There was more to the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra than Irvin Mayfield, and when he got in trouble, they suffered too.

nojo photo
The NOJO circa 2012

In his best days with the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra (NOJO), Victor Atkins could have supported himself. Not his wife and kids, and a mortgage would have been tough, but he could have handled the one-room apartment he lived in for a while, furnished only with a futon and a piano. On some of the longer national tours early on, he got paid not on a per-gig basis but on a contract for the tour, and that worked out pretty well. For most of his stint in the NOJO though, he has been glad he had his day job teaching at University of New Orleans.

Money is an inescapable part of the NOJO story. The NOJO began as a prestige jazz organization, and in America, “prestige” is almost always linked with money. Irvin Mayfield didn’t envision the NOJO to play the people’s jazz in coffee shops, barrooms and the provisional spaces where music and people meet. Its model was Wynton Marsalis’ Jazz at Lincoln Center, where talented musicians and audiences understood jazz as high art and believed it belonged in elegant spaces that served as a monument to its cultural significance. “Art and culture is the stuff that really counts,” Mayfield told writer John Swenson in 2009. “Yes, we need clean streets, but use the culture as an economic engine that drives that.”

Money became a tangible part of the NOJO story when Mayfield’s pursuit of it became a legal problem for him and NOJO President and CEO Ronald Markham, as well as a PR disaster for the organization. Each revelation that accused Mayfield of using his position as Chairman of The New Orleans Public Library Foundation to funnel money to the NOJO, where he was Artistic Director, made it harder for the orchestra to perform as a whole or in the smaller ensembles that played at Irvin Mayfield’s Jazz Playhouse in the Royal Sonesta. Finally, in the summer of 2016 the NOJO Foundation and management felt that they had no choice but to give the NOJO a rest and let the name’s toxicity die down while they decided how to move forward without Mayfield. 

And with that, 20 or so musicians lost regular paychecks—paychecks that didn’t return until fall 2017 when the NOJO became a performing entity once again in a show that featured special guest Sheila E. The process was an anxious one, and it had bumps along the way, but the NOJO has taken meaningful steps to establish a life after Mayfield. It returns to Jazz Fest on Friday, May 4 when it plays the WWOZ Jazz Tent at 4:10 p.m., and the NOJO 7 has picked up a Playhouse-like residency, playing the Ace Hotel’s Three Keys monthly. The group plays two shows Friday night, one with Davell Crawford paying tribute to James Booker and a late show with Natasha Diggs and DJ Logic.

Victor Atkins played with Mayfield in the 1990s in Los Hombres Calientes, their Latin jazz band with drummer Jason Marsalis. When Mayfield began the NOJO in 2003 in part to play a piece commissioned by Dillard President Walter Kimbrough, he asked Atkins to be part of the group, and with the exception of short period when back problems forced him to take time off, Atkins has been a part of the NOJO since. 

The orchestra always had a larger presence outside New Orleans than it did at home. On the road, it played regularly and represented New Orleans jazz played at its pinnacle, but the NOJO never fit easily into New Orleans venues, so it struggled to develop a hometown presence. It was too big a band to fit on Tipitina’s stage easily, and it was a little off-brand for The House of Blues. It wasn’t enough of a draw for The Saenger or The Orpheum, so it played two or three times a year in New Orleans in a variety of spaces, often at the Contemporary Arts Center. That wasn’t enough to make real headway in a city that had so much jazz playing regularly at the time. To the extent that the NOJO had an identity, it was Mayfield.  

“Irvin was the face of the organization for so long,” says drummer Adonis Rose. Rose has been part of the NOJO since its inception as well, and he has known Mayfield since he was 15. He had played drums with Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, so he understood the gig and believed in the NOJO’s mission “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.” Still, he recognized that artistic issues came with Mayfield’s prominence. “When listeners connect to the artist more than the art, it’s not balanced,” he says.

Atkins thinks the NOJO never really had a chance to develop a local following and become part of the community, and because of that, it was respected but not loved. The face of New Orleans jazz in the late ‘90s and 2000s belonged to Kermit Ruffins, not Mayfield. After Katrina, the NOJO toured even more, taking New Orleans with it. The orchestra played 1,000-2,000 capacity concert halls, opening shows with a short film that showed the damaged city before playing nights of New Orleans music. That music was central to the band’s identity from the start, but it loomed even larger, so much so that the band had to add banjo and sousaphone players to suit the setlists.

