By Robin James
Irvin Mayfield (IM) recently spoke with MSR. Among the topics: the music of New Orleans, jazz vocalists that interest him now, his leadership as artistic director of Jazz at Orchestra Hall, and his upcoming CD A Love Letter to New Orleans, in conjunction with the April 6 concert by the same name, at Orchestra Hall.
MSR: You’ve written A Love Letter to New Orleans (Basin Street) by way of a new book and new album, which leads me to ask, why is the music of New Orleans sexy?
IM: First, it comes from the people. Music is the only art form in the same space as emotion. I think when you have a certain tradition for instance, the drums in New Orleans. New Orleans is the only place where the Africans were allowed to congregate and play on Sundays. So, definitely our music has that raw tribal feel to it,
At the same time, you have the blues, which was honed and perfected by Louis Armstrong, people like that. There’s something about the blues that’s just, you know, it’s erotic and provocative. And then on top of that…you have something tribal, but something that’s provocative, something that’s erotic and then something that is highly intelligent.
The music is something that was created by the underclass, but it doesn’t mean that the brilliance wasn’t there and the intelligence wasn’t there. I think there’s something about that paradoxical mixture that makes it very sexy and makes it very relevant.
MSR: There are several female vocalists of jazz who have birthdays in March and April such as Aretha Franklin, Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday, and Carmen McRae. They have sung many a romantic tune. Who are some living vocalists of jazz that you think have that ability to transport an audience to a romantic place? Who interests you now?
IM: In terms of singers, there’s a lot. Just to narrow it down to a few, I love Lizz Wright. Obviously, she’s been on the orchestra’s schedule twice in two years. I think she’s got a different way she’s coming from.
And I love Melody Gardot. I mean that literally and figuratively. I think she’s got a lot of what being an artist is about. She’s chosen the jazz idiom to speak out of, which is really lucky for jazz.
And there’s a young singer out in New Orleans named Sasha Masakowski (her father is New Orleans guitarist Steve Masakowski). She’s in her early twenties. She’s just getting started, but she’s pretty amazing, too. I think those are three very different, or very good examples, of what is being offered right now in terms of people using the voice as an instrument.
MSR: What is the most romantic jazz song in history, either composed or performed?
IM: It’s hard to answer, because how would you value romance? Instead of me giving a song, how about I give a couple of artists, a couple of examples?
Coleman Hawkins’ “Body and Soul” is clearly one of the most romantic recordings of all time. I think Sarah Vaughan’s version of “Stairway to the Stars” (from the movie Daddy Long Legs) is a beautiful song. Her voice…she can capture romance.
Abbey Lincoln: A song she did on one of her later records, where she just sang a cappella, is a beautiful song. It’s very poetic. She’s one of the most romantic singers I know.
I think Nina Simone captured a lot of romance, all of her material. I love her version of “I Loves You Porgy.” Miles Davis, he had some deep romantic sensibilities in his playing. Of course, hearing him play “’Round Midnight,” it’s deeply romantic. I could go on all day.
Louis Armstrong, I tell you that Louis Armstrong/Duke Ellington record…man, you want to talk about romantic. Or that Duke Ellington/John Coltrane record. I mean, “In a Sentimental Mood”…makes me want to get married all over again just thinking about it.
MSR: As the artistic director of Jazz for Orchestra Hall, when you think about your vision and decision making, how satisfied are you with what you’ve decided to present thus far in terms of an evolution of jazz concerts to date?
IM: I’m really happy with it. And I think the orchestra is really happy with it. I think primarily, it’s been at a very high artistic level the entire season. We’ve taken some risks. And I think people are really enjoying it, as reflected in the high attendance numbers for the concerts.
It also doesn’t hurt when you have Herbie Hancock, folks like that added to the season. Even with this concert coming up, presenting an extension of this book with Soledad [O’Brien] narrating and Aaron Neville, a good friend of mine that I look up to so much, and for the opportunity to just hang with him, I would do that anywhere.
To get to be able to bring him to Orchestra Hall with Jason Marsalis and Bill Summers, it’s so exciting. And I think the people can feel my excitement and the orchestra’s excitement about the performances and that translates to the audiences.
I have to put a little luck in there. Some of the stuff just worked. We’ve been kind of lucky.
MSR: Soledad O’Brien wrote the intro to your book, and you are the board chairman of a foundation for young women started by Soledad and her husband. Can you talk a little about the foundation’s mission?
IM: The great thing about Soledad’s foundation is she’s focusing on individual young women. She’s not only focusing on those at the top, or the best. Or, those only who are at the bottom; she’s focusing on all those in the middle who get left behind, individually. It might be things from like a contribution just to take care of your books, or paying your tuition, or paying for tuition and paying for your babysitter.
It’s also things like Soledad calls each and every one of her girls she selects personally and talks to them, and sees them. And they spend time with her. She mentors them.
And what’s amazing…the magic of it is you recognize it’s not so much [as] the money, it’s the love, and the time. You know I’ve learned a lot from watching her work with people. She has a tremendous amount of humanity. Something that you can take for granted so much when you think [about it]… I had a lot of teachers growing up. And I always thought that maybe I was a student who was a really good student and the teaching was about me.
Now that I’m older, I really recognize that it was their contribution to give. It was the fact that they understood. And I really didn’t have the chance to recognize that until I started watching Soledad deal with these girls personally. And a lot of times the things that they would think that wouldn’t be about the money, it would be about [the fact that] they knew that it was a real opportunity because Soledad cared.
She’s a powerful, powerful woman, a classic global citizen for our country. And she’s obviously one of my best friends. I’m just happy to be around her and helping her do the stuff that she’s doing.
See more on A Love Letter from New Orleans in “James on Jazz” also on MSR Online.
For more information about Irvin Mayfield, and Soledad O’Brien’s foundation, visit www.irvinmayfield.com and www.obrienraymondfoundation.org. For tickets to the concert A Love Letter from New Orleans featuring Irvin Mayfield and his quintet, hosted by Soledad O’Brien with special guests Jason Marsalis, Bill Summers, and Aaron Neville, visit www.minnesotaorchestra.org.
Robin James welcomes reader responses to [email protected]