Irvin Mayfield’s Art of the Deal

It’s a beautiful Saturday afternoon in February and the French Quarter is buzzing with celebrants preparing for the first Mardi Gras parade of the season, the Krewe du Vieux. Irvin Mayfield buzzes down Bourbon Street on his motorcycle and pulls up to the Royal Sonesta Hotel, where he will open his new club, Irvin’s Playhouse, in March.

At 31, Mayfield has a list of accomplishments most musicians don’t amass in a lifetime—five albums by the New Orleans Latin jazz dance band he co-founded, Los Hombres Caliente, four solo albums, a duets recording with Ellis Marsalis and one album leading the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra (NOJO), as well as a second NOJO release in the works. Mayfield has a fistful of awards and citations and a lengthy resume in both the civic and academic worlds.

For all that, Mayfield’s biggest talent may well be as a businessman. He’s just finalized a new recording contract with Harmonia Mundi for the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, and he’ll host “The Life and Times of Irvin Mayfield,” a one-hour radio talk show on WGSO. He has started a new record label, Poorman Mayfield, and is partnering with the Royal Sonesta in a branding concept he vows will change the nature of Bourbon Street.

the Mystick Den to Irvin Mayfield’s Jazz Playhouse. “Two businesses saying we are going to invest in jazz in a meaningful way. The Royal Sonesta’s core values are authentic experiences. Look at the architecture of this hotel. It’s 100 percent New Orleans. And that’s very close to what my core values and what Irvin Mayfield’s art is about. Our brands match together very well. It’s not just about this room. The Royal Sonesta wants to have the effect of the brand throughout the hotel. They want jazz to be part of the experience and aesthetic of every hotel guest. It won’t be just in the club; it will also be reflected in the rooms, the outside of the hotel and even what we plan to do with Bourbon Street.”

Mayfield tried to start a club before when he was a partner in Ray’s Over the River in 2005, but the posh jazz club atop the World Trade Center was destroyed by hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The experience gave Mayfield some perspective on the dynamics of running a music club but his vision for Irvin’s Playhouse owes more to the recent success of New Orleans restaurateurs.

“The culinary industry is now a branded experience in the French Quarter,” he points out. “Chef Prudhomme, Emeril, the Brennans, Susan Spicer. Where is the branded experience for Ellis Marsalis? For Aaron Neville? What art does is give you an opportunity to provide leadership and to distill certain attributes and qualities that you think are important. You go to a club, the music might be great, but the place wasn’t built for that music. Everything, from the forks and napkins on up—restaurants think this through because the culinary industry is not just about food. It’s about relationships. And music in this town is the primary builder of relationships.

“In the culinary industry, the presentation and everything that surrounds that—all is part of the artistic experience for the chef. Today the chef is the restaurateur, which wasn’t the case 20 years ago; back then chefs were like indentured servants. With musicians, our artistic experience stops with the creation of a song or a CD. We don’t create environments. I don’t think we think enough about what this stuff means. Take an architect. An architect designs buildings, but it’s not just an artistic sensibility at work. The architect has to think about functionality. Same with the chefs; they want to inspire the next round of chefs that are coming up. They want to inspire people to cook and eat this food when they go home. The musician only thinks about the audience, but what about the environment? The environment can inspire a lot of different things.”

Mayfield’s vision for the club includes a remake of the furniture, the menu and the musical lineup, which has ranged from jazz vocalists to piano trios. Starting in early March, it will be broken down to regular nights for vocalist Johnaye Kendrick, Leon “Kid Chocolate” Brown and Shamarr Allen. On Wednesday nights, Mayfield will move his NOJO jam session from Snug Harbor to the new club.

“It will be the Irvin Mayfield experience, which is a jazz experience. But it’s not just about me. We’ve lined up some great young talent. Unfortunately one of the casualties of this situation is my night at Snug, which we’ve really worked hard at for two years. I really enjoyed that. But I’m putting all my effort into this club, of course. On Wednesdays we’re going to have live radio broadcasts. David Torkanowsky is going to have some solo spots in here. He’s another one of those rare New Orleans talents that you don’t get enough opportunity to hear. Everything in this space, including the menu, will be all about the music. Right now we’re in here watching sports. You won’t see any more sports in here come March. You want sports? There are great sports bars around here. You want to watch great jazz videos? This is the place to come. We’re also going to have burlesque, cabaret, maybe even some comedy. I love burlesque. It’s sophisticated adult entertainment and it works well with music.”