In New Orleans though, Mayfield was a lightning rod, and it's hard to think that race didn’t play a role. He is a black man who never hid his ambition, his appreciation for the finer things in life, or his aspirations for a Wynton Marsalis-like place in the world—a place he saw firsthand when Marsalis was his mentor. He also committed one of New Orleans’ cardinal sins by appearing to be an opportunist. His desire to find a home for the NOJO prompted him to sign on to the planned National Jazz Center in 2006  that would have sprawled over the space currently occupied by the Hyatt Regency if the hurricane-damaged hotel had been demolished instead of renovated. The same pursuit led him be the most prominent name in 2009 to get involved in the plan by real estate developer and Mayor Ray Nagin associate Stewart Juneau to use FEMA money to remake the Memorial Auditorium as an arts complex.  

Mayfield’s forays into the nightclub business—to the extent he was involved—also earned snickers as he seemed to make Irvin Mayfield’s Jazz Playhouse in the Royal Sonesta in 2009 and the I Club in the JW Marriott Hotel in 2011 all about Irvin. But as Atkins points out, “He did employ through the NOJO and the I-Club and the Playhouse a lot of musicians.” The I Club only lasted a year and never achieved the success of the Jazz Playhouse, but Mayfield put jazz in New Orleans hotels where tourists could see it, and in a city like New Orleans where no single gig pays the rent but a living wage can be stitched together through a number of them, his ambition helped musicians get paid.

Members were never on salary, Atkins says. “We’re vendors.” But, he played many of the NOJO small group shows at the Playhouse, which paid well on Irvin’s nights. “It wasn’t just a gig where you showed up and played,” he says. The band rehearsed and learned new material, and it worked hard. “He’d play three hours and take a break. If there was still a crowd, he’d play on.”

Atkins never saw any behavior from Mayfield that gave him reason to be suspicious of his handling of money. “Irvin always stayed in nice hotels," he says. "He started staying at Ritz-Carltons,” but Atkins understood that Mayfield did so because he had connections with someone from The Ritz-Carlton. It was a total surprise when a friend called him and told him to watch the news because Irvin was on it.  

Adonis Rose says the band was on tour in 2015 when David Hammer’s stories first appeared, so the band learned about it between gigs. He had never seen a reason to distrust Mayfield, and he’d seen enough friends and family members deal with the law to understand that an accusation is just an accusation and not proof of anything. He took an innocent-until-proven-guilty stance, but he was frustrated by being blindsided with the news.

“I don’t think Irvin was very forward about giving information in a timely manner,” Rose says. But his short tenure so far as the artistic director for the NOJO has given him some perspective. “There are a lot of things as a leader that you have to deal with on a daily basis, and you don’t want your band carrying that load," he says. "You want them to come out, perform, have a great time, and have it be about the music.” Still, he would have liked a heads-up at the time that something was going on, and so did other members of the band. If the NOJO name was going to be dragged around, the musicians who had artistic, emotional, and financial stakes in it felt like they deserved at least that.

Bassist Grayson Brockamp didn’t see anything amiss either. He was the last member to join the group under Mayfield, and was with it for seven months before Mayfield stepped own. He says some musicians were quietly suspicious that there might be something to the revelations coming out in Hammer’s stories, but he hadn’t been with the NOJO long enough to have a clear appraisal of the situation. Mayfield’s optimistic view of the band’s future was appealing, but Brockamp recognized that his promises were big promises. “Irvin made this a division of Jazz at Lincoln Center, which means salaries, which means a home base for the musicians, which means job security,” he says. “This was all promised. [Mayfield and Markham] said, Listen, we’re working to get musicians on salary. It’s going to be like a real job.” Mayfield’s bold visions of the future didn’t square with checks for gigs or arrangements that often came late. Still, he enjoyed the gig and particularly playing with Rose. “In my opinion the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra sound is Adonis Rose and the aesthetics of New Orleans,” Brockamp says. “Soul, swing, lots of improvisers playing at one time. New Orleans music.”

The NOJO made its name on major commissions—2003’s Strange Fruit and 2006’s All the Saints—but it was never obvious that Mayfield had a vision that required 15 instruments. The NOJO won a Grammy for Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album for 2009’s Book One, but sometimes it seemed like Mayfield liked how it looked on him to have a jazz orchestra.

“It is the ultimate status symbol—to have a big band,” Brockamp says.

