The NOJO went through growing pains as it prepared to reintroduce itself last fall.
The NOJO 7 picked a good night for launch party. The threat of rainstorms forced the cancellation of the 2018 French Quarter Fest that Saturday, so the crowd that packed into the Ace Hotel’s Three Keys was past ready for music. The band met the moment with a very New Orleans set that included vocalist Nayo Jones leading “St. James Infirmary” and “Hey Pocky-Way.” Sousaphone player Steven Glenn powered an athletic dash through the Mardi Gras Indian funk of “Let’s Go Get ‘em,” with sax player Ricardo Pascal soloing against the street beat powered by Glenn, electric bassist Amina Scott, and NOJO artistic director Adonis Rose on drums. When Ashlin Parker took his trumpet solo, the vibe changed entirely. The groove still pushed, but Rose moved it to thin clicks on his cymbals while Ryan Hanseler supported Parker with rich, pillowy chords on the electric piano. The set presented New Orleans classics as compositions as rich and sophisticated as anything in the jazz canon.
The NOJO 7 is a spin-off of the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, and the French Quarter Fest show started a new monthly residency at Three Keys. It’s a situation NOJO members are familiar with because they held down a similar steady gig at New Orleans Jazz Playhouse in the Royal Sonesta from 2009 until October 2016, when the NOJO’s then-artistic director Irvin Mayfield’s radioactive public image became too much for the hotel. The controversy surrounding Mayfield made it hard for the band to play in New Orleans, and when the NOJO lost the Jazz Playhouse gig, the musicians in the group lost an income stream. The return of the NOJO last fall helped restart that stream, and the NOJO 7 one step. Another is Adonis Rose & NOJO Jam, which plays two shows Thursday night at Snug Harbor.
The NOJO is not in a position to put musicians on salary. It’s the dream everyone connected with the NOJO mentions, and it’s one Mayfield used to hope for during his tenure. Right now, the organization is just working to get musicians paid. “We try to take care of them in other ways that we have some control over,” says the new NOJO President and CEO Sarah Bell, who replaced the equally controversial Ronald Markham.
When Mayfield and Markham stepped down from their position with the NOJO on July 5, 2016, nothing about the orchestra’s future was clear. The press release also stated that Rose would take over as musical director, but with no NOJO gigs, it was hard to see what that meant. Rose wasn’t sure either. He taught at University of Texas at Arlington, performed, helped to produce a festival, and lived his life in Texas. He never really, really thought the NOJO was done, but he had moments of doubt when his phone didn’t ring.
“When a band doesn’t play, things start to run across your mind,” he says.
At that time, Sarah Bell was working with the NOJO board. She started in development in the NOJO in July 2014 and didn’t become CEO and President until February 2017. She couldn’t square her experience with Mayfield with the news reports, but she couldn’t deny that the news reports made him a drag on the whole operation and worked to put some distance between him and the organization. The board called for a forensic audit in the summer 2016 that showed that the money was spent the way the books say it was. Bell acknowledges that the bigger concern was where the money came from, but she and the board wanted to make sure there no surprises waiting to be found.
The initial period of unintentional inaction on the part of the NOJO morphed into a strategy to keep a low profile while the board worked to determine what damage had been done to the organization and how it could repaired. The board signed a memorandum of understanding with the Library Foundation to repay the money—so far, it has made two payments with money the board raised—while Bell focused on the NOJO’s community outreach elements. A big part of that job was keeping the Jazz Market open and running the building, which is no small task since the organization’s basic operating expenses for the building and four salaries run in the neighborhood of $50-60,000 a month. It’s tempting to say that the Jazz Market should be closed when not in use, but in the non-profit world—and the NOJO is a non-profit—the mission drives the decision-making more than the bottom line.
The mission statement reads, “The New Orleans Jazz Orchestra is a non-profit organization whose mission is to continue and strengthen the legacy of Jazz throughout local and global communities by providing access to unparalleled performances, creative gathering places, and authentic community engagement. We move forward in our mission with the Grammy Award-winning New Orleans Jazz Orchestra and the New Orleans Jazz Market; the only stand-alone facility built specifically for Jazz in New Orleans. The NOJO prides itself in working with the community to offer services to local non-profits and musicians as well as educational opportunities for area youth.” Bell and the board saw the building itself as an essential part of the NOJO’s outreach to the neighborhood.
“The perception is that everything shut down when [Mayfield and Markham] left, but the only thing that stopped was the band playing,” Bell says.
Bell rented out the Jazz Market for special events to raise money and support other non-profits, but she didn’t want it to simply become a rental space and limited the number of bookings she would take. On Wednesdays, the band Cool Nasty hosted a jam session for musicians, poets, comedians, and performers, but she worked to make sure that the space was available for musicians that need a place to practice. She wanted to keep the Jazz Market open as a resource for the Central City community that lives near its location on Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard.
