Bridgewater and Mayfield: Salute to New Orleans’ resilience

Post date: May 21, 2015 2:12:35 PM

  • Andra Jackson, THE AUSTRALIANMAY 21, 2015 12:00AM
  • Jazz trumpeter Irvin Mayfield is one of the many thousands of New Orleans residents whose lives were changed forever by the fury of Hurricane Katrina in Aug­ust 2005. He lost his father and family home.

In commemorating the 10th anniversary of the disaster, he prefers to focus on the resilience of his city’s people rather than the suffering and the loss of more than 1400 lives.

That’s why he and singer Dee Dee Bridgewater have commissioned music that pays homage to the people of New Orleans.

“We knew the anniversary was coming up and we wanted to make sure we had an appropriate message,’’ Mayfield says.

It is the music he, Bridgewater and the 15-piece New Orleans Jazz Orchestra will present when they perform for the first time in Australia next month. They are appearing in Sydney and will be the closing act at the Melbourne International Jazz Festival.

The celebrated, Grammy-winning Bridgewater is no stranger to Australian audiences. Mayfield’s name may not yet have the same reach. However, in New Orleans he is a favourite son. At just 36, he is a highly respected trumpeter — he took up the instrument at nine — a composer and orchestra artistic director. His style of playing is contemporary while reflecting a lineage that can be traced back to Louis Armstrong as well as to soul and funk influences. He is a university professor, a published author, has a jazz club in Bourbon Street named after him and is a cultural ambassador for the city.

In New Orleans he is man of the moment. Portraits of Mayfield adorn the covers of two magazines, showing a sinewy torso with tattoos covering his body like a spider web as he poses with his trumpet. His New Orleans Jazz Orchestra and Bridgewater headlined at last month’s New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, just as the orchestra found a new home and Mayfield’s latest book arrived in stores.

The charismatic Mayfield has a lot of pull in the music-obsessed city where even the mayor plays the trumpet. The recent opening of the Peoples Health New Orleans Jazz Market in the city’s downtown district was the realisation of a dream for Mayfield. The sleek, ultra-modern, glass-fronted building includes a concert venue and bar, and rehearsal and music education facilities. It is the city’s first purpose-built venue for jazz and its opening was a gala affair.

Mayfield’s new book is titled New Orleans Jazz Playhouse after his jazz venue at the Royal Sonesta Hotel and includes seven CDs recorded live at the club. Mayfield’s readers step into a world largely bounded by New Orleans. The collection of essays explores themes such as the city and its music and, on a more personal level, his father’s decision, as Katrina approached, to stay and protect his house.

On stage, Mayfield can come across as almost bumptious as he loudly and rakishly exhorts his audience to “make some ­noyseee”. Offstage he is more laid-back. We meet before his New Orleans festival appearance and he arrives wearing a white T-shirt, black pants and sunglasses. He’s quietly spoken and measured in his responses.

He recalls that in 2005, as warnings were issued that the hurricane-prone city and surrounding areas were about to feel Katrina’s wrath, he left the city. His schoolteacher mother evacuated but his father chose to stay. In one essay he explains that “people wouldn’t naturally evacuate for hurricanes. The fact that he didn’t evacuate wasn’t much of a big deal. People only evacuated because they didn’t want to experience discomfort.

“It was only later on that people recognised that this hurricane was something different.”

At a previous festival, Mayfield dedicated a song to his father’s memory — a song his father had taught him. It was a poignant moment when he explained it was all he had to remember him by: “I meant I didn’t have anything in terms of mementos because my mother’s house was completely destroyed by water from the hurricane,” he says.

He describes his father as an ordinary man who worked in the post office and who, like many people in New Orleans, was an amateur musician. “He played in high school. He played in the same high school the Neville Brothers went to.” Referring to the song he dedicated to his father, he says, “Actually it was Just a Closer Walk with Thee, which was the first song I learned to play. He taught me that.” After that performance, he says, “I retired it.” There is no mistaking the emotion behind those few words.

Katrina was a “major natural disaster or major natural phenomenon that turned into the biggest man-made disaster in American history”, he says, referring to the failures of the emergency response system. But he believes it is important to move on: “It is the resilience that people show towards their place that is the true spirit of a place and a people.”

For their Katrina commemoration, Mayfield and Bridgewater have opted to celebrate the history of New Orleans music through imaginative arrangements of songs identified with the city, such as What a Wonderful World, Big Chief and St James Infirmary. The music is to be released on a CD titled Dee Dee’s Feathers, a reference to the tradition of dressing up in feather costumes by the city’s Mardi Gras Indians.

The genesis of Mayfield’s collaboration with Tennessee-born Bridgewater goes back six years to when Mayfield was artistic director of the Minnesota Orchestra. He hired her for a concert series and there was an instant musical spark between them. For Bridgewater, as for Mayfield, the trumpet informs her musicianship. In her improvisations, she uses her voice to emulate a trumpet and the sounds, growls, shadings and rhythmic phrasings it can conjure.

Dee Dee Bridgewater, Irvin Mayfield and the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra are at City Recital Hall, Sydney, June 6; and Arts Centre Melbourne, June 7.