Still, one of the highlights from the end of Mayfield’s tenure was his “#______ LivesMatter” show in January 2016. “He spent some time making it not just a show,” Brockamp says, and during a Q&A session prompted by the show, the audience was asking what do we do? They were looking for leaders, he recalls. “There was a song dedicated to Trayvon Martin that was a showstopper.” 

“People loved it,” Rose says of the show. “A lot of people interpreted it as ‘Black lives matter,’ but that wasn’t the intent behind it. The intent was, You fill in the blank. The blank helped black lives connect as well as white lives”

At that point, investigations into Mayfield’s actions as president of the Library Foundation had been going on for eight months, and the news wasn’t getting better. Publicly, Mayfield kept his mouth closed, but behind the scenes, he talked to the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra Foundation about how to move forward. The band had one final hurrah together at Jazz Fest 2016. The orchestra played on the opening day, then when a deluge rained out Stevie Wonder’s set on Saturday, Wonder ended up at the Jazz Playhouse, where he played with Mayfield and NOJO members for more than two hours. The orchestra was scheduled to play a tribute to Wonder the next night at the House of Blues, so they had charts available, but as Nola.com’s Chelsea Brasted describes it: 

Wonder's performance at the Playhouse turned the club into more of a mad house as he offered up a stream-of-consciousness show that blew wherever Wonder wanted to go for about two hours. He arrived with fanfare, performed for 20 minutes, disappeared, reappeared, monologued, took lengthy drags on his harmonica, led his lucky crowd in singing "Happy Birthday" to his son and, at the finale, presented a breathlessly beautiful rendition of "Overjoyed."

The next week, Mayfield resigned.

He had called one meeting with NOJO Foundation board members and “full-time” members, as Atkins calls the longest-serving members of the band.. “Mayfield called a meeting with a few of the full-time cats—Ed Petersen, Barney Floyd—to tell us he was going to step down,” Atkins recalls, but those who weren’t part of the orchestra’s establishment learned secondhand. Brockamp wasn’t one of the “full-time” members, and he didn’t get a call or email that Mayfield was stepping down. He found out about it in the news. 

Before he left though, Mayfield called Rose to ask him to take over as Musical Director. Rose was home in Dallas when Mayfield called him with the news. “I thought he was bullshitting,” Rose says. He couldn’t imagine NOJO without Mayfield and paused for a moment to think. Then Irvin told him he was about to go into a meeting with the board, and he needed to know if he could give them Rose’s name as his replacement. Rose said yes. “Every musician thinks about being a leader at some point,” he says.

On July 5, 2016, the NOJO’s Board of Directors announced the changes, and then—nothing. NOJO gigs had never paid for themselves. The economics of a band that could include as many as 20 members are prohibitive, and the NOJO needed donations or money from its board to underwrite gigs. Mayfield’s toxic reputation at the time meant donations weren’t coming in, and the foundation could hardly spend money on shows while it worked out a deal to repay the Library Foundation. 

“We didn’t have any support,” Atkins says, so in the summer of 2016, the NOJO went on radio silence. “They didn’t even say, We’re taking a hiatus,” Brockamp recalls. Rose thinks that’s because there was no decision. “I don’t think anybody wanted the band to stop,” he says. “I think the situation and everything playing out the way it did caused the band not to be able to play.” Because the band had always played out of town more than in New Orleans, he hoped they’d go on tour.

That didn’t happen. Instead, some NOJO members including Brockamp played out the last few months of dates at the Jazz Playhouse without Mayfield. That year at Halloween, the Royal Sonesta ended its association with Mayfield and the NOJO when it chose not to renew their contract.  

For Atkins, the time without the band was painful. In the early 2000s, he played with Los Hombres Calientes, the NOJO, The Headhunters, and Delfeayo Marsalis in addition to teaching as an adjunct at University of New Orleans. He was busier than he could handle. After Hurricane Katrina, he had three young children and a house that washed away. He had to get serious and dropped all of his gigs except the NOJO to become full-time faculty at UNO. In the years after Katrina, he was just as busy with the NOJO, which meant he faced different challenges. He had a hard time getting subs for his classes when he’d go on the road for two weeks. In the summer of 2016, he found himself a professor of music without a professional gig anymore. For a long time, he figured that Rose would call and they’d restart the NOJO any day. When the call didn’t come, Atkins got worried.

“It started to feel after the first year like it could actually dissipate.”

Pt. 2 - The Rebirth