Recent reports by the distinguished journalists Jason Berry and Larry Blumenfeld on the alleged misappropriation of funds intended for the New Orleans Public Library into the coffers of trumpeter Irwin Mayfield’s New Orleans Jazz Orchestra evoke for me my meeting with Mayfield in 2003, for an article — for reasons I can no longer remember, it wasn’t published — for Jazziz about a collaboration by Mayfield, then 25, with nonagenarian photojournalist-filmmaker-novelist-composer Gordon Parks that resulted in the CD, Blue Autumn.
Here’s the final draft that I submitted at the time, plus verbatim interviews with Mayfield in January and April of 2003.
Irvin Mayfield (unpublished 2003 article):
On the surface, Gordon Parks and the New Orleans trumpeter Irvin Mayfield have so little in common that to suggest the possibility of a productive artistic collaboration between them would seem a far-fetched prospect. But in this instance, appearances are deceiving.
Often described as a “Renaissance Man” in recognition of the range of media in which he operates, Parks, who turned 90 last year, is a giant of 20th century arts and letters. As the first African-American staff photographer for “Life” magazine during the ’40s and ’50s, Parks presented a gritty, unsentimental vision of the human condition in a series of photo-essays that addressed, without a touch of condescension, the lives and milieux of Harlem gangs, South Side cops, rural midwest wanderers, and the favela dwellers of Rio de Janeiro. Parallel-tracking as a high-fashion photographer for “Vogue,” he created understated images of beauty and elegance. As a film director, Parks gave the world “Shaft,” featuring the first black action hero of a Hollywood studio picture, and “Leadbelly,” a credible biopic of the blues legend. Since his 1963 novel, “The Learning Tree,” a canonic coming-of-age tale of his Kansas boyhood, Parks has written several memoirs and works of fiction, with an historical novel about J.W. Turner, the inimitable early 19th century English seascape painter, just out of the galleys. Parks is also a self-taught ear pianist, and he plays European classical music with reflective, somber elegance, often performing his own compositions, which blend pastel French impressionist harmonies with the melancholy emanations of the lowdown bordello blues, a style Parks played nightly as a scuffling teenager in Depression Minneapolis.
Parks describes his senior years as “half-past autumn,” and used the phrase to label the comprehensive retrospective exhibition of his photographs that has toured America since late 1997. Anticipating the show’s summer 2000 arrival, the New Orleans Museum of Art asked Mayfield — who had been hosting there a series of “informances” about the reciprocal relationship between the visual arts and jazz — to compose a creative response for opening night. He rose to the challenge with the “Half-Past Autumn Suite,” recorded in late 2002 and released this winter by Basin Street Records.
I caught up with Mayfield at the cocktail hour of a raw January day in the unheated front bar of Tribeca’s Knitting Factory, the first leg of a brief northeast tour in support of the “Half-Past Autumn Suite.” Just off the plane from New Orleans, sharp in a beige camelshair overcoat buttoned to the neck to ward off the chill, Mayfield sat at a small table, sipping bottled water, fixing me with laughing, hawkish eyes as he described the project’s genesis.
“I wrote the music in two weeks, and we rehearsed for three days before,” Mayfield says. “The place only seats 240, and there were a thousand unhappy people outside trying to see Gordon Parks. After we finished a blues, Gordon got up and said, ‘That blues reminded me of my three ex-wives,’ and at the end of the night he started dancing with his daughter. Later we sat, and he gave me his home number and told me to call any time. Then I realized I was going to put the music out.”
Popular around New Orleans since his teens, Mayfield, now 25, has established an international profile as co-leader of Los Hombres Calientes, a dance-oriented ensemble that articulates the styles of Cuba, Brazil and Haiti with idiomatic precision and a let-the-good-times-roll New Orleans jazz sensibility, as documented on last year’s Congo Square and the spring 2003 release Vodou Dance. But observers who know him only through that prism may not be prepared for the emotional depth of Half-Past Autumn. Like its solo predecessor, How Passion Falls, the program comprises nine challenging compositions for quintet that parse and counterstate the harmonic and rhythmic tropes laid down by New Orleans modernists Wynton Marsalis, Terence Blanchard and Donald Harrison during Mayfield’s formative years. The musicianship throughout is informed, creative, interactive, and often inspired; Mayfield plays with virtuoso panache, crafting stories that balance bravura upper register flights with grounded excursions in a nuanced, malleable middle register. Icing the cake is a trumpet-piano duo by Mayfield and Parks on “Wind,” a Parks composition that the maestro suggested Mayfield perform.
“I chose to interpret Gordon’s modern pieces — ‘Evening,’ ‘Towards Infinity,’ ‘Moonscape,'” Mayfield said. “Gordon is very serious and warm, his music and art combine those qualities, and that’s what I wanted to capture. I could imagine myself having painted or photographed these pictures. That’s Gordon’s gift. He deals with basic fundamental themes — pain, anger, passion, love, heartbreak, starvation. He remembers those exact moments of how somebody looked at him before they slapped him, or how a woman looked at him before she wanted to be with him. I know those things deep down, because New Orleans has that type of stuff ingrained in the culture.”
Mayfield evidently is not one to allow his creativity to be inhibited by Oedipal notions of slaying the father. In point of fact, he has internalized the New Orleans custom of treating the past as a living, evolving narrative to be dialogued with in a ceremonial context. Intellectually ambitious and highly disciplined, trained in century-old vernacular brass and parade band traditions and intimate with the most up-to-the-minute iterations of jazz modernism, Mayfield — whose early instruction came from his father, a former Army drill sergeant — could stand as a prototype for the 21st century New Orleans jazz musician. He cites the influence of Danny Barker, a native of the French Quarter whose long, distinguished career as a guitarist and banjoist included jobs with Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker. A world class raconteur with an encyclopedic memory, Barker retired to New Orleans in the latter ’60s, organizing a youth band at the Fairview Baptist Church, where, if he was so inclined, he might inform his young charges that Louis Armstrong learned his diminished chords from funky trumpeter Buddy Petit, or that the Onward Brass Band, inspired by a lead trumpeter named Kimball, who played like King Oliver, was the greatest brass band of his day.
