Traditional New Orleans Jazz, Conversations with the Men Who Make the Music

Thomas W. Jacobsen By

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This article, adapted by the author, appears in Chapter 5 of Traditional New Orleans Jazz, Conversations with the Men Who Make the Music by Thomas W. Jacobsen (LSU Press, 2011).

Irvin Mayfield: Boy Wonder

Sometimes people live long enough to fulfill the promise of their youth, and sometimes they don't. Some individuals eventually achieve their youthful dreams of success, but many certainly do not. Such is life.

The following conversation, recorded on March 23, 1996, demonstrates that trumpeter, bandleader, composer, educator, entrepreneur and civic leader Irvin Mayfield, then just 18, had a game plan for his life that is now coming to fruition. In fact, one could arguably make the case that, at the relatively tender age of 32, he has already achieved his boyhood goals. It is likely, however, that Mayfield himself would strongly disagree. For him, there is much more to be done.

This interview was conducted in the upstairs bedroom of his childhood home on—significantly—Music Street in the Gentilly neighborhood of New Orleans, at the very beginning of his musical career and well before he was able to support himself by his music. Yet it reveals most of the personal traits that still characterize him today: intelligence, impatient ambition, perfectionism, leadership skills, sense of humor and—not least—his self-confidence and sometimes controversial behavior. It also shows his loyalty and devotion to his friends, family, mentors and home town—not to mention his father specifically, a onetime army drill sergeant who lost his life in the flooding of Hurricane Katrina.

Mayfield's accomplishments to date are little short of overwhelming. He first came to my attention as a precocious teenage performer with the traditional Algiers Brass Band. Since then, he has gone on to found the award-winning combo Los Hombres Calientes and the 2010 Grammy-winning New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, as well as leading his own quintet. His commissioned compositions include "The Half-Past Autumn Suite;" "Strange Fruit;" "All the Saints;" and his upcoming "The Art of Passion." The latter will be performed with the distinguished Minnesota Orchestra, for which he was recently appointed artistic director for jazz.

Mayfield's devotion to his home town is reflected by his membership on numerous boards in the city, including serving as chairman of the board of the New Orleans Public Library. In 2003 Mayfield was appointed to the post of cultural ambassador for the city of New Orleans and the state of Louisiana. And, as of this writing, he just announced that he would not run for mayor in the 2010 elections despite considerable public support for his candidacy.

For one who left college after three semesters at the University of New Orleans, he was recently appointed professor and artistic director of New Orleans Jazz at UNO.

In the spring of 2009, he opened a posh new jazz club in the Royal Sonesta Hotel in the French Quarter, Irvin Mayfield's Playhouse, where he proudly announces, "jazz is back on Bourbon Street." [In 2011 he opened a second club in the J. W. Marriott Hotel on Canal Street.]

In late March, 2010, President Obama appointed Mayfield to the National Council on the Arts, the advisory body to the National Endowment of the Arts. His list of accomplishments goes on and on. The portion of the interview that follows deals with Mayfield's high school training at the well-known New New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts [NOCCA] and something of the impact it had on him.

Thomas Jacobsen: Then you went on to NOCCA?

Irvin Mayfield: Oh yeah... God... Playing with Algiers, I learned a lot of traditional stuff and learned a lot of things from ear. But getting into NOCCA was a cultural shock. Man, I can't describe to you the effect of going to NOCCA.

TJ: How old were you when you started there?

IM: Fourteen. I was in ninth grade. It's actually supposed to be a three-year program, but they let me in in ninth. I knew Jason Marsalis from nursery school. When I got to NOCCA, these cats were serious! These cats were diligent! There are three levels at NOCCA. There is the extremely high level. Nicholas Payton was in third level, and Adonis Rose was his drummer. There were some really heavy hitters, man. I'm in level one with Jason Marsalis. I was used to dealing with basic forms of music, which traditional is. It's a basic form of jazz. I thought I was great, man, because I was the youngest guy playing all this traditional stuff. My ego was big, man. But it was a serious culture shock, man. [The late] Clyde Kerr totally changed my life. I got all my piano skills from Clyde Kerr. He could play the piano just as well as he could play the trumpet. I had never heard the piano played like that. And then I had to learn theory! And I had to learn about Brahms and Bach and Beethoven and Chopin and Tchaikowsky and Mahler and Stravinsky and... I made a 30 on my first test. That was a rough trial.

TJ: What does it feel like to be part of the NOCCA tradition that produced the likes of the Marsalises, Jordans, Terence Blanchard and Nicholas Payton?

IM: Man, it's rough. You have to be really serious. You can't do it for the money, you can't do it for the fame. You'd better be in it for the music. You feel good because you're a part of it, but then it's, like, I better contribute something to this music or...

TJ: Do you feel pressure?

IM: Do I feel pressure? God... If I can get Jason to respect what I'm doing, I feel great. These people are not just educated musically. If you talk to Nicholas, he's an internationally educated person. I have so much to learn. I could talk all day about NOCCA. It's an inspiration. I don't want to just die and leave, some guy who was here. I want to contribute something to the music, and that's really hard. That's why I'm always in these controversies. If you get to know what people think about me in the brass band area, I'm controversial, man. I'm not going to condone anything that people allow themselves to be complacent. I'm not like that. You look at these brass bands—I'm talking about all these [new] brass bands...

TJ: You don't think they're working hard enough at their craft?

IM: Working hard enough? They haven't started working yet! You pick up an instrument, you get a gig, you go to Europe—you know, this is life... You're not going to tell me that somebody who picks up a trumpet in one year can learn a certain scale and go out there and try to improvise and people call him a musician. Those people are not musicians. Nicholas is a musician. Ellis Marsalis is a musician. Adonis Rose is a musician. I'm not tolerating that, man. People are still telling me to get something to fall back on. I'm not accepting it, man. I'm going to do this.

I was at a wedding, and someone asked Wynton, "How can I break into the music business?" Wynton says, "Break into a practice room." People need to work harder at what they do. Why would you ask me to come into a club and play, you know, and not be serious?

When I went to NOCCA there were no bells in the classroom. You did not have to go to class...because learning did not start in that classroom and it did not end in that classroom. And practicing hasn't ended yet, now. I'm practicing mentally all the time, thinking three or four things at one time. That's the thing about NOCCA, man. It's rough, but you begin to love it because you realize what it is.

Learn more about Traditional New Orleans Jazz: Conversations With the Men Who Make the Music. © 2011, Thomas W. Jacobsen

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