Snug Harbor’s Jason Patterson had good things to say about Mayfield’s work at his club and thinks Irvin’s Playhouse could do a lot to promote New Orleans jazz.

“He’s driven,” says Patterson, “and he surrounded himself with great players here, so it was an entertaining show as well as being true to the art form. The gist of NOJO was having players who were all at a very high level so they would enjoy playing with each other. Irvin likes being ringmaster. I wish him all the luck with what he wants to do at the Royal Sonesta. If anything, it enhances what we do because it helps define New Orleans as really being a jazz capitol. Irvin is a great promoter, not just of his own ventures, but of New Orleans. He has greater aspirations that any jazz musician I’ve ever known. We admire and respect the NOJO organization and have no hard feelings. So we wish him well and hope he comes back to visit.”

Mayfield’s ultimate goal is to persuade the New Orleans business community to finance a National Jazz Center with a concert hall that would provide a home for the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra. The project was unveiled to great fanfare May 30, 2006—a 20-acre multi-use park and complex with a hefty $715-million price tag. It stalled, though, when funding was slow to materialize, and it was dealt a severe blow in 2007 when the Hyatt Regency on Poydras—the focal point of the redevelopment plan—was sold. Mayfield still pitches the idea with the cunning of a master salesman.

“We have to build a National Jazz Center,” he argues. “There are a lot of folks interested in making this thing happen. When they opened the Mahalia Jackson Hall, there were no dates available for the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra. We have no place to put on our 2010 dates. But that’s okay because there’s enough of an audience here that we should have more than one venue. I’m trying as hard as I can to bring people to the table. But we have to demonstrate what we’re capable of. That’s part of what this club is about.”

Mayfield’s main inspiration in lobbying for the National Jazz Center and becoming involved in civic and political life is Wynton Marsalis, with whom he lived in New York during the 1990s.

“Living with Wynton was probably the largest influence on my life. What really inspired me was that he was in enough of a position of leadership in New York where he could build a $185-million building. No one diminished him for being a musician. Here people say things like, ‘How can the Chairman of the Board of the public library be just a trumpeter?’ What I saw Wynton do in New York was one of the reasons I became interested in policy here, interested in government, interested in the collegiate experience. He was able to do that successfully there. He brought a fresh perspective on the role that music played in the city’s culture, and he was able to convince the leaders of his arguments. I watched him tell Rudy Giuliani that no one remembers the pope who achieved economic greatness. No one remembers the pope that instituted a great sewer system or infrastructure in the city. They remember the pope that commissioned the Sistine Chapel. You want to talk about legacy. Art and culture is the stuff that really counts. Yes, we need clean streets, but use the culture as an economic engine that drives that.”

Mayfield returned from his New York experience with a burning ambition to marry his musical instincts with social and political goals. In addition to his work with Los Hombres Caliente and his solo projects, in 2002 Mayfield founded the Institute of Jazz Culture at Dillard University and created the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, a direct emulation of what Wynton Marsalis did in New York. Though the audaciousness of Mayfield’s gestures raised eyebrows in some quarters, he has gone on to do some fine work with NOJO including his recording of his Strange Fruit suite in 2003. Christ Church Cathedral commissioned Mayfield to compose and perform “All the Saints” with NOJO in 2005 to promote healing through jazz after Katrina, whose floodwaters claimed his father.

Mayfield also started to come to the attention of business and political leaders in New Orleans. He considers former Entergy CEO Dan Packard, who made Mayfield the first professional musician on the city’s Chamber of Commerce, one of his mentors.

“I was chairman of the Regional Chamber when I met him,” says Packard. “I didn’t know him but I had seem him play a couple of times. We started talking and I realized how much he had to offer, how bright and intelligent he was. It was the whole package. I was looking for someone to get involved in the Chamber from an arts perspective. He was well-spoken, and he was not intimidated by being in a different setting.”

Mayfield was made a Cultural Ambassador of the City of New Orleans, holds a position in the Champions Group of the New Orleans Museum of Art, and is on a number of committees including the Louisiana Rebirth Advisory Board and the Bring New Orleans Back Commission Cultural Sub-Committee. Packard advised Ray Nagin to appoint Mayfield Chairman of the Board of the New Orleans Library Board of Directors.

