A Word With Irvin Mayfield, The Ambassador of Jazz
The Ambassador of Jazz
A Word With Irvin Mayfield
by Matthew S. Robinson
New Orleans has always been known as a legendary music town. From Louis Armstrong to Buckwheat Zydeco, the Big Easy has launched some of the biggest names in music. It seems that almost everyone is in a band. And for those who are not, there are artists like Irvin Mayfield to pick up the slack.
In addition to being a co-founder and driving force behind the popular Afro-Latin group Los Hombres Calientes (who will be appearing at Scullers Jazz Club on August 18 and 19), Mayfield is also the leader of the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, a collection of talented young performers from all over the south.
“I can’t lie about that I am pretty busy,” Mayfield laughs, “but I love to do it!”
In addition to his performance pursuits, Mayfield is also the Cultural Ambassador for the State of Louisiana and the City of New Orleans.
“That takes a lot of time too,” he says. “I have to transfer art into development and keep Jazz at the forefront of the creative industry.” “I played because my best friend played,” Mayfield admits. “All the girls liked him and he got good grades, so I wanted to be like him.” Though his new hobby may have brought him popularity, Mayfield says that he did not come to truly love it until he began to attend the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts at age 14.
“They took me on a tour to Germany,” Mayfield recalls. “That was not only my first time in Europe. It was my first time on a plane! And it amazed me that I could bring this music so far away and have people appreciate it.”
Convinced that he had found his calling, Mayfield began to study the history of the horn. “From that moment, I never had another doubt,” he says. “I wanted to carry on the legacy of Miles and Louis and Dizzy.” As a trumpet player in New Orleans, Mayfield was constantly being looked to as a bandleader.
“People expected me to have my own band together,” he explains, “so I had a band since I was 15.” After touring Greece at age 16, Mayfield entered (and eventually flunked out of) the University of New Orleans. When that was done, he went to New York with New Orleans neighbor Wynton Marsalis.
“That is where I met a lot of the people I work with now,” he explains, making special notion of Latin legend Chucho Valdez. “He was giving Wynton a lesson in Cuban music and I was just amazed at how familiar it was,” Mayfield says. “It reminded me of New Orleans music, so I started to look into it.”
Returning to New Orleans, Mayfield called drummer Jason Marsalis (Wynton’s brother) and musicologist Bill Summers. “At the time, I was deciding whether to move to New York for good,” he says, “so I figured I could put together a project in New Orleans that would at least bring me home every so often.”
A month later, that part-time project got signed to a record deal and Los Hombres Calientes (named after the Rap group The Hot Boys) was officially born.
Since that time, the band has grown, shrunk, and changed a great deal. Throughout it all, however, there have been Mayfield and Summers and that great Latin-New Orleans sound. “For our latest album, Volume 4, we actually went to the countries where the music comes from, like Jamaica and Brazil and the Dominican Republic,” Mayfield says. “We put it all into our shows, but the band still has a strong New Orleans sensibility.”
Currently, Mayfield and Summers are putting the finishing touches on Volume 5: Carnival which, Mayfield says, should be out early next year. “We left the final ‘e’ off ‘Carnival’ so people do not think we are a Spanish band,” he explains. “After all, from New Orleans to Brazil, there is a carnival all over the world, so that is what we wanted to capture.”
Speaking of ‘capturing,’ Los Hombres were recently captured themselves on a live DVD that was filmed at the House of Blues in New Orleans. “That was a bunch of fun,” Mayfield says. “It is a typical night in New Orleans and that was what we wanted to show. We wanted people to get a feel for the party atmosphere that we try to bring to every town we play.”
Unfortunately, Mayfield says, the DVD could only be so long. “When we are in New Orleans, we usually play for three hours straight,” he says. “The DVD can only offer so much. So I guess the only way to really get us is to come to the live shows.” Speaking specifically of his forthcoming Boston gigs, Mayfield maintains that the Hub gets a bad rap as a party town.
“Boston is one of the hardest partying towns we play,” he says. “The only difference is that, in New Orleans, people expect 10 PM shows to start at 12 while, in Boston, if we are ten minutes late, people get itchy.”
Mayfield makes another north-south distinction between his Jazz Orchestra and similar projects like old friend Wynton Marsalis’ Jazz from Lincoln Center. “Whereas Jazz from Lincoln Center is like fine wine, we are like corn bread and greens,” he suggests. “They are sophisticated. We are down home.”
Even so, Mayfield says, he is very proud of his home made orchestra. “The New Orleans Jazz Orchestra is the most significant Jazz institution in the South,” he says. “We play the music at the highest artistic levels at all times and we also have a strong educational initiative that takes us to schools wherever we tour in order to help develop Jazz curriculum and programming.”
In addition to bringing his beloved Jazz to schools throughout the South, Mayfield also brings it to educational and political venues throughout the world as his home state’s Cultural Ambassador, a new government position that he helped create.
“It’s hard to explain how important the arts are without being involved,” he says, “so that is what I do.”
As he looks forward to finishing his new album, starting another project with famed father Ellis Marsalis and beloved brother Aaron Neville, going to Hungary with his cultural attaché and touring with Los Hombres, the Jazz Orchestra and other artists, Mayfield continues to be thankful for all he has accomplished and all his music has allowed him to do.
“Music is always a good reason to get together,” he says, “so it works really well!”