Being hit by a 19-count federal indictment and subsequent storm of bad publicity might prompt some musicians to maintain a low profile, at least temporarily.

But lying low is not in Irvin Mayfield’s nature.

On Tuesday, five days after a federal grand jury charged him with wire and mail fraud, money laundering, conspiracy and obstruction of justice, the Grammy-winning jazz trumpeter was onstage in New Orleans, hosting the first of four shows at the Little Gem Saloon leading up to his 40th birthday on Dec. 23.

Two hours before showtime, WWL-TV aired footage of Mayfield being confronted outside his Bywater home by David Hammer, the investigative reporter who has doggedly pursued the story of the musician’s questionable financial dealings for two years.

As he has since the controversy first flared, Mayfield remained silent, stoically climbing into a black Range Rover while ignoring Hammer’s barrage of questions.

But back in his element that night at the Little Gem, he was anything but silent.

Mayfield shared the small stage with saxophonist John Diaz-Cortes and pianist Ronald Markham, his longtime friend, business partner and, according to the feds, co-conspirator.

When he wasn’t coaxing gilded passages from a trumpet — a standard-issue model, not the infamous gold-plated, $15,000 horn cited in the indictments — Mayfield cracked jokes, told stories, teased his bandmates and bantered with the two dozen audience members.

He gave no indication that, depending on how the legal case concludes, his prolific, high-profile career could be curtailed by prison. He came across as totally at ease and fully engaged in the moment.

The Little Gem show was his second of the day. Earlier Tuesday, he had performed at his pal Kermit Ruffins’ Mother-in-Law Lounge during a celebration of Ruffins’ birthday.

Trumpeter Irvin Mayfield and pianist Ronald Markham perform at the Little Gem Saloon in New Orleans, La. Tuesday, Dec. 19, 2017. Five days earlier, both men were indicted on various federal charges related to their financial dealings with a non-profit associated with the library foundation. Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON

Going forward, Mayfield intends to carry on with his scheduled performances and recording sessions, despite the indictments hanging over his head.

“I’ve never had any hesitation in my life to do a gig,” he said after Tuesday’s show. “This is my passion. This is what I love to do.”

Still, he admitted, given the circumstances, “maybe someone would become more reflective. This is definitely more of a reflective time.”

More than a musician

To his supporters, including the tourists who solicited selfies and autographs at the Little Gem, Irvin Mayfield embodies New Orleans jazz at its finest.

To his detractors, he is Ray Nagin with a horn, all promise and ability hijacked by hubris and greed.

Raised in the 8th Ward, Mayfield graduated from John F. Kennedy High School and the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts. He cut his teeth in brass bands and as a teenager toured Europe with Ruffins.

From early on, his ambition was to be more than a musician. He wanted to be a major player in the cultural life of the city and in the perpetuation of jazz.

He lived for a time in New York with a fellow New Orleans-born trumpet player who had realized his own grand ambitions: Wynton Marsalis. Marsalis became a friend, mentor and highly competitive chess partner.

Unlike Marsalis, Mayfield returned to New Orleans. “I love this town, I love where I live, I love my community, I love my people, I love what I do,” he said this week. “And I’m going to be here, period. That’s never going to change.”

His career ascent was steep. In his early 20s, he formed the Latin jazz band Los Hombres Calientes with legendary percussionist Bill Summers and drummer Jason Marsalis. The group's albums for Basin Street Records sold well and earned national acclaim.

In 2002, at age 25, he founded the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, inspired in part by Marsalis’ Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. The New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, or NOJO, would perform and promote jazz in New Orleans and beyond. Constructing a dedicated concert hall for it was part of the plan.

On Nov. 17, 2005, less than three months after Hurricane Katrina, the Jazz Orchestra performed at Christ Church Cathedral on St. Charles Avenue. A crowd of 1,200 filled the sanctuary to hear “All the Saints,” an expression of grief and resolve composed by Mayfield. With Mayfield on lead trumpet and Markham on piano, the performance was, for many, cathartic.

The body of Mayfield’s father, missing since Katrina, was found several days later.

After the storm, NOJO came into its own. The band's 2009 CD "Book One" won a Grammy for best large jazz ensemble album. It performed across Europe and in Brazil, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.

In addition to leading NOJO, the hyper-ambitious, driven Mayfield pursued other endeavors: He served as the Minnesota Orchestra’s artistic director of jazz, taught at the University of New Orleans, oversaw Irvin Mayfield’s Jazz Playhouse in the Royal Sonesta Hotel and collaborated with the Apollo Theater in New York.