For a generic non-profit, fundraising is hard. For the NOJO, it’s even harder because the numbers are bigger. The concerts don’t pay for themselves, much less other activities. There’s no way that ticket revenues in a 300-seat venue can cover concert costs that can cost between $25-30,000 to put on. The toxicity associated with Mayfield’s name made it foolish to try to raise money in 2017, so Bell and board let time work whatever healing magic it could.
The band members, like Rose, were worried about the group’s future. “We met as a band to try to find a way to stay together to play the music, but we could never get it together,” pianist Victor Atkins says.
At the time, Atkins was teaching at UNO, so he had a steady income, as did fellow UNO faculty member and NOJO member Ed Petersen. Some like bassist Grayson Brockamp had less regular income streams and had to get back into the hustle of the musician looking for gigs. He had to network and show his face in clubs and do what he could to let people know he was available and looking to work. A year later in June 2017, the band started to get together for twice-monthly rehearsals, even though they didn’t have any shows on the books. They wanted to play, and to the extent that there was a plan on their part, it was a vague If you build it, they will come.
“When I made the calls, the band came back,” Rose says. Almost everybody returned who was part of the lineup that played the Stevie Wonder tribute at the House of Blues on Sunday, May 1, 2016 after the last day of Jazz Fest. One saxophone player had moved to New York City so he was unavailable, and a few peripheral members chose not to return, but for the most part, the NOJO as it existed before the hiatus came back together.
He wanted to change the narrative and counteract the ambient negativity toward the NOJO that the slow drip of bad press fed. “We had to say something—musically,” he says. “We had to perform, whether we could get paid or not.”
He asked the musicians if they were willing to work without getting paid if necessary because he didn’t know when or if there would be money to pay them, and they said said yes. Rose was uncomfortable about asking musicians to work for free because he knew what it meant. Musicians are sensitive about being asked to play for free. No one asks an accountant to do taxes for free, or asks a roofer to reshingle a house for free. No one talks about the good exposure that will come to a dentist for doing a free dental check-up.
Being asked to work for free wasn’t just an affront to to musicians’ dignity and sense of self, though. In 2012, Sweet Home New Orleans’ “State of the Music Community Report” found that musicians earned an average of $17,800 a year, and that number had been static since 2008. Even if NOJO musicians earned on the high side of that number, those are poverty-level wages, particularly for those with families.
“I had to put it on the table,” Rose says. “The only people who were going to bring this organization back—in addition to our board—was us.”
Rose got a promotion from musical director to artistic director when he returned, but that affected his workload more than his money since he worked without a paycheck for his first six months. During that time, he went through the books and paperwork to understand the situation he was stepping into. In the process, he learned that there were occasions when the band played out of town gigs that included workshops with the band. Money was budgeted in some cases for the musicians to get paid for those classes, but they didn’t. Rose took those discoveries in stride. “Leaders make money off of things that we don’t make money off all the time,” he says. “That’s just a normal thing. There’s a lot of time and planning and dealing with people and expenses and things that we don’t know anything about as musicians that leaders have to deal with. So I can’t point a finger at [Mayfield] and say he was wrong for doing that.” That doesn’t mean it’s standard procedure.
“I worked for people who took losses for me, and for people who wouldn’t take losses for me,” Rose says.
The restart came with growing pains. Grayson Brockamp began having doubts after the first rehearsal. He felt left out in 2016 when Mayfield had a meeting with the long-time members of the band before he announced his resignation. Since everybody in the NOJO had a stake in its future, he didn’t see a reason to create divisions within the band.
The request to work for free didn’t set him off at the first rehearsal. He was more bothered by how disorganized it was. It took more than an hour for the musicians to all drift in—as it did under Mayfield, Brockamp says—and once they were there, no one had gone through the musicians’ folders to make sure that everybody had the music they needed. Because of the late start and need to get the music organized, Rose wanted the band to stay late and keep working. Brockamp agreed, but he let Rose know before the next rehearsal that he was going to have to leave on time.
“The guys didn’t like that,” Rose says.
Victor Atkins saw the disorganization too, but his impression was that Rose had to do everything to prepare for the rehearsal. The organization had 12 people on staff during Mayfield and Markham’s tenure, but it was cut by two-thirds after they left. The staff that used to maintain the music library, administer the folders, and set up for rehearsal were among the downsized.
“After the first rehearsal, I started to put away music stands because I realized after the first time we did it that he was the one who had to do it,” Atkins says.
Brockamp had written arrangements for the NOJO in the past, and to help earn some money, he did more. Arrangements that used to earn him $250 each paid much less under the new circumstances. “I did receive a check for $300, but that’s what they gave for five charts,” he says. “It was a huge sacrifice of my time to write the arrangements for NOJO. It was insulting and they ripped me off.”
Brockamp saw all of the issues as indicative of an overall lack of professionalism, but he liked the music, and he liked playing next to Rose. He made his peace with the rehearsal situation because he couldn’t stay mad and he couldn’t expect a group of musicians who had practiced one way for more than a decade to suddenly change.
