The New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, dormant for more than a year, is finally ready to embark on its post-Irvin Mayfield era.
The Jazz Orchestra, often known as NOJO, has not performed publicly since Mayfield, its founder and artistic director, resigned in July 2016 because of a lingering controversy over his financial dealings with the New Orleans Public Library Foundation.
But with a new leadership team in place, NOJO plans to reintroduce itself and the New Orleans Jazz Market, its sleek concert hall/community center in Central City, with two concerts in October.
On Oct. 24, National Public Radio will broadcast its "Jazz Night in America" program from the New Orleans Jazz Market with modern jazz trumpeter Christian Scott and his ensemble, Tunde Adjuah.
Two nights later, the Jazz Orchestra will return to the Jazz Market stage for its first concert with its new artistic director, Adonis Rose, the band's longtime drummer. More information is available from the orchestra's web site, www.thenojo.com.
“We’ve had some losses. We need to win,” Rose said Friday. “I have confidence we can come back as long as we play music the way we always played it.”
NOJO's new executive team includes President and CEO Sarah Bell, who first joined the organization in 2014.
“We have assessed our strengths and weaknesses and decided we’re ready to put ourselves back out there,” Bell said. “We’re ready to move forward. This organization always had a tremendous amount of potential. We’re excited to get back to realizing that potential.”
To that end, Ellis Marsalis, the highly respected jazz pianist and educator, and former Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carre director Cassie Worley have joined NOJO's artistic development committee, which also includes jazz vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater.
On the final night of the 2016 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, trumpeter Irvin Mayfi…
Bell, a longtime resident of Central City, first joined the NOJO staff in 2014 as a member of its development team. In February, the NOJO board named her president and CEO, titles formerly held by Mayfield's friend Ronald Markham.
The new NOJO seems eager to distance itself from Mayfield, who remains a highly controversial figure. A brief history on the redesigned NOJO web site makes no mention of him.
“He founded the organization, and there’s no denying the influence and vision he had in creating the organization and the New Orleans Jazz Market,” Bell said of Mayfield. “At this point, he’s been unaffiliated with us for over a year. We’re ready to move forward with the new team and vision.”
Going forward, “we have a strong board and a smart president in Sarah,” Rose said. “I think we’ll be fine. I’d hate to think that NOJO could not survive without Irvin or Ronald or anybody else. I don’t think any one individual is the driving force for the organization.”
Nonprofit had big plans
In 2002, at age 25, Mayfield founded the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit modeled in part after his friend and mentor Wynton Marsalis’ Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra in New York.
The intention was to build an administrative and financial infrastructure around an institution devoted to performing and promoting jazz in New Orleans and beyond. Eventually constructing a dedicated concert hall was part of the plan.
After Hurricane Katrina, NOJO came into its own. The band's 2009 CD "Book One" won a Grammy for best large jazz ensemble album.
With Mayfield and Markham in charge, NOJO performed at arts centers and festivals around the country. The band toured in Europe, Brazil, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. During a residency in Moscow, it served as the house band on a Russian jazz version of “American Idol."
Along the way, Mayfield parlayed his political and philanthropic connections into positions on numerous boards, including the Public Library Foundation, a private nonprofit group that raises money for the city’s libraries.
As president of the Library Foundation, and with Markham on its board, Mayfield steered more than $1 million of library donations toward the $10 million cost of constructing the New Orleans Jazz Market on Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard in Central City.
From early in the process, there was talk of using part of the Jazz Market as a de facto library branch, offering library services to the underserved Central City community. But when the transfer of money became public, the perceived conflict of interest caused an uproar. Adding fuel to the fire were memories of Mayfield's association with Ray Nagin, the disgraced former mayor. Mayfield and Markham resigned from the Library Foundation.
Throughout the firestorm, Mayfield continued to front the orchestra at home and abroad. During the 2016 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, he led the orchestra at the Congo Square Stage on a program inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement.
What turned out to be NOJO's final public performance for more than a year took place at the House of Blues on the closing night of the 2016 Jazz Fest. The show featured a program of Stevie Wonder songs. Wonder himself, whose Jazz Fest set had been rained out, joined NOJO onstage for several songs.