“I played a lot with Danny Barker before he passed, and I think Danny Barker represents the true essence of what jazz is,” Mayfield says. “One difference between jazz and any other idiom of music is that jazz is always modern. There was never a point in time when Danny Barker wasn’t hip. Here’s a guy who was in his seventies talking about his chord structures on the guitar and about Louis Armstrong and what he did for American music, and at the same time talking about ‘bitches and ho’s.’ The older musicians always talked to you like a man. Danny Barker wasn’t not going to say ‘bitches and ho’s’ around me just because I was a little boy. That was not tolerated. ‘You have a horn, son; this is what the valve is.'”
Cocksure from early proximity to elders in the Algiers Brass Band and undeniable technical proficiency, Mayfield matriculated at the New Orleans Center of Contemporary Arts — the magnet school that famously produced Wynton and Branford Marsalis, Donald Harrison, Terence Blanchard, Reginald Veal and Nicholas Payton. “I got a reality check at NOCCA,” he laughs. “These cats were traveling and working. I met Jason Marsalis, who was 14 and could play Stravinsky’s ‘Rite of Spring’ on the drums and interpret it. He had total recall in music, so he could go through scores and memorize them. Nicholas Payton had graduated, but he was still hanging around. The first time I heard him he was playing bass, and I said, ‘Oh, what a great bass player.’ Then he starts playing piano, and then he played the drums and sounded like Elvin Jones. Then he picked up the trumpet. Hearing Nicholas Payton for the first time made me have to really decide.
“My father played trumpet and knew a lot of the technical aspects, but he wasn’t a musician. New Orleans is very aristocratic in the sense that it’s a town of tradition, particularly the Creole tradition; if you don’t fit in, it’s hard to deal with. Coming up, I had to try to figure out which group I belonged in, which made me work harder to define what I wanted to be doing. I knew it was almost an impossible task. But I decided that no matter what it took, I would do music, because I loved it so much.”
Not long after his 19th birthday, Mayfield accepted an invitation from Wynton Marsalis to crash at Marsalis’ Upper West Side apartment, and began a heady two-year stay in New York City. Situated within walking distance of Manhattan’s Museum Mile and the galleries of 57th Street, Mayfield heard the conversation of various thinkers who frequented the Marsalis manse, jammed late nights with the best and brightest of his peer group at the Blue Note, Small’s, Cleopatra’s Needle and the Home Front, and landed a gig playing after-work jazz shows at the Museum of Modern Art.
“Until I got to New York, I couldn’t appreciate visual art, but then I got my eyes open,” Mayfield relates. “I fell in love with Matisse and Cezanne, Bearden and Lawrence, and I began to study music that had been inspired by the same themes, like the use of trains in Bearden and Ellington. Then I started wondering about further connections. Is there a Renaissance period throughout music and art and politics? What I found out is that there is.”
After signing with Basin Street Records, Mayfield returned to New Orleans, refining his cross-genre explorations as Artist-in-Residence at Dillard University and as Artistic Director of the recently established New Orleans Jazz Orchestra. “New Orleans is a homebody place, and if you’re a true New Orleanian you never want to leave home,” Mayfield says. “You go through this weird emotional thing. There isn’t prejudice about music in New Orleans. You’d play the Louis Armstrong music, and then if you wanted to play some avant-garde music with Kidd Jordan, that’s what you’d play. Then you’d play an R&B gig, or maybe horn parts with cats from the Grateful Dead, or maybe some Classical music. You don’t have those distinctions. You’re happy to be playing. You’re a trumpet player, much the same as Louis Armstrong was.
“As much as I loved living in New York, I had a hard time at first because everybody thought you fit in a bag. If you’re hanging with Wynton, then you only like to play stuff with changes and blues, not music that is conceptual and has no structure to it. Which is ridiculous anyway, because most of the music of the early ’80s is really free music. That’s what Wynton and especially Terence Blanchard were trying to do. People are sometimes surprised when they hear my quintet record, and it sounds like what they would call a New Yorker. But if they hear Los Hombres, they say, ‘Oh, this is a real New Orleans musician.’ I think what I’m doing is much like Picasso. Hey, man, one day you’re doing a still-life, the next day you’re doing Cubism.”
History will determine whether Mayfield’s progression during his twenties will prove half as consequential to the course of jazz as Picasso’s own third-decade transition from the Blue Period to “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” was to painting. But apart from his considerable chops and conceptual range, the quality that will make Mayfield a force to be reckoned with for the foreseeable future is a fierce individualism that allows him to imprint his iconoclastic tonal personality on deep-set cultural traditions in a way that sustains and invigorates them.
“I’m a trumpet player from New Orleans, and I play the New Orleans way,” he says. “I play the way I was taught by the old men who played in second-lines, who played the halls, who played the clubs in the suspenders and white hats — and I follow that legacy. I challenge the concepts that Wynton puts out there by trying to redefine the concept of what jazz is and what it can be. A lot of times people get so pissed off with what someone says, that they don’t understand the importance of the dialogue. Maybe I’m wrong! Maybe I’m right. Can we have a dialogue about it? During the 1960s, you had this global understanding, especially amongst African-Americans, that they were all interested to check each other out. A lot of them didn’t like each other! But they were engaging in a dialogue. That