By Joy Childs
Sentinel Contributing Writer
Anyone who’s been to the Playboy over the past several years knows that sometime in the afternoon they’re going to be standing up at their seats or marching around the Hollywood Bowl, twirling their handkerchiefs or picnic napkins and showing off their New Orleans second line moves. Â In the past, it’s been largely at Wynton Marsalis’ bidding, but this year that inspiration will come from trumpeter Irvin Mayfield and his New Orleans Jazz Orchestra (NOJO). Â In 2002, Mayfield founded and became artistic director of this jazz ensemble, which is dedicated to education in the performing arts.
In preparation for the Bill Cosby-hosted music fest, I recently talked to the multifaceted New Orleans native, who at 32 has already recorded 12 CD’s and played at the festival at least three times. Â However, it will be the orchestra’s first time.
Sentinel: You’ve had a remarkable career in such a short period of time, and you’ve worn so many hats: composer, arranger, professor. Â Is one of those Â “hats” your favorite or do you like all the hats equally?
Irvin Mayfield (IM): It’s interesting: Â The definition of the thing always comes after the thing is done. Â I never really thought about it in terms of a title. Â It’s just what I do. Â When you do something, it turns into a lot of title. Â For instance, if you’re a good performer, you’re gonna be a teacher. . . so I never really thought about it. . . Â I just love jazz!
Sentinel: Another thing I was impressed with is that you won the 2010 Grammy Award for Best Large jazz ensemble for the critically acclaimed Â “Book One” and you beat out veterans like the Bob Florence Limited Edition. Â Tell me about that.
IM: I don’t spend a lot of time on awards. I guess for me I appreciate them. Â I’m glad when I get them but essentially they’re a popularity contest to some extent or it’ a contest that others are judging, and if you’re not on the side of the judges, the only thing you can do is your best possible work. Â [The Grammy] provided a great platform; it was great for the guys. Â I’m always appreciative of any level of recognition I receive but after the recognition, I’m on to the next thing. Â Like, even when I was nominated by President Obama [to the National Council on the Arts, the advisory board of the National Endowment for the Arts], I focused on when I get the opportunity, can I make it mean something of value? At the end of the day, if you don’t, you’re just that guy that won some award and I’m just not interested in being that guy.
Sentinel: In addition to NOJO, you’ve got so many extensions of yourself. Â You’ve got NOJO, there’s your sextet, and you’ve still got, Los Hombres Calientes, correct?
IM: We’re just now getting ready to come back together after a five-year hiatus in August.
Sentinel: And will [drummer] Bill Summers of Summers Heat fame, who recorded that funky 1981 jam, Â “You Can Call It What You Want,” still be with you in that group?
Sentinel: What’s the plan for that group?
IM: We’re actually performing doing a reunion concert in Minneapolis where I’m artistic director of jazz at Orchestra Hall, the jazz series of the Minnesota Orchestra. We’ll see how that goes and if it goes well, maybe there’ll be something else.
Sentinel: And your sextet what are the plans for that group?
IM: Actually, the sextet varies in size. Â I change it depending on what’s going on. Â Right now I’m morphing into something called the Playhouse Review. Â I have a club in New Orleans called the Jazz Playhouse, and we do a really awesome thing where we have a banjo, trombone kind of a fundamental New Orleans setup but we bring in special guests. Â I’ve been really enjoying that because it has the feel of a vaudeville show.
Sentinel: Vaudeville, really?
IM: Yeah. . . . We even have a burlesque dancer who sings. . . It’s kinda like ‘jazz unhinged’ because we’re not stuck with any time period. Â It gives us the framework to be able to be provocative, exotic, romantic, exciting, adventurous all these things that I think have been lost in jazz over the last 20 years. Â And it’s just so damn fun! Â And it’s in an intimate space. Â I mean, I love playing the Hollywood Bowl but there’s nothing like playing to an intimate crowd of 150 people.
Sentinel: You represent a new young lion? Â What’s new in jazz from where you sit?
IM: [Chuckling . . .] Let me see how I can say this without getting into any trouble . . .!
Sentinel: Now are you chuckling because you don’t consider yourself a young lion or because there’s nothing new in jazz.
IM: I think jazz musicians have the wrong approach. Â Wynton [Marsalis], and I have had many discussions on it the last few months. Â The musicians aren’t arbiters of their own fate and when the creator isn’t the person in the driver’s seat, then get ready for an industry that’s gonna run awry.
Sentinel: Let me be clear: Â Who are the arbiters?
IM: The people who own the real estate, the clubs, the venues, the distribution. Â Imagine the culinary industry if the chefs weren’t in the driver’s seat . . . or the food channel with no chefs. Here, we have a bunch of other people saying what’s good and what’s bad for the artist. Â And that’s why there’s no level of ownership for musicians. Now most of us have our own issues. Â But, nobody can save the industry but us.
That’s why you don’t see a lot of new [stuff] going on because they don’t have opportunity or the tools because they don’t own the stuff. Â When the folks that have the product or the content don’t control the distribution of it or don’t own it, get ready to be taken advantage of or get ready for compromise. Â That’s the state of the jazz world right now; there’s a lot of compromise going on.
Sentinel: You’re from a significant line of New Orleans musicians. Â Of course, you mentioned Wynton, Branford, Nicholas Payton, Terence Blanchard. Â Growing up in that very rich musical environment, how did that inform you as a musician and as a person.
IM: As a musician, it’s awesome to be a part of a continuum. With Terence, Nicholas, Christian. . . It’s a very fortunate, lucky situation to be able to communicate in this special language . . . My mother has a saying, ‘Blessed is he who gets paid to do that which he would do for free!’
Sentinel: At the Playboy, any surprises?
IM: You can look forward to the banjo, the clarinet, the trombone. A wonderful singer. There’s a bunch of new music that I just wrote from my Â “Elysian Fields” commission.
Sentinel: Â That’s the commission that was specifically written for the University of New Orleans graduation, right?
IM: No, it was just a commission and we performed an excerpt from it for graduation. Â And this is the music we’re taking to Carnegie Hall this fall.
Sentinel: You’d previously stated that that commission’s goal was to serve as the musical platform for your Â “Road to Carnegie” tour?
IM: Yes. Â [The commission] was supposed to be a big event in New Orleans but it rained so I was a little disappointed that it will be heard in L.A. before it’s heard in New Orleans.
Sentinel: No need to be disappointed! Â The New Orleans celebration style will be in full effect come festival day. Â I know what you’re saying, though it may not be as New Orleansy as it would have been there but you won’t be disappointed, trust me!
IM: You’re right. L.A.’s like a second home to me with all the people from New Orleans there.