He has released nearly 20 albums via Basin Street, as well as a lavish, 300-page, seven-CD coffee table tome titled "New Orleans Jazz Playhouse."

Trumpeter Irvin Mayfield, center, performs with Ron Markham on piano and John Diaz-Cortes on saxophone at the Little Gem Saloon in New Orleans, La. Tuesday, Dec. 19, 2017.  Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON

“I’ve always had this craftsmanship, this sweat equity, that I’ve put into what I’ve done,” Mayfield said. “It’s evident in the music and the products I’ve produced. If anyone consumes any of it, if they read the books and listen to the music, there’s a lot of time, effort and thought that went into all that.”

The Nagin connection

He also parlayed his political connections into appointments on various boards. Controversially, Nagin tapped him to lead the board overseeing the city’s library system. Eventually he and Markham were appointed to the board of the New Orleans Public Library Foundation, a nonprofit that solicits donations for the library.

Meanwhile, the 16-piece New Orleans Jazz Orchestra was apparently not able to cover its operating costs — including more than $200,000 in combined annual salaries for Mayfield and Markham — through performance income and CD sales.

As New Orleans’ mayor, Nagin, Mayfield’s chief political patron, arranged for $1.6 million in grants to NOJO from the Edward Wisner Donation, a charitable trust administered by the city.

After Nagin left office in 2010 — he’s now serving a 10-year sentence on federal corruption charges — the new mayor, Mitch Landrieu, halted the Wisner grants to NOJO.

According to a narrative laid out by federal prosecutors, Mayfield and Markham sought to make up the difference by transferring $1.4 million from the Library Foundation to the orchestra. Mayfield’s extravagant spending on the library’s dime included thousands of dollars at New York hotels and a 24-karat-gold-plated trumpet.

As such details came to light, the controversy grew. At least three Mardi Gras krewes have spoofed Mayfield in their parades.

Trumpeter Irvin Mayfield plays with Ron Markham on piano at the Little Gem Saloon in New Orleans, La. Tuesday, Dec. 19, 2017.  Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON

Suddenly the narrative was no longer about his music, but about how he allegedly looted the library to support a lavish lifestyle.

He and Markham left the Library Foundation. Then, on July 5, 2016, weeks after performing with NOJO and special guest Stevie Wonder at the House of Blues, Mayfield resigned from the orchestra he founded.

Even as the pressure mounted and a federal investigation gained steam, he kept making music. He spent weeks producing “A Beautiful World,” a joint album with Ruffins and dozens of special guests. Released in September in conjunction with Basin Street’s 20th anniversary, “A Beautiful World” hit No. 1 on Billboard’s jazz chart.

Working so closely with Ruffins, Mayfield gained a fresh appreciation for being a musician whose sole responsibility is to show up and play.

Ruffins “is a free spirit, and he’s special for it,” Mayfield said. “That makes him a wonderfully creative artist. He knows exactly who he is. That’s something that I appreciate about Kermit. That’s definitely something I could (learn) from him.”

A brash image

WWL-TV broke into regularly scheduled programming on the morning of Dec. 14 so reporter Hammer could announce the 19-count indictment against Mayfield. Markham was hit with 18 counts.

Other local stations quickly jumped on the story, which also generated front-page newspaper stories and editorials that excoriated Mayfield. Nationally, NPR Music’s web site published a lengthy account of the saga.

Mayfield has often flaunted a brash image of success and wealth, from his fancy suits and flashy cars to the assistants and household staff who attended to him.

That image took a blow when the courts found him to be indigent and appointed a public defender, Claude Kelly, to represent him.

How the indictments will affect Mayfield’s ability to work as a musician going forward is unclear.

He has been a fixture at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival for years. Before the 2017 festival, producer Quint Davis said he had no qualms about booking Mayfield despite the swirling controversy.

“Irvin Mayfield is one of the most accomplished New Orleans musicians of his generation,” Davis said in April. “That has to be enough for us. We have 5,000 New Orleans musicians. We don’t look at their personal and legal lives. We want to have the best of them, musically speaking."

Indeed, many Jazz Fest favorites have run afoul of the law, from Aaron Neville's and Dr. John’s criminal pursuits decades ago to more recent infractions by various brass band musicians and Big Freedia.

But the pending indictments against Mayfield make the question of hiring him trickier.

“I don’t have a personal issue with it — Irvin has been all right with me,” said Gregory Davis, who books Jazz Fest’s Jazz Tent. “But I’m sure some others will want to take a look, because it’s obviously going to draw a certain amount of negative press.”

