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Irvin Mayfield on the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra's First 10 Years, Artistic Literacy and Integrity
It's hard to catch Irvin Mayfield in a moment of downtime.
“The reason I was delayed getting to the phone, I am literally sitting at the piano, writing scores that we’re playing on Saturday,” said Mayfield, the multi-instrumentalist jazz musician and educator.
Mayfield was getting ready for a very special show at Tipitina's Uptown, where he will perform with pop star Ledisi as well as his own project, The New Orleans Jazz Orchestra. It's NOJO's 10th anniversary, and this is just the first of 10 shows to celebrate the decade. On Oct. 8, Mayfield will be joined by Aaron Neville, Dee Dee Bridgewater and many more at New York City's Stern Auditorium.
In case you missed out on the last six years of Love Sessions: A Festival of Giving, Irvin Mayfield is heavily invested in using arts to better New Orleans. NOJO is one of his major projects.
New Orleans Jazz Orchestra’s Kickoff Performance with Pop Star Ledisi
Saturday’s NOJO #1 Kickoff Show at Tipitina’s will feature Mayfield on the piano accompanied by a mix of Ledisi’s vocal command and the arresting sound of the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra. General admission tickets are $30, but audience members can pay $100 for VIP access that includes upstairs access with three hours to hit up the top-shelf, open bar.
Mayfield is excited to blend the pop sounds of Ledisi’s R&B influence with his jazz roots.
“She’s a great artist, signed to Universal Records. She’s in heavy rotation on a lot of mainstream radio,” said Mayfield.
Proceeds from Mayfield’s shows go towards the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, a nonprofit organization that fosters the artistic culture of New Orleans in a variety of ways, from performance to education. Under the umbrella of NOJO is the New Orleans Jazz Institute, an educational program that partners with UNO to provide affordable music training programs to youth ages 8-17.
“What I’ve been finding is that it’s really not so much about what it means to kids, it’s about what it means to us,” said Mayfield. “We’ve come to recognize that the difference between the folks who have a lot and the folks who have a little is the amount of beautiful experiences they have.”
Mayfield played in the band at his alma mater, Kennedy Senior High School in New Orleans. Surprisingly, Mayfield wasn’t the trumpet star he is today while he was still a student.
“I visited Orleans Parish Prison, and I saw a tremendous amount of kids I went to high school with who I played with in the band. I wasn’t the trumpet leader of Kennedy High School, I never got to be the section leader. There’s a tremendous amount of intelligence that’s untapped. First we’re starting with those who want to get it, and we’re doing that by removing the wall of having a cost to it.”
“It’s a very powerful program that we have blown up by 100 percent. We started with 30 kids, and we now have 100.”
While Mayfield recognizes the benefits of affordable arts education for the youth of New Orleans, the musician believes the talent of the students at NOJI stands alone and should be recognized outside of any adversity they may face. “My staff challenges me often not to think about the music programs as ancillary. We don’t want the social impacts to be connected,” said Mayfield.
Artistic Literacy of New Orleans: a Question of Integrity
Mayfield will be giving his biannual lecture on artistic literacy on Thursday, Sept. 13, in UNO’s Education Building, room 103, from 6-7:30pm. The lecture is free and open to the public. While the educator recognizes the dire need for literacy programs in New Orleans, the artist said that there’s more to personal growth than just learning how to read a book.
“It always disturbed me volunteering with the library and finding out that our functional illiteracy rate was so high. It’s over 50 percent, some have even said 60 percent,” Mayfield said with regards to New Orleans’ demographics.
“When you think about living in a city like New Orleans and the rich literary history we have and all the creative history we have, literacy doesn’t get it’s right due. First, it seems unsexy, as if it’s about getting a child or an adult to read, ‘see spot run.’ It’s really about a question of integrity within each one of us,” said Mayfield.
The living jazz legend approaches New Orleans’ staggering illiteracy rate holistically. “Artistic illiteracy is a lot more of a fight for us to be a great community,” said Mayfield. “You want to be the greatest tourism attraction in the world, but you want to not have an environment in which people are writing about things nationally and internationally within our town? Artistic literacy is about a fight to grow collectively, to make it full circle. We need a continuation of those beautiful experiences,” said Mayfield.
“A person that hears Louis Armstrong’s trumpet, loves to read Faulkner, is a fan of Hemingway, and loves Degas, that person is most likely going to be the type of citizen that is going to protect New Orleans and make sure we have good levees,” Mayfield said, explaining artistic integrity.
In terms of whether or not the level of artistic integrity has changed since Louis Armstrong’s young days, Mayfield said the current system leaves much to be desired. “Louis Armstrong shot a gun for the fourth of July and they sent his ass straight to a boys home where they gave him a cornet,” Mayfield laughingly explained. “Let’s talk about any program now with some young kid who shoots a gun—that is not even thought of now.”
While Mayfield acknowledged that Louis Armstrong himself vehemently rejected the injustice and segregation he faced in New Orleans, he also said that something existed in Armstrong’s youth that is lacking now in our current educational and disciplinary systems.
“Unfortunately, what we’ve lost is the down-home sophistication, where a guy like Louis Armstrong was given the tools to explore his genius,” said Mayfield. “In the early 1900’s and late 1800’s, everybody had a piano, and if you didn’t, you could go to someone’s house.”
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