As Irvin Mayfield faces trial, it's important to focus on what he's really on trial for.

irvin mayfield photo
Irvin Mayfield

When Keith Spera interviewed Irvin Mayfield after one of his birthday gigs at the Little Gem Saloon in December, Mayfield said, “I’m trying to do the best I can do, doing my job, when I get up there…. When you’ve got kids, when you’ve got to pay the bills … that recording session doesn’t care about Entergy. Practice doesn’t care if it’s Christmas—you still have to practice…. Me being a trumpet player, no matter what happens, I’ve got to play the trumpet.”

Mayfield presented himself as just another musician doing what musicians do. During the show Spera saw, he even played the kind of material gigging musicians in New Orleans play, including “St. James Infirmary,” “Winin’ Boy Blues,” and in the spirit of the holiday season, “Baby Please Come Home for Christmas.” The problem with that assertion and Spera letting it stand without comment is that Mayfield’s horn has been his side hustle for a decade. It is at the heart of his activity, but the job that paid his bills has been artistic director of the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra (NOJO), and white collar work earned him a six-figure salary. His trumpet didn’t make his deal with the Royal Sonesta to create Irvin Mayfield’s Jazz Playhouse or with the J.W. Marriott Hotel to create the I Club. The issues that got him in trouble stem from his efforts to finance the NOJO and pay for the building of the New Orleans Jazz Market, which he envisioned as a home for the NOJO. Yes, part of that money went to his salary, but the Mayfield story is better understood not as a musician’s story but as one of white collar crime.

The media hasn’t framed the story that way, largely for prosaic reasons. The public first met Mayfield as a trumpet player, and his rise was newsworthy because a trumpet player moved into New Orleans’ halls of political and economic power. That’s a hard identification to shake. David Hammer’s writing uncovering the story helped to shape the narrative as well. He investigated the way Mayfield, as a member and eventually president of the New Orleans Public Library Foundation, earmarked approximately $1.4 million for NOJO use, particularly but not solely for the construction of the Jazz Market, which was to also serve as a branch of the library system dedicated to music. As an investigative reporter for WWL-TV, Hammer has followed the story focusing on the exploits of Mayfield and to a lesser extent, Ronald Markham, then the NOJO CEO, who also received a six figure salary and served on the Library Foundation board with Mayfield. Although some of the specifics presented as evidence of Mayfield’s indulgence are specific to him as a musician—specifically, the $15,000 gold-plated Elysian Trumpet that he commissioned—Hammer has largely treated the story as a business one. 

But because the story is ongoing, Hammer accompanies each new development with a partial recap, and that means each new story includes a walkthrough of the story in bullet points. As the story gets pared down, it focuses on the gaudier aspects of the accusations against Mayfield: Mayfield and Markham rewrote the foundation bylaws to make it easier for them to move the money to the NOJO, Mayfield spent $15,000 on a gold-plated trumpet, and Mayfield and an assistant spent $18,713 during a five-night stay at the Central Park Ritz-Carlton in New York. The parts left out of the story are ones that Hammer doesn’t know yet, like why the board members allowed Mayfield and Markham to give themselves almost imperial power over the board’s donations. Nor do we know how NOJO board members—including Entergy’s Dan Packer and head of the Audubon Nature Institute Ron Forman—responded to these remarkable influxes of library money, or such gaudy expenditures. 

Hammer did uncover that Forman’s son Dan was on the Library Foundation board and signed the revised articles of incorporation that allowed the board to contribute to organizations other than the public library, and he discovered that Dr. Corey Hebert served on both the library foundation and NOJO boards in 2013, a year before the donations began. 

Recapping the story without other business people in the story reinforces the narrative that one of a sly, ambitious musician climbed the political ladder to enrich himself, but fell because of his overreach and greed. There’s likely truth in that construction of the story, but it’s too simple. Foundation boards exist to raise and dispense money, so it’s hard to believe neither board was curious about the movement about large sums of it. Because of the overlap between boards, it certainly looks possible if not probable that others knew what was happening and facilitated Mayfield’s plans. At the least, they did nothing to stop them. It’s very possible that this story is a window into foundation boards—tax-exempt non-profit organizations that control a lot of money—and into the way a Mardi Gras town really does business. That story might not be as sexy as one that illustrates the Karmic Fist in action, but it would say a lot more about how money and power really work in New Orleans, and it would likely be closer to the truth in this case.