Jason Patterson books Snug Harbor, where Markham performed a solo piano concert days before he was indicted. For years, Mayfield led the weekly NOJO Jam at Snug Harbor.

“Obviously, what they did was wrong, and it is disappointing that they never acknowledge that and publicly apologize,” Patterson said. “Now it looks like they are going to throw the book at them. I think the book will be ‘Ethics for Dummies.’ ”

Jazz trumpeter Irvin Mayfield performs at the Little Gem Saloon as part of his 40th birthday celebration in New Orleans, La., on Tuesday, Dec. 19, 2017. Five days earlier, he was indicted on 19 federal counts, including money-laundering and mail fraud. Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON

But Little Gem owner Nick Bazan had no qualms about hosting Mayfield’s birthday week series of shows, or about hiring him to deejay after Ruffins’ New Year’s Eve show at the Little Gem.

“Irvin Mayfield will continue to play at the Little Gem as long as people want to see him perform,” Bazan said. “As a music club operator, I have had to deal with so many different types of personalities, and musicians that sometimes get in trouble. We have never turned our back on them.

“Now that the indictment has been handed down, I still stand with Irvin and Ron Markham as personal friends and professional musicians. I am here to showcase jazz and will continue to do so.”

Baring his soul

With its tiled floor, pressed-tin ceiling and candlelit ambiance, the Little Gem, occupying a historic building at South Rampart and Poydras streets, could pass for a high-end saloon from a bygone era.

Drawing a crowd on weeknights is not easy. Only a smattering of the Little Gem’s tables were occupied when Mayfield, Markham and Diaz made their way to the stage on Tuesday. Most patrons were from elsewhere: Hong Kong, Australia, Arizona, Brooklyn, Seattle, Sacramento, New Jersey.

For two hours, Mayfield presided over a leisurely, career-spanning set of acoustic jazz, intimate and warm, that showcased his strengths as a performer. He navigated “Baby Please Come Home for Christmas” and invited Jenelle Roccaforte, a young jazz bassist who recently moved to New Orleans from California, to sit in for Jelly Roll Morton’s “Winin’ Boy Blues.”

He caressed the somber ballad “May His Soul Rest in Peace,” which he wrote in memory of his father. As Markham, a fluent, accomplished pianist, rendered an especially lush passage, Mayfield exclaimed, “That’s why I love him.”

Trumpeter Irvin Mayfield performs with John Diaz-Cortes on saxophone at the Little Gem Saloon in New Orleans, La. Tuesday, Dec. 19, 2017.  Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON

Describing director Spike Lee’s 1990 jazz-themed movie “Mo’ Better Blues,” Mayfield joked that it “must have copied my life: Denzel Washington was the trumpet player. I get mistaken for Denzel all the time. It’s been great for his career.”

The audience ate it up. Within the protective bubble of the show, it was as if the indictments didn’t exist. All involved were in the moment.

Late in the set, Mayfield said, “Can I get personal? I’m about to bare my soul. I feel like I can trust you.”

“Baring my soul” turned out to mean an exaggerated take on the New Orleans standard “St. James Infirmary.” Diaz soloed on his alto sax while strolling atop the Little Gem’s long bar. Mayfield, on trumpet, wandered among the tables, finally taking a seat next to the visitors from Hong Kong.

Back onstage, he sang, “If anyone asks you what’s my problem, you should tell them I got the St. James blues….”

Fans left the Little Gem with fond memories of a quintessentially New Orleans night of jazz. Mayfield and Markham, meanwhile, face arraignment on Jan. 4.

Given the circumstances, making music would seemingly require some extreme mental compartmentalization.

“I’m trying to do the best I can do, doing my job, when I get up there,” Mayfield said. “When you say, ‘Do you compartmentalize’ … it’s so intense when we’re trying to get people to come together to do things. That’s going to always be the No. 1 thing that consumes you if you are an artist.

“When you’ve got kids, when you’ve got to pay the bills … that recording session doesn’t care about Entergy. Practice doesn’t care if it’s Christmas — you still have to practice.”

He appreciated his career long before the possibility of prison threatened it: “I’ve never taken it for granted. I treat every project and every gig like it’s the last one. That’s how passionate I am about what I do.”

His music, he insists, was and is unsullied by the drama in the rest of his life.

“I don’t think you can go through my career and say, ‘Well, this was the point in time where he got divorced.’ ... The plumber who came to my house, whether or not his old lady got on his nerves, he’s got to fix the toilet.

“Me being a trumpet player, no matter what happens, I’ve got to play the trumpet.”

Follow Keith Spera on Twitter, @KeithSpera.