The first concert came October 26, 2017 with special guest Sheila E. Bell and the board felt that enough time had passed that the NOJO could play without controversy. They talked to Rose and everybody agreed. “In order create a big enough buzz to rev the engines again, we needed to bring in a really big name,” Bell says. Sheila E.’s tribute to Prince on the BET Awards after he died in 2016 renewed interest in her, and Rose felt that selecting a drummer to be the guest made sense in a show that was going to introduce a drummer as the NOJO’s new leader.
When Rose told the band that they had funding for the show, Brockamp had doubts. He wasn’t sure how she fit into a show that he understood as an opportunity to reintroduce the band, nor did he see how she fit into the austerity budget the band had dealt with all summer. Rose saw the special guest as consistent with the NOJO’s past. It had a long-standing relationship with vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater, and many New Orleans greats including Allen Toussaint, Nicholas Payton, and Trombone Shorty had been advertised guests with the band in the past.
At one point as the show approached, Rose announced that a donor said he was contributing $15,000. Brockamp heard that as a possibility that musicians would get paid for the show, but he became anxious when he did some back of the napkin math. Deduct her performance fee and travel and lodging for Sheila E. and what would you have left? Brockamp worried that the musicians were getting financially shafted as money was being spent on everyone but them.
There was a bigger problem, though: That check never came. Bell says a check came in before the show to help finance the concert, but it wasn’t that big. The $15,000 number came through Rose after an enthusiastic supporter told him about the donation he planned to make. “This individual wanted me to let the band know,” he says. After the concert, other fans excited by the show and the return of the NOJO told Brockamp and the other musicians that they planned to make donations as well. Those checks were never cut either. It’s a common phenomenon, so much so that Rose put little faith in those promises. Brockamp did and wanted to know if the musicians were going to get paid—a question he didn’t get answers to. Bell agrees that the process of gearing the NOJO up again revealed some growing pains, particularly on the communications end. “There could have been times when things felt unprofessional and chaotic because the board said, Do a concert, and we were figuring it out as we went,” she says.
Frustrated by the lack of response to his emails, Brockamp sent one to the entire band reiterating his concerns about payment and where the money was going. “A lot of us expressed a willingness to perform for free to get the ball rolling, but I don’t think we expected a show like the Sheila E. concert, where so much money was invested, spent, and made except by the musicians,” he wrote.
Rose didn’t feel a band email was the way to deal with the questions, and after a short, pointed email exchange, Brockamp was fired and replaced with Amina Scott.
“I like Grayson, but Grayson was trying to lead the band,” Rose says. “He was questioning me about what I was doing and the decisions that I was making in terms of direction, how we rehearsed—everything.”
Brockamp and the band were paid for the show a few weeks later, and the musicians have been paid for every gig since. “I would love to pay musicians far more than I do,” Bell says. “It’s what I can pay and know I can pay. In a lot of ways, we’re a start-up again.” She, Rose, and the staff also worked to create better systems after the October concert to make the experience more efficient and transparent.
Rose sees those months leading up to the first show as a learning experience, but Victor Atkins didn’t see evidence of the behind the scenes drama. “I was really impressed, to be honest with you,” he says. “Cats respect him, the way he carries himself and leads from the drum set. I think rehearsals were very productive.” He was also impressed by Rose’s connections and drive as he started lining up shows. “After the gig, Adonis said we’re going to do the Christmas show with Dee Dee.”
The band went from more than a year of inactivity to a full schedule that included Sheila E. in October, a Christmas concert with Dee Dee Bridgewater, and in 2018 shows with Robert Glasper, Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah, Ledisi, and Eric Benet. That’s far more than anyone expected when rehearsals resumed, and it translated to five sellout shows with little promotion. “We have an opportunity to keep the base that we have and expand,” Bell says.
Rose understands concerns about the guest-heavy and looks forward to the day when the NOJO carries a show on its own—this year, he thinks. He doesn’t worry about establishing a NOJO identity because it’s clear in his mind. “You can have our band play and Delfeayo Marsalis’ band play and it will sound totally different, even with overlapping members,” he says.
Because the music marketplace is dominated for for-profit entities, it’s easy to think of NOJO as one as well and expect the same logic and impulses to drive behavior. Tying the band to its financial bottom line is risky though. “If you’re Michael Bublé, if you’re Harry Connick Jr., you’re don’t have a non-profit. It’s a business,” Rose says. “You’re a star, you’re an artist, and you take the band out on the road. That’s just what it is. Non-profits don’t work like that. We’re used to taking losses on everything.”
Rose sees the winter and spring programming as consistent with the organization’s mission. “I wanted to bring in artists that we could expose to what it is that we do, and in return, give our audiences and musicians an opportunity to work with musicians who otherwise would never come here and work with a jazz orchestra,” he says. He can’t sell enough tickets to cover costs, so his focus has been on creating meaningful jazz experiences.
“The fact that we can come into our space and perform with wonderful artists—that’s success,” he says. “When we get up on the stage and the energy—when you feel the energy, we feel the energy—that’s success. We have to think about selling tickets, but we’re not making money anyway. Presenting great art—that’s success for me.”