Nearly 75 years after Benny Goodman’s legendary Carnegie Hall concert brought jazz official respectability alongside classical music, Irvin Mayfield brought the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra to the same stage to celebrate the music’s vital role in contemporary American life. If Mayfield’s mentor Wynton Marsalis institutionalized jazz as America’s classical music through his work at Lincoln Center, Mayfield has proved with NOJO that a New Orleans-based program could accomplish a similar goal.
The show was not simply a musical celebration either. Major donors and institutional figures — including University of New Orleans president Dr. Peter J. Fos, CNN host Soledad O’Brien and National Endowment for the Arts chairman Rocco Landesman and executive director Rachel Goslins — took the podium to provide context to the event, which was broadcast live on WWOZ.
Perhaps the greatest tribute to Mayfield’s achievement with the orchestra is that the musical high points of the night were provided by the NOJO players rather than the star-studded program of special musical guests. Though the great vocalists Aaron Neville and Dee Dee Bridgewater performed during a show that also included American Idol stars Casey Abrams and Haley Reinhart as well as New Orleans’ own Shannon Powell, the best vocal performance came from NOJO’s Leon “Kid Chocolate” Brown, who opened the proceedings with a soulful, nuanced version of the Harold Arlen classic “I’ve Got the World On a String.”
Mayfield did more conducting than playing over the course of the night, highlighting spectacular turns from his orchestra’s instrumental stars — tenor saxophonist Edward “Sweetbread” Petersen, Victor Atkins on piano, Jason Marshall on baritone saxophone, Adonis Rose on drums, David Pulphus on bass and Evan Christopher on clarinet. Christopher stole the show with an outstanding solo that recalled Goodman’s transcendent moment on “Sing, Sing, Sing” three quarters of a century ago.
When he did play Mayfield made it count, often featuring flugelhorn on the band’s more delicate arrangements, wielding his trumpet for an exciting trade-off with guest saxophonist Branford Marsalis and on the elegiac set-closer “May His Soul Rest In Peace,” written for his father, who was lost in the post-Katrina flood. After that somber finale, Mayfield led the members of NOJO through the audience in a joyful second-line while playing “Saints.” The crowd danced and waved the souvenir white hankies distributed before the show as the orchestra rocked Carnegie Hall to salute its tenth birthday.