By Larry Blumenfeld
Shortly after I arrived in New Orleans recently for the annual Jazz & Heritage Festival, I was handed a copy of “New Orleans Jazz Playhouse,” a coffee-table book full of reflections and ruminations, photos and memorabilia from trumpeter and bandleader Irvin Mayfield. It contained seven accompanying CDs of music featuring, among many fine musicians, Mayfield on every track.
The book draws its title from the name of the nightclub Mayfield founded in 2009 in partnership with the Royal Sonesta Hotel, which has hosted worthy gigs in a smart and swanky atmosphere on a storied French Quarter street that hasn’t seen much real jazz in decades. Its three guest essays—from trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, Mayfield’s clearest mentor, and celebrated authors Walter Isaacson and Ernest Gaines—reflect the ease with which Mayfield—who was named to the National Council of the Arts by presidential appointment—negotiates a world of movers, shakers and big ideas.
Most of the book’s pages are devoted to cultural things, iconic and less well known, that Mayfield thinks define his hometown and, by extension, have shaped him. Page 103 is something of a paean to “three great institutions”: The University of New Orleans, where Mayfield once studied (he dropped out), and where he is now a professor teaching “New Orleans as Discourse”; WWOZ-FM, the listener-supported radio station that introduced him as a boy to quintessential New Orleans musicians like James Booker, and which helped build the audience for his own Grammy-winning music during the past 20 years; and the New Orleans Public Library System, which in Mayfield’s childhood offered him a free source of jazz LPs for pleasure and study, and for which he has, since Hurricane Katrina, leveraged his star power to help raise substantial sums from leading national foundations.
That book is big and bold and anything but humble. Yet the boldest manifestation of Mayfield’s outsized ambitions to date is The People’s Health Jazz Market, a new $9.6 million venue established by the nonprofit organization that supports Mayfield’s New Orleans Jazz Orchestra (NOJO). The Jazz Market occupies the space of a long-abandoned department store at the corner of boulevards named for two 1960s civil rights leaders, Martin Luther King Jr. and Oretha Castle Haley, in New Orleans’ central city neighborhood.
With its inaugural public concert in late April, during Jazz Fest’s opening weekend, Mayfield’s Jazz Market joined Manhattan’s Jazz at Lincoln Center and San Francisco’s SFJazz in the ranks of urban arts center buildings dedicated to jazz. The architecture is similar to SFJazz in appearance, right down to the lettering on its nameplate; as home for the orchestra Mayfield founded in 2002, the project draws obvious comparisons to Marsalis’ jazz center.
Opening night didn’t lack for star power. Soledad O’Brien, who serves on NOJO’s board, was in an orchestra-section seat. Up in a balcony box, small white dog on her lap, was Dee Bridgewater, for whom Mayfield named his concert stage; her forthcoming CD is in collaboration with Mayfield’s orchestra.
The Jazz Market provides, like those other centers, a concert hall designed with jazz acoustics in mind. The lobby area, which includes a bar named for Buddy Bolden and will house digital jazz archive, becomes a community center by day, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. And despite the formality of his orchestra in suits and ties onstage, Mayfield began his opening concert by inviting audience members to “come hang out here during the day, use the wifi, do your business, have some coffee and hang out.”
By Tuesday, May 5, however, a dark cloud had gathered over Mayfield’s latest achievement, his much-lauded involvement with the city’s library system covered in mud.
The front- and back matter in his book, a mock-stamp from the public library, began to seem like a bad joke.
An investigative report by David Hammer for New Orleans’ WWL-TV alleged on Tuesday that Mayfield and Ronald Markham, NOJO’s CEO, had steered nearly $900,000 earmarked for libraries into the Jazz Market project and their own New Orleans Jazz Orchestra organization, while serving on the board of directors of the New Orleans Public Library Foundation, a private nonprofit organization that supports the city’s library system. As Hammer reported:
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. But that same year, the foundation also gave $666,000 to the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra for the $10 million New Orleans Jazz Market… And in 2013, the library foundation gave the Jazz Orchestra, or NOJO, $197,000 more.
Mayfield and his friend, Ronald Markham, each make six-figure salaries from NOJO, a nonprofit Mayfield founded. At the same time, they 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. 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.”
