Pops concerts have long been staples of city orchestras as they perform symphonic versions of popular songs. Part of the goal is to get a larger audience to hear and perhaps become interested in the orchestra.
“If we look at the ticket manifest and see who bought tickets, we’d see they’re 100 percent jazz buyers,” Mayfield said. “Most folks who love Nirvana, you can’t trick them and say it’s Nirvana unless it’s Nirvana.” His ideal audience for the show is “the investigator — the curious person who likes to see something new and experience new ideas.”
Mayfield has been a fierce advocate for the place of jazz in contemporary culture. He is the director of the New Orleans Jazz Institute at the University of New Orleans, the force behind Irvin Mayfield’s Jazz Playhouse on Bourbon Street, the artistic director of the NOJO and one of the prime movers behind the The New Orleans Jazz Market, a jazz center and home for the NOJO that is being built on Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard.
Still, he believes jazz’s advocates have to demonstrate its relevance.
“In my class, arranging is all about storytelling and the power of a well-built idea,” he said. “The most powerful idea is a relevant idea. Relevant to the moment. It’s needed. It’s necessary. People embrace it. That’s what makes a story powerful, and music is storytelling as well. Nirvana’s got a story. Queen’s got a story. Zeppelin’s got a story, and here’s what our perspective is on that story. And it’s relevant.”
Mayfield doesn’t think small. His music room has framed photos of him with civic and political leaders including President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama. A book on Winston Churchill sits on his coffee table atop music theory and practice books.
He stops to think before answering questions, and rather than addressing them immediately, he starts with broad observations about art in general — often expressed in comparisons — to establish a principle, then he hones in on the specific issues at hand.
“The jazz musician is the physicist of music,” Mayfield said. “What physics are to science, jazz is to music. Every jazz musician is operating from a composer’s standpoint because they’re constantly composing, improvising to develop motifs. When you become an arranger, you’re arranging for a group of people to develop their motifs. To have to do that inside the framework of someone else’s work is quite difficult.”
This is the second NOJO rock show this year, though these shows only represent part of its programming.
Members of the NOJO have performed compositions commissioned from UNO endowed chairs in the Jazz Institute Steve Masakowski, Victor Atkins and Ed Petersen that keyed on operas, literary masters from William Faulkner to Dr. Seuss, and jazz masters including Ellis Marsalis and Harold Battiste.
“Ed did Stevie Wonder; he did a fine job,” Mayfield said of the previous rock show. “Steve Masakowski did a brilliant job on the Grateful Dead, and Victor really has a knack for stuff like The Beatles.”
Mayfield took on the challenge of arranging a Nirvana song for the show, which carries the additional baggage of previous jazz interpretations. The Bad Plus have adapted “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Lithium” for piano, bass and drums, and New Orleans’ Shamarr Allen has performed a trumpet-led take on “Smells Like Teen Spirit” as well.
Mayfield decided on Nirvana after watching its performance at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony. While watching, he realized that he took the band for granted in the past.
“We need to revisit this,” he thought. “We are the appropriate people to get people to revisit it.”
Mayfield attributes the appeal of Nirvana’s material to jazz musicians to Kurt Cobain’s melodies.
“You can’t beat a great theme or a great melody,” he said. “Jazz music, classical music, folk music, pop music — a great melody is a great melody. Great melodies give opportunities to tell a story. We’re taking that melody and giving you a different experience and a different dimension.”
Rock band The Breton Sound will open the show, and according to singer and guitarist Jonathan Pretus, the band wanted to get in the cross-genre spirit of the night.
“We went back and forth and figured out a way to work a bit of a Dave Brubeck song into one of ours, but in a way that makes sense with our style,” he said. The band also will challenge the NOJO by covering Queen.
“It gives me a chance to harness my inner Freddie Mercury a bit,” Pretus said. “I might not have the pomp and panache he did, but I think we’re doing it justice.”