Musician, entrepreneur and arts enthusiast makes this New Orleanian a man to watch.
Irvin MayfieldSome people get started earlier, move a little faster and just innately know the real value of a good melody. That easily describes Irvin Mayfield, the New Orleans musician often most closely identified with the smooth Latin rhythms of Los Hombres Calientes, the group he co-founded with fellow musician Bill Summers. A new CD, “Volume 5: Carnival” was released last month. This month, under Mayfield’s direction, Basin Street Records releases “Strange Fruit,” a nine-movement opus with the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, and featuring the Dillard University Choir. Just two years ago Mayfield released the critically-acclaimed “Half Past Autumn,” a collaboration with legendary photographer and activist Gordon Parks. In between it all, Mayfield has found time to trumpet his way to such internationally known venues as the Blue Note, the Kennedy Center and Lincoln Center, while serving as cultural ambassador for the City of New Orleans. Somehow Mayfield has also found time to criss-cross the globe, and here at home develop and open Irvin Mayfield’s Over the City, the sleek new jazz club on the observation deck level of New Orleans’ World Trade Center.
If it all sounds like a lifetime of work, a decades-long body of artistic achievement, know this: Irvin Mayfield is 27 years old.
Mayfield dismisses any talk of his being a “prodigy” or his un-precedented list of achievements at such a young age. “When you look at the entertainment industry most people hit their stride in their twenties,” he says. Mayfield is more interested in talking about the importance of art. “The arts always connect with what’s going on socially, economically—I’m always a fan of how it all comes together. Look at jazz—what is it really except a true manifestation of democracy in music?”
That’s typical of Mayfield’s personal expression—it’s generally more substance than spin. And it’s often more worldly than what one might expect for a guy who grew up in New Orleans and honed his craft since his age was in the low single digits. “My mentors, my real mentors—well, many of them are dead, but they’re mentors just the same,” he says. “I’d include Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Walt Whitman, William Butler Yeats, Pablo Picasso, Paul Cezanne, Johannes Brahams, Igor Stravinsky, Gustav Mahler—love Mahler—Ludwig van Beethoven, Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Martin. When I was in London recently I went to the Globe Theater to see Shakespeare’s ‘Measure for Measure.’ I’m always trying to soak up the important things in life, the things that inspire us. That is what the arts really are.”
One could argue the very arts Mayfield salutes are no more than interpretations of the culture. Mayfield’s own “Strange Fruit” chronicles the lives of an interracial couple in the 1920s and the subsequent social and political consequences they endure after their affair is discovered. “Strange Fruit” was inspired by the “Without Sanctuary” exhibit that chronicles the history of lynching in the United States.
The rhythms that permeate his Los Hombres Calientes compositions are influenced by the real connection between New Orleans and the Caribbean. “Who could deny our cultural connection with places like Haiti?” Mayfield says. “This music has roots in Jamaica, Cuba, Brazil, so many places. Think of the similarities in all of these cultures and New Orleans—they all have beans and rice, their own dances, their own talk, their own cultural identity.”
It’s all very worldly, eminently international, but Mayfield’s true heart belongs to New Orleans. Sitting in his sun-drenched Uptown home (where a grand piano rests in the room most people would use for a dining room),Mayfield points to his work as director of Dillard University’s Institute of Jazz Culture, his commitment to the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, his enthusiasm about the new jazz club and his innate love for the music. It always comes back to the music. “It’s really about performing at the highest level at all times for me,” he says. “I think about two things mostly—how grateful I am for the opportunities, so grateful. And how excited I am about the upcoming projects, like the CD I’m going to do with Ellis Marsalis and Aaron Neville.”
As for the importance of his own art in his life, Mayfield sees life and art as synonymous. “Do you know that in ancient Chinese or African cultures there is no word for ‘art’?” he asks. “That’s because in those cultures art is life and life is art. Art is the understood celebration of life. I try to keep myself as much a part of that thought as I possibly can.” •