Bandleader Irvin Mayfield, like The Great Gatsby, trumpeted an “extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness.”
Founder of the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra (NOJO) and owner of Irvin Mayfield’s Jazz Playhouse at the Royal Sonesta, he catalyzed the $10 million People’s Health New Orleans Jazz Market that opened last year in Central City.
Mayor Nagin launched Mayfield as a cultural ambassador with six-figure grants to NOJO. Mayfield joined boards, including the New Orleans Public Library Foundation.
His image took a hit with a WWL-TV investigation by David Hammer on how Mayfield and NOJO president Ron Markham, who was also president of the Library Foundation, changed its bylaws. After Mayfield helped land major grants for the Foundation, he and Markham steered $1.03 million to help build the Jazz Market.
The 1991 Foundation bylaws called for the board to use donations “judiciously for the purpose of purchasing books and other informational materials and sponsoring library-related programs.” The 2014 revision called for promoting literacy and “projects for the benefit of the local community” – an opaque definition – giving top officers permission to call meetings on 24-hour notice. As president, Markham had “sole discretion to give full effect to the intentions” of the resolution. Meaning, elasticity, to define “benefit of the community.”
David Hammer, a stellar journalist, probed the public documents; Mayfield refused his interview requests; Markham on-camera showed a library hub with terminals in the Jazz Market lobby for Central City youth. Was it worth a $1 million? Could the Jazz Market have been built without that gift from the library foundation?
Mayfield and Markham resigned from the Foundation.
I have known Mayfield for years, attended parties at his home and written several pieces about him. At the first interview, in 2007, he scanned my bookcase and said: “Give me a reading list.” I did, plus a couple of books. He had the ego of a heat-seeking missile, but impressive energy and intellect. As a restless University of New Orleans undergrad in the jazz program under Ellis Marsalis, he dropped out, went to New York City and lived for a stretch with Wynton Marsalis, who became his role model.
Jazz at Lincoln Center, which Wynton Marsalis founded, became the model for an urban space housing NOJO.
Last spring, he released a lavish coffee table book with seven CDs in sleeves, celebrating his career with NOJO. I gave the book and the Jazz Market good coverage in a piece for The Daily Beast. Then Hammer’s reporting began. Egg-cheeked, I advised Daily Beast editors in New York City. They ordered a follow-up. I obliged, citing Hammer’s coverage, a not-favorable piece.
Mayor Mitch Landrieu told NOJO to return the funds. NOJO board chair Ron Forman said they would.
Hammer reported that federal authorities were investigating.
In February, I got a strange call from a mutual friend of Mayfield’s saying that Mayfield understood why I had to do The Daily Beast follow-up, but NOJO’s books were in order and he wanted to explain things for me. I was tempted, but declined. It would have taken a huge time investment to assess all available documents. I was incredulous. Mayfield avoids Hammer and turns to me for image polish? I would’ve gone to him armed for bear.
In March, the state legislative auditor released a NOJO audit citing “material weaknesses and significant deficiencies” in book-keeping. Mayfield, as artistic director, and his production company earned $210,000 with “no written management agreement.”
Dan Forman, Ron’s son, was on the Foundation Board that approved the bylaw changes. When Hammer asked Ron about this, Ron Forman said, “You’re going into an area where I’m questioning your values and ethics. … There’s no conflict.”
Forman questions the reporter’s ethics! And that $1 million from the Foundation Board went to help build a jazz club?
NOJO has backed off a full repayment pledge, offering $436,000 on a timetable, the rest to come from – NOJO fundraisers!
Mayfield never apologized, perhaps by his lawyer’s whisper. The Jazz Market is both his liability and defense. If he takes a legal hit, will it thrive? Meanwhile, the merry narcissist prances like Gatsby, blind to ethics, with an eye for the next deep pocket.