New Orleans: Ballad Of The Trumpeter, The Library, The Market And The Money

20150508_IMBy 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.
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