“The mayor was looking for someone who wanted to change things at the library,” says Packard. “I had also been talking with him about some other appointments for Irvin and he chose that one. They’re pretty happy with him over there.”

Mayfield’s tenure at the library has been controversial, though. Instead of settling into a traditional role of fundraiser he shook up the staff, forcing out several top librarians and prompting Library Journal to report that the system showed “signs of disarray” since he took over. Last December, the Times-Picayune published a largely unfavorable piece on Mayfield’s tenure at the library. According to reporter David Hammer, “Often outside the public eye, Mayfield and other board members have cleaned house aggressively—overly so, in the eyes of critics. The four top-ranking librarians and the director of a library support foundation all left as Mayfield, a Grammy nominee whose main gig is directing the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, conducted a major realignment that made a former mayoral aide who isn’t a professional librarian the system’s top administrator.”

In a guest editorial in the Times-Picayune, Mayfield responded by focusing attention on his many accomplishments as the library board’s chairman, and dealt with the personnel moves by writing, “I will not dwell on the numerous personnel issues that have been reported in the news lately. Every institutional board must put in place people and ideas that reflect the mission of the organization.”

Now, as then, Mayfield takes the criticism in stride.

“Some of the conversation is geared toward ‘Why is he doing that? Why is he taking his time to be Chairman of the Board in the library system and have these people beat him up in the paper? Why is he on the Police and Justice Foundation? Why does a musician care about crime?’ But my answer to all these questions is that we are all citizens in this city and our responsibility is to do what we can to make things better. I challenge people to stop questioning why I’m doing things and start questioning what they’re doing to improve the city. We spend too much time questioning other people’s motives.

“We’re surviving on the fumes of our culture now, and we’ve got to do better. A child will recover from a trauma, but the issue is how will that child recover? It’s the same thing with the library. The libraries are coming back, but how they’re coming back is the issue. Do we make them what we want them to be, something that responds to the community’s needs, or do we accept the piecemeal structure we had before? We have to integrate music into the library. We have to use it to teach the children about the history of their music, the history of jazz.”

Mayfield argues that the biggest problem facing New Orleans music is how to ensure that there will be future generations of jazz musicians to continue the city’s cultural heritage. To that end, he is now part of the faculty at the University of New Orleans, where he is a Professor of Professional Practice and Director of the New Orleans Jazz Institute.

“People don’t understand what motivates me to get involved,” he says. “I’m looking at no jazz on Bourbon Street. I’m looking at no music program in the elementary schools. The idea that some savior is going to ride in on a white horse with a bag of jewels for us is unrealistic. We have to do it ourselves. We have to nurture jazz. If you can’t get the business community to rally around music, which is the number one feature of the New Orleans lifestyle, it seems like the city is at odds with itself. It would be like Las Vegas not embracing casinos.

“People call me one of the young trumpet players from New Orleans. I’m not young, I’m 31. Where are the young trumpet players? Shamarr is 27—he’s not young. We’ve got to nurture young people to play this music. People say they want to invest in the city, but they don’t want to invest in what made the city great.”

Mayfield spins with the deftness of a master politician, which may be why some people have suggested that his next objective should be the mayor’s office. Even his detractors and those unwilling to speak on the record admire his skills and recognize his ambition to make New Orleans a better place.

Mayfield already has close political ties with both Lt. Governor Mitch Landrieu and Mayor Ray Nagin.

“I played Mitch Landrieu’s campaign party when he was running for mayor against Marc Morial,” Mayfield says. “Mitch said, ‘I knew we were going to lose when it was only Irvin and me at the party.’ I only got to know the mayor after the storm. I have a good relationship with them because they’re music fans. I don’t need a city contract. I play the trumpet. What I’m talking about is not controversial. People of differing political viewpoints agree that we need to invest in this city. The issue is how do we make it happen?”

Irvin Mayfield is a lot of things—musician, bandleader, composer, teacher, cultural contractor, politician—but through it all, he is a man with his eye on the deal, more Donald Trump than Louis Armstrong. His accomplishments and his ambitions are fueled by a shrewd businessman’s sense of give and take and an understanding of how timing and salesmanship are essential elements in attaining your goals. Not surprisingly, those traits have made him unpopular in some circles, but like him or not, these are qualities that will serve him well in whatever direction he chooses.