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A Jazzman’s Jazzman

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Irvin Mayfield brings New Orleans music to the masses while keeping the artist his number one priorityIn 32 short years, Irvin Mayfield has become a music icon. The Grammy-winning trumpet player started early, which shouldn’t be a surprise since music is in his blood: His father played trumpet and so did his cousin, with Fats Domino. Following in their footsteps, in the fourth grade Irvin asked for the instrument that would launch his career. He graduated from the New Orleans Center of Creative Arts in 1995 and was offered a scholarship to the prestigious Juilliard, in New York City. Instead, he chose to attend the University of New Orleans, where he would study under Ellis Marsalis. In 1998, Mayfield co-founded the Latin jazz group Los Hombres Calientes, which would go on to earn a Billboard Award and Grammy nomination.

Since that time, Mayfield has spread his talents far and wide. He founded the New Orleans Jazz Institute at the University of New Orleans and became the founding artistic director of the 15-piece New Orleans Jazz Orchestra. This past year was a big one for Mayfield: Not only did his orchestra win a Grammy Award for its CD Book One, which was composed and arranged by Mayfield, but he was appointed to the National Council on the Arts by President Barack Obama.

While Mayfield is a big proponent of connecting jazz to academia, he also tries to make music available and appealing to those outside the classroom. He owns Irvin Mayfield’s Jazz Playhouse on Bourbon Street, a true jazz club, and operates his own record label, Poorman Mayfield Music Group, which recently released Amanda Shaw’s very successful Good Southern Girl. His enthusiasm and generosity of spirit couldn’t help but shine through when New Orleans Living spoke to him about his life, his business and his love of jazz.

How are things with the record label?
We are bucking the trend of being able to do business in New Orleans with Poorman Mayfield. I think my level of visibility is more valuable with the artist. They see me doing this, and they don’t mind doing it. Everybody and their mama got a record label, so it’s always about the artist. There’s only one Amanda Shaw; there’s only one Elvis Costello or Wynton Marsalis, so that’s why people buy records. If people are not into the music, nobody’s going to buy it.

What about the Playhouse?
Cedric Scott, vice president of A&R for Poorman Mayfield, came up with the name. It’s a team working constantly. What we were trying to create was an environment where everybody is a guest, very homey with a speakeasy kind of feel. You come in off Bourbon and are instantly changed, like it’s a vortex. You’re so comfortable. The music is just killer. The guests, musicians, staff, everybody’s having fun. But the people want more and more. We did that, what’s the next level? It’s an artist-driven thing there and on the record label.

What’s it like dealing with artists on a business level?
It’s hard to think of it as a business, and if you don’t really love this thing, it’s not the right business to get into, whether it’s booking the clubs or succeeding with the record label. Even being a start-up independent label, we’ve been able to put things together that are things that take normal labels 10 years to do. Working with our communications people, the PJ’s deal that we’ve done and our next live-performance stuff and jazz on the label, et cetera, but you have to really love people. Special people. Artists. When you do things for artistic reasons, it is the most unique and eccentric approach to things, which is at the crux of why people don’t think we’re serious about business in New Orleans, but we are.

What is the actual thing that consumers get from New Orleans and its people?
We are selling magic and dreams from here. Music is the only art form that is in the same space as emotion. We’re selling emotion to people. You can’t touch it necessarily, although this city has been built off of this emotion. We still struggle as a city and a region feeling like we are not legitimate. We are known for music and not serious stuff. No other place is as great at celebrating success as we are. Our brand is the love brand. I am trying to figure out how to sell it. It’s like everyone loves a fire department! They love them here, New York, Ireland. Why is that? That’s what I am trying to figure out.

How do you know where the next great artist is coming from?
Did you ever see that movie Ratatouille? One of the things they say in the movie is that not necessarily can anybody be a chef, but a great chef can come from anywhere. The next may not be someone who’s 19, they may be 70. You can never make a good one, you can only find.

What changes are taking place here in music production?
It’s like the restaurant business. Now the chefs are restaurateurs. So for us, it’s the artist in the visionary and leadership position, so we can make a decision based on what’s great. I got to develop a relationship with producer Trina Shoemaker for Amanda Shaw’s record because of who I know, and she produced for Sheryl Crow and a lot of folks. Now we can call her up. But the community here doesn’t necessarily understand the true business. We have this natural resource, like Saudi Arabia has oil, but nobody will fund our natural resource.

What else?
Being in this city, the ordinary is extraordinary everywhere else. That’s what makes it unique and great, and that’s why a young guy like Shamarr Allen can work with staggering people. Look at who is a fan of Kermit Ruffins, who Allen Toussaint has collaborated with; look at what Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews is doing. It’s staggering.