A month later, in June 2016, WWL-TV revealed details of invoices Mayfield billed to the Library Foundation for an expensive 2012 stay at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in New York. On July 5, he announced his resignation from NOJO.
'They sound phenomenal'
The NOJO board formed an artistic development committee to help steer the organization through the crisis. Rose, NOJO’s longtime drummer, was initially named “music director," to “hold down the fort artistically,” Bell said.
He’s since been promoted to artistic director, the title Mayfield held. A graduate of the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts and the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston, Rose spent two years in Harry Connick Jr.’s band and also worked with Wynton Marsalis and Dianne Reeves. He’s released five albums of his own and appeared on dozens more.
After Hurricane Katrina, he moved to Texas and taught at the University of Texas at Arlington. He founded the Fort Worth Jazz Orchestra via a nonprofit modeled after NOJO. He moved back to New Orleans in December 2015.
The 18-piece New Orleans Jazz Orchestra has, over its history, featured a revolving cast of musicians. But some have been stalwarts for years and will continue with NOJO in its new incarnation. They include pianist Victor Atkins and saxophonist Ed "Sweetbread" Petersen, who also are music professors at the University of New Orleans, as well as trombonist/vocalist Michael Watson, saxophonist Ricardo Pascal, and trumpeters Leon "Kid Chocolate" Brown and Ashlin Parker.
“The band is really committed," Bell said. "They’ve hung tough with us and invested a tremendous amount of time and energy in the music. It’s a privilege and honor to get them back out there. They sound phenomenal."
Since April, the members have convened for twice-monthly rehearsals at the Jazz Market. “The band is back, fully ready,” Rose said.
At the upcoming NOJO show, he’ll alternate between playing drums and conducting.
Looking ahead, he’ll continue the NOJO tradition of performing big-band arrangements of rock and pop songs. He plans to also delve into the catalogs of jazz greats John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk and Nina Simone, and to explore the music of local composers Ellis Marsalis, Harold Battiste and James Black.
“I like to be inclusive,” he said.
He also wants to put NOJO back on the road: “We need to get the musicians working again, and get out there and promote our city."
Corporate and philanthropic benefactors are essential to a big band's bottom line. The Mayfield scandal cost NOJO some corporate support. In August, WWL-TV reported that local health insurer Peoples Health Network had ended its sponsorship of the Jazz Market, a deal worth $300,000 annually. Formerly known as the Peoples Health New Orleans Jazz Market, the "Peoples Health" portion of the name was removed from the building's exterior this summer.
Despite that lost sponsorship, NOJO is "financially stable," Bell said. “We’re keeping relationships going as far as other sponsors and potential sponsors."
They must still resolve lingering obligations from the Mayfield era. NOJO still intends to pay back a portion of the money Mayfield transferred from the Public Library Foundation, Bell said.
“We voluntarily entered a (memorandum of understanding) with the Library Foundation,” she said. “We are honoring it. There is a yearly payment schedule, and we're on track with those payments.”
The organization has reduced its overhead significantly, she said, in part by operating more efficiently with a smaller staff. “We’ve been covering our operating expenses each month, which is good for a nonprofit. We’ve diversified our revenue streams.”
They've generated money by renting out the Jazz Market for meetings, workshops and school and political functions. More than 40 nonprofits used it over the past year, Bell said. “Now we want to move back into being a performing arts venue. We’re ready to put our own band back on."
They also hope to showcase other types of artistic expression, including theatrical productions. The New Orleans Opera Association has booked two performances of Menotti’s “The Medium” at the Jazz Market in June.
“It was built and designed for jazz, but it has all the properties needed for other types of performances,” Bell said.
But first, the building will once again host the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra. In addition to the Oct. 26 show, the band is planning a Christmas concert. It hopes to play three spring and three fall concerts annually.
“The best thing that we can do to restore our image is perform,” Rose said. “That’s what built NOJO — the band. People love the music and the band. We have to perform our way back into good standing.
"That’s the one piece of the puzzle that’s been missing. So we’re going to play.”