A Closer Walk With Thee,'" says Mayfield. "My dad played the song in church even though he wasn't a big jazz guy."
Mayfield played the hymn in the first funeral in which he marched, which began in a Baptist church. "A Reverend Trost had died. He was a huge preacher on the West Bank. I must have been about 10. The Algiers Brass Band was playing under Ruddley Thibodeaux. I remember the waiting around. They let you know the casket was coming out and you started playing 'What A Friend We Have in Jesus,' walking in the slow steps. It was hot, and my dad was right there, looking at me. We moved into 'Bye and Bye' ... we were still playing church songs. And then we got to the Fischer Project and let out 'Didn't He Ramble.' The Algiers Brass Band would never do songs like 'Do Whatcha Wanna' or 'Ain't Got No Food Stamps.'"
Mayfield came of age playing the traditional repertoire of the street bands -- a line of songs stretching back to the 1920s. This was in the late 1980s, when ReBirth Brass Band cut an influential groove with circular rhythms and hypnotic wailing in "Do Whatcha Wanna." ReBirth was getting started in Trm as Mayfield was learning his licks with the Algiers band. The stylistic signatures of the two bands are as different as sunset and dawn. Algiers plays the traditional idiom with a premium on melody, ReBirth rolls with a funk-driven rhythmic sound shaped by section-riffing on the horns.
Learning the traditional songs with the Algiers band was a cornerstone of Mayfield's musical education. "My dad used to say, 'You gotta pay your dues.'"
Mayfield paid his dues with Algiers Brass Band and as an organist in the Greater Providence Baptist Church on Newton Street in Algiers. Except for the short time he attended Holy Ghost, Mayfield says, "I am a product of New Orleans public schools" -- Audubon Montessori, Bradley Elementary, Gregory Junior High and Kennedy High School.
At Audubon, he befriended Jason Marsalis, the youngest of the music-making brothers. Mayfield drew close to his family as he sailed through NOCCA under the jazz tutelage of Clyde Kerr Jr. At graduation he won a scholarship to Juilliard School of Music in New York. Ellis Marsalis, who was in charge of the jazz studies program at UNO, advised him otherwise: "Come to UNO and figure out what you want to do."
"UNO was an opportunity for Irvin to utilize the skills he had developed without having to deal with the pressures he would have faced at Juilliard, where you're up against some of the best [young musicians] in the country," Marsalis told Gambit Weekly. The jazz professor felt that Mayfield needed more maturing. Mayfield took his advice; although he thrived on the big band courses, he was spending so much time playing jazz in the city that the appeal of classes dimmed. He quit UNO after three semesters.
"The demands of hours and credits and the major emphasis on graduating can be a deterrent for someone who knows what he wants to do and can't match the two," says Marsalis. Of his five sons who attended college, only two earned degrees. "The university has a tendency to stifle the imaginations of people who understand what they want to do and don't really need credentials."
In the fall of 1997, when Mayfield was 18, he got a chance to perform in New York. He telephoned Wynton Marsalis, asking for a place to crash, and to his surprise, Wynton said yes. "I wanted to get some immediate questions answered about jazz and how I should I think about life, music, a career," Mayfield explains.
Marsalis by then had won nine Grammys, been featured on the cover of Time and was soon to win the first Pulitzer Prize for Jazz. "He was subletting a place on Central Park West -- three bedrooms, it was big," recalls Mayfield. Irvin ended up staying three years. "With all artists who get to be a part of the continuum of an art form, someone has to give you a part, through mentorship or collaboration. For Wynton, it was playing with Art Blakey. For me, it was living with a master of the music, as an apprentice."
By then, Mayfield had read Albert Murray's Stomping the Blues, a classic of jazz history. Murray, a distinguished critic and novelist, had a long friendship with Ralph Ellison. He lived in Harlem and became an intellectual guide for Marsalis. Murray, in Mayfield's words, "was the mind behind the entire return to acoustic jazz music in the 1980s. ... The first thing you notice about Albert Murray is the books, thousands of them. And he's read them all."
The exposure to Murray, says Mayfield, got him "grappling with larger questions, like, what is the art about?" Through Marsalis, he got to know Quincy Jones, Harry Connick Jr., recording officials and people like film director Spike Lee, who dropped by Marsalis' apartment.
"The most amazing thing about living with Wynton is that he wears jeans and T-shirts -- no limo," continues Mayfield. "You don't see money problems, but you don't see him splurging. The main things he has are books, CDs ... and art. That's his apartment."
Mayfield made visits back home in those years. One thing he noticed was that musicians in New Orleans had more outlets to perform than in New York, where there was a huge media world, but unless you had a record deal and some publicity behind you, a jazz musician "could just as easily be waiting tables to make ends meet."
In 2000, after signing a contract with Basin Street Records to record Los Hombres Calientes with percussionists Bill Summers and Jason Marsalis, Mayfield decided to return to New Orleans. Having studied the way Marsalis put together the Jazz At Lincoln Center program, Mayfield wanted to create an infrastructure for jazz in New Orleans. "When I was in New York, you never heard anything about New Orleans. It was not a part of the national conversation about jazz. I wanted to put New Orleans in that conversation."
Seven years later, after many tours and recordings, the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra has fulfilled at least part of that ambition. "You can thank Ellis (Marsalis) for this orchestra," says Mayfield. "He said, 'The academy for musicians should be like coaches -- everybody gets to play.'" The orchestra functions as a team.
The evacuation for Hurricane Katrina was underway when Mayfield left Indianapolis after a concert, his plane rerouted to Baton Rouge. There he was united with his mother and various family members. Irvin Sr. stayed behind at the family home in Gentilly. They spoke briefly by cell phone before the storm hit.
After the flood, Mayfield got into New Orleans with Wynton and an ABC 20/20 crew, trying to get to the house; the flooded streets were impassable. As the waters slowly receded, he learned through then-Police Chief Eddie Compass that the house had been searched and was empty. Later, he went into the attic and found the leavings of peanut butter, which his father had eaten to stay alive.
"A woman later told me she had evacuated him in a boat to Brother Martin [High School] with other people," he continues. "But there was no food there. They were just bringing people there. I believe when the situation turned bad, he decided to walk to higher ground. None of these people knew that the levees had broken. They just assumed they could walk out of the flood. A man 64 years old with high blood pressure. He knew how to swim, but how long can anyone last in that kind of water?"
The memorial ceremony was held at Greater Providence Baptist Church in Algiers, where his father had gotten Irvin to play "Just A Closer Walk With Thee" for the first time. He played the hymn at the ceremony. Since then, he explains, "I have retired the song. I no longer play it. It became a sensation after 'All the Saints,' so many people asking for it. Playing that song, I felt the message was too much about sadness and demise, and doing a disservice not only to him but also to other victims of the hurricane, and the city itself. The funeral portion of New Orleans is over. I'm looking for the rebuild and resurrection."
Jason Berry, author of the novel Last of the Red Hot Poppas, will sign copies in the Book Tent at Jazz Fest on from 5 p.m.-6 p.m. Friday, April 27.
- Cheryl Gerber
"When I was in New York, you never heard anything about New Orleans. It was not a part of the national conversation about jazz. I wanted to put New Orleans in that conversation."
Irvin Mayfield, musician and founder of the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra
- The first time the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra performed in the city post-Katrina, in mid-November 2005, some 1,200 people packed the church and spilled onto the sidewalk to listen and to share a sense of hope with fellow townspeople.
- Cheryl Gerber
- Irvin Mayfield put together NOJO to give musicians a team to play on and jazz an infrastructure in the city.
- Irvin Mayfield conducts the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra.