Few musicians are as identified with their city as trumpeter, composer and educator Irvin Mayfield is with New Orleans.
An official cultural ambassador for the city, Mayfield founded the 18-piece New Orleans Jazz Orchestra in 2002 and launched the New Orleans Jazz Institute at the University of New Orleans in 2008. A year later, Mayfield added yet another venture to his portfolio, opening Irvin Mayfield’s Jazz Playhouse in the French Quarter, where he hosts regular jazz jams. And in April, the NOJO will inaugurate a new home, The New Orleans Jazz Market, planned as a performing arts venue and jazz community center.
“It’s really special to do that in the place where you were born,” Mayfield said in a recent phone interview. “But I see my work when I travel as the same thing. Instead of building a narrative about New Orleans with words, I can build it with bricks and mortar, or I can build it with sounds.”
Mayfield will be telling his city’s musical story to South Florida on Thursday, when he leads the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra in concert for the Adrienne Arsht Center’s Live at Knight concert series.
“What we are trying to bring to the Arsht Center is a celebration,” he says. “And it’s not a pass-the-champagne-please celebration. It’s sweaty. It’s hot. It’s fun. People dance, people sing. It’s the kind of celebrations that happen in cities that are surrounded by water. It’s the kind of party that happens in New Orleans.”
For South Florida, home to two of the largest Cuban and Haitian communities outside Cuba and Haiti, reconnecting with New Orleans, even if just musically, can feel a bit like meeting a long lost relative. There are many reasons, says Mayfield, who sees “an obvious relationship between New Orleans, considered by many the northernmost city of the Caribbean, and Miami” noting especially their diversity. And then there is the shared history.
Founded in 1718, New Orleans was ruled by Spain from 1769 to 1803. During that time Havana, founded in 1515, was larger than any city in English-speaking North America. In his 2010 essay The Latin and The Jazz, noted musician and author Ned called New Orleans “Havana’s little sister city.”
The musical dialog between New Orleans and Havana was deep, rich and complex, but it largely stopped in the early ’60s with U.S. sanctions on post-Revolution Cuba.
“The conversation was interrupted from a political standpoint,” Mayfield emphasizes. “But the reality is that from the musical standpoint that conversation has been fully engaged for hundreds of years.”
Mayfield has joined in that musical conversation. He credits Cuban pianist, composer and bandleader Chucho Valdés, whom he first met in New Orleans, with his discovery of Afro-Cuban music. In 1998 that led Mayfield to organize the jazz group Los Hombres Calientes, which included drummer Jason Marsalis and percussionist Bill Summers. The ensemble’s five albums have explored the musical connections between New Orleans, Cuba, Haiti, the Dominican Republic and other African-rooted cultures in the Caribbean.
“That triangle New Orleans-Cuba-Haiti is very, very special — and has not been explored enough,” Mayfield says. “Every Haitian who came to New Orleans for a period of time came through Cuba. So when we speak of the Haitian influence we really need to re-imagine what it means.”
Mayfield put his work with Los Hombres Calientes on hold after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Instead he focused on turning pain and loss, including the death of his father in the storm, into music. Among the resulting projects are All The Saints, which premiered in 2008, and Elysian Fields Jazz Suite, which debuted in 2010. This big band piece was inspired by Elysian Fields, a historic avenue in New Orleans where Irvin Mayfield Sr.’s body was found.
“Ten years have gone by. For obvious reasons I needed to pay attention then to where I was and what that meant to really build a foundation,” Mayfield says. “I crave for the new … but I feel that is important to recognize that you can’t have the new without having a foundation to build it upon. … Los Hombres Calientes was about New Orleans as a Caribbean city, as a port city, as an African city. Perhaps now it’s a great time to go back to it and explore.”
And Mayfield says life in his home city has once again become cause for celebration. “Most folks would tell you that the best time to live in New Orleans is right now,” he says. “That’s something for which we can be really proud, really excited about.
“Sometimes we think cities are buildings and landscapes, but cities are people and what makes New Orleans special is that people who live in New Orleans love the city,” he says. “It doesn’t mean that we don’t have any challenges or issues, because we have quite a bit of them. But we have people who believe in this place.”
If you go
What: A Night in New Orleans starring Irvin Mayfield & The New Orleans Jazz Orchestra
When: 8 p.m. Thursday
Where: John S. and James L. Knight Concert Hall at the Adrienne Arsht Center, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami
Info: 305-949-6722 or arshtcenter.org.