Some background: The library foundation and the city’s library system are not synonymous; the foundation is a private non-profit organization, and the library system is a public entity. From 2007 to 2011, Mayfield served on the city library board and the Public Library Foundation board simultaneously. He served on the five-person library foundation board alongside Markham, who ultimately became board president.
The overlapping layers of conflict of interests seem apparent enough. And yet one remarkable passage in Hammer’s report adds these details:
…the Library Foundation’s stated mission was to raise money “for the benefit of the New Orleans Public Library” and it gave between $500,000 and $900,000 each year to the city library system. But in June 2012, the three other library foundation board members – Gerald Duhon Jr., Dan Forman and Scott Cunningham – joined Mayfield and Markham to unanimously re-write the organization’s articles of incorporation, expanding its mission beyond just supporting the public libraries to helping other “literacy and community organizations.”
They also 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 ….”
The outcry was swift.
Rafael Goyeneche, president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission, a citizens’ watchdog agency, told Hammer: “Essentially, he is the dictator, he is the emperor that makes any decision and doesn’t require any type of board action.”
Tania Tetlow, a Tulane University law professor and former federal prosecutor who preceded Mayfield as chair of both the library system board said to Hammer: “However good an idea it might be, and I don’t see how it is, your fiduciary duty to the library foundation is such that you don’t vote to send the money somewhere that’s going to personally benefit you.”
Mayfield remained publicly silent, but according to Hammer’s piece, Markham played one of the Miles Davis jazz records the public library system had provided the Jazz Market and showed off the mostly empty area where he plans to install touch-screen computers that he said would connect visitors with the public library’s digital catalogue.
“I can appreciate the story you’re trying to tell,” Markham told Hammer, “but in addition to that story, what we have here is a very forward-thinking and aggressive way to expand the footprint of the actual public library system, at no cost to the public.”
On Friday, the Daily Beast published a piece by Jason Berry, whose books have examined with seriousness and sensitivity both New Orleans jazz history and the ethical challenges and financial dealings of the Catholic Church. Berry is a native of New Orleans, where a jazz musician’s words can carry the weight of a sacred trust and where public money often travels down dark tunnels.
Berry framed the incident in the light of the prior week, when “voters showed their support for the city’s struggling public library system by approving a tax millage that will bridge a $3 million budget gap and likely provide $4 to $5 million for budget costs in the coming years,” and in the context of his own previous Daily Beast article positioning Mayfield as a civic hero.
He also wisely pointed a finger regarding fiduciary responsibility (and plain-old due diligence) at the boards of both the Library Foundation and NOJO. “Apart from Mayfield, how much did those people know about all that money?” he wrote. “And how will the NOJO board respond to the news?”
Friday brought clear responses from others. Markham—who admitted no wrongdoing, just “outside-the-box” thinking—nonetheless resigned from the New Orleans Public Library Foundation board. Bob Brown, the former managing director of the city’s Business Council, was named president of the Library Foundation board, replacing Markham. (He pledged to look into concerns raised by the WWL-TV investigation, but also stood by the foundation’s investment in the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra’s Jazz Market.)
Later on Friday, WWL-TV reported a statement received from New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, calling for the Library Foundation to go back to solely supporting the city’s public libraries and for NOJO to return any money that was “not spent on Library purposes.”
“I have spoken to the Chairs of the NOJO Board and the Library Foundation Board,” Landrieu wrote. “I fully expect the following to occur as soon as possible:
– A complete separation between NOJO and the Library Foundation;
– A complete rewriting of the Library Foundation’s bylaws to require that Foundation funds are spent solely on the Library;
– A full auditing and accounting of the Foundation funds;
– A full refund of all Foundation dollars that were allocated to NOJO and not spent on Library purposes; and,
– A complete reorganization of the Foundation Board in keeping with the best practices of transparency and accountability.”
Through the years, Mayfield’s confidence has brimmed easily into an egotism that has seemed to some off-putting, especially in his hometown. (Still, no crime in that.) His ambitions and achievements have required the sort of fundraising and politicking that has brought backlash to Marsalis in some quarters.
