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Irvin Mayfield: Hombre of Hot Music and Vital Education

By Published: August 30, 2004

Jazz is the most democratic music. It's the manifestation of democracy into music. —Irvin Mayfield

For a young trumpet player, New Orleans native son Irvin Mayfield is a busy man, yet in a particularly interesting way. He performs in a variety of groups, which isn't out of the ordinary for a working musician these days. But he also serves—with great pleasure, mind you—as a cultural ambassador, not only for his city, but for jazz music.

Mayfield, 27, believes in the art form he learned in the Big Easy, and he isn't afraid to put his time and effort where his mouth is.

"We allow so much bullshit to go on" in the music industry and the music scene, he says, sounding not unlike one of his mentors, fellow New Orleans trumpeter Wynton Marsalis. Musicians, he adds, need to "stand together" and work to change the perception of jazz and the perpetuation of good music, versus much of what passes for "music" today on the radio, on TV and in stores.

Mayfield's commitment to music is documented in his recordings with Los Hombres Calientes, which he co-leads with Bill Summers, and with his own groups. Last year, he recorded Los Hombres Calientes, Vol. 4: Vodou Dance with Summers and company, as well as Half Past Autumn Suite with Gordon Parks, a pianist whose other contribution to art—photography—inspired the Mayfield-penned songs on the disk. A DVD, Los Hombres Calientes—Live came out this year and shows a steaming performance at the New Orleans House of Blues in March of 2003. The next Los Hombres CD, due out in January, titled Carnival will be "the most adventurous recording we've ever done.... A lot of artists say that, but this album really is—by light years—our best" with better band chemistry and deep investigation into the authenticity of the Afro-Latin roots of music, he says.

But he is also founder of the Institute of Jazz Culture at Dillard University and founder of the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, a non-profit institution that performs and educates. He calls the 16-piece orchestra "the most significant jazz institution in the south right now" and dedicates most of his time to its activities.

Last year, Mayfield was named cultural ambassador for New Orleans by the U.S. Senate, the U.S. House of Representatives, the governor's office of Louisiana, the Louisiana State Representatives, the Louisiana State Senate, the New Orleans City Council and the New Orleans Aviation Board. So his plate is full. And that's how he likes it. "I've never taken a vacation, just out of gratitude. I'm gracious to have the opportunity to be out here," he says. "To be from a city with such richness as New Orleans and the state of Louisiana, and to be the spokesman for that culture is a great thing."

"I get to go to a lot of places representing arts and culture," he says, contending that his presentation "shows the arts as a creative industry in Louisiana... part of the whole industrial development package." These presentations are not for musicians, but in front of CEOs, economic development officials, politicians and the like, and Mayfield presents the arts "as an economic driver."

"If you look at where businesses want to locate," he continues, "the arts is the number 1 economic driver. Over everything. Sports and everything. I take it seriously and I love it. There is finally a chance for musicians to speak up on the subject." He goes further: "Through the arts comes education and not the other way around. Every jazz performance, at its highest level, does that."

"We're in a cultural crisis right now, which is good," says Mayfield. "You need some shit sometimes to stir things up."

Mayfield is not from a musical family, but attributes his musicality to his home city. Even though the 1980s was not a fertile period in the nation for jazz music, and it was (and still is) hard to find on the radio dial or on TV, Mayfield said things in New Orleans were different. For example, "being the drum major in the band is more important than being captain of the football team. It carries more weight."

"I got to experience the rich culture of the city. (Music) is really ingrained in the culture and everybody gets a chance to explore it," he says. At about the age of 14, he started to get serious about music. "In New Orleans that's old, but in other places it's young." Being involved in school bands took him around the world on tours. He was 14 when he first went to Germany and has been there 15 times since.

"When you tell someone around the world you're from New Orleans, they expect you to know jazz," Mayfield says. Much of that knowledge came not only from formal music education in school, but from other, older, musicians on the city scene. He also listened to the great lineage of trumpet greats starting with Louis Armstrong and going through Miles Davis, Clifford Brown, Freddie Hubbard, Dizzy Gillespie, Booker Little and on. Current trumpeters like Wynton Marsalis, Terrence Blanchard and Nicolas Payton also had an influence, as did legends like Charles Mingus and Phineas Newborn, and people on today's scene, like Brad Mehldau.

Learning from elders, he feels, is something that's lacking today to a large extent.

"The level of musicianship is low generally and artistically. The musicians don't practice. Or they're interested in playing bullshit. Younger musicians are not humble. They refuse to humble themselves to go to the older musicians and get what they need," he contends. Jazz "is lineage-oriented and you have to respect what came before... Nobody wants to be mentored. In New Orleans, we have it. That's the only way you're going to get this stuff."

Among "this stuff" is the Afro-Latin music that Los Hombres investigates. Formed in 1999, the idea was to investigate different African influences as they extended through the music of the Caribbean, Brazil and Cuba, and spawned the development of styles like samba and salsa, he says. Living in New York City with Marsalis as a young man, Mayfield met people like Chucho Valdes. He was impressed how Marsalis and Valdes, among others, played in the same genre—jazz—yet brought in diverse elements. Mayfield thought the music of Cuba and Brazil could be melded with New Orleans; the characteristics of Terrence Blanchard and Ivan Lins could be incorporated into the idiom in interesting ways. It was not revolutionary in conception, as Latin and jazz have been mated for decades. But there was room for more exploration and it made Mayfield curious.

"Jazz allows us—gives us—the platform to bring these other musics into play. Jazz is the most democratic music. It's the manifestation of democracy into music."

Mayfield met Summers and began discussing such things with the percussionist. In time, they got together at Summers' house and began a dialog that became the collaboration, at first with musicians including drummers Jason Marsalis and Horacio "El Negro" Hernandez. The personnel has changed somewhat over the years. Horns are added, as well as percussionists and even, as evidenced at the beginning of the live DVD, dancers. The new recording will include Jamal Baptiste, who Mayfield calls "one of the most exciting drummers to come up in a long time."

The Los Hombres CDs and DVD explore the exotic rhythms with Mayfield's trumpet providing both percussive flavor and melodic exploration. All nature of Latin music seems to be included, which is by design and through the deliberate research and experience of Mayfield and Summers. It exposes the listener to a broad cultural landscape that includes New Orleans, the latter especially through the sound of Mayfield's trumpet.

The DVD is a great example of the band in performance. The exotic "Vodou Hoodoo Babalu" sets the stage with thick rhythms that set costumed dancers into action. Band members sing and chant throughout, as well as play their asses off. Mayfield deftly negotiates the rhythms and harmonies with a strong tone and effective phrasing. On "Night in Tunisia" it's apparent he isn't a high note specialist, that role (which was a key part of composer Dizzy Gillespie's trademark rendition of the tune) goes to Leon Brown. But dig the circular breathing tour-de-force trumpet attack by Mayfield toward the end of the number. (Harder to do on trumpet than sax). In total, it's an outstanding show and an educational travelogue through Afro-Latin land.

In his "spare" time, Mayfield also composes. "It never feels like you're doing it when you're doing," he says of writing. But when it's done, there is satisfaction. "You put a vision out there and get other people to be part of making your vision a reality" via the performance.

"You can't ask for more," Mayfield says of all his current projects. Perhaps just as well. He may not have time for it.

Visit Irvin Mayfield on the web at www.irvinmayfield.com .

Photo Credit

Skip Bolen


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