I first interviewed Mayfield for an essay in Salon, in the Fall of 2005, after a Jazz at Lincoln Center benefit concert for New Orleans hosted by Marsalis. Mayfield had played the hymn “Just a Closer Walk With Thee” in dedication to his father, who, he said, “is still missing down there.” (His father’s remains were found a few weeks later.)
“I’ll tell you, in terms of the response to this hurricane, the local government gets a big F,” Mayfield told me then. “The federal government gets an F. The country gets a big fat F. When the levee was breached the culture was breached, and not that many people seemed to care.” He had resolved himself to making people care.
I last interviewed Mayfield a few months ago, in his New Orleans home. I was reminded of how smoothly he has negotiated corridors, the politics at hand notwithstanding. On one wall hung a photo of him alongside Pres. George W. Bush, who nominated him to the National Council of the Arts. On another wall, he was pictured with a similar smile, alongside Pres. Barack Obama, who subsequently appointed him to that post.
I asked Mayfield about his days as a young man in search of direction, living temporarily in Marsalis’ Manhattan home as Marsalis built his institution at Lincoln Center. He’d drawn inspiration, even taken notes, he’d said.
“But I had a different philosophy in one important respect,” he explained. “Jazz occupies rarified air in New Orleans. It occupies a ceremonial place, too. A trumpeter can move things in a different way in New Orleans. A trumpet player can call the mayor… That could be leveraged.”
Irvin Mayfield didn’t end up mayor of New Orleans, though he’d publicly toyed with running in 2010. He could, and did, call a mayor. Mayor Ray Nagin appointed Mayfield, then still in his twenties, as the city’s “cultural ambassador,” and it was Nagin who first appointed Mayfield to the city library board.
Then again, Nagin now sits in a federal penitentiary, serving ten years for bribery and corruption.
Mayfield would be wise to call the current mayor, Landrieu, who understands well the value to his city of not just the library system but also of NOJO and of the Jazz Market.
As do I, Landrieu probably buys the idea of a fundamental synergy between a nonprofit jazz organization and a nonprofit library foundation—especially in New Orleans, where one could reasonably argue that the language of jazz is fundamental to some sense of basic literacy. Other trumpeters born and raised in New Orleans, from Louis Armstrong to Terence Blanchard to Kermit Ruffins, have sincerely and successfully sold the world that notion with sincerity. Yet not for nearly a million bucks, nor under a cloud of impropriety.
It’s up to the boards of the New Orleans Public Library Foundation and NOJO to determine how to clean up this mess, and to do it in sync with the Landrieu administration, who have much to gain or lose in the handling of both the public libraries and the Jazz Market. Both are important civic resources funded by both private and public money: New Orleans residents deserve the fruits of these efforts. And since so much of real culture in this country now requires a public-private partnership, it’s important to keep such arrangements clean.
There’s also a larger point that’s important in a New Orleans that is quickly developing, and in which musicians and other culture-bearers are fighting for seats at the policy and planning tables. It’s a point that’s important well beyond New Orleans. It’s the idea that jazz musicians hold knowledge and power and community ties that command much more than just applause and kind words—that inspire trust, that deserve resources and that form the infrastructure required in a smart, compassionate, and multicultural city. Such is true in any city where jazz has roots and reach, like my hometown, New York. It can be sensed clearly in, say, Chicago, which this year celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Association of the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), an organization that started with a bunch of jazz musicians sitting around a kitchen table and grew into a movement of aesthetic and political empowerment.
It is perhaps truest in New Orleans for reasons that should be clear through any reading of the history of this country and its culture, via deep listening to the music born in New Orleans, and from any sense of meaning conveyed by the simple statement on the last page of Mayfield’s “Jazz Playhouse” book: “Jazz is a way of being.”
What will Mayfield do? How will he be? Only he can tell us, whenever he chooses. He has the power to live up to his stated ideals. What will NOJO do? Its board is set to meet today.
One hopes that in the end, after the dust settles, once funds are directed where they must go, the Jazz Market continues to host live music and becomes a community-gathering place, even perhaps a digital outpost of the library system. That building is standing, so let’s have it serve its city. And, once the clouds have cleared, let’s have it stand for something.
Photo by Hiroyuki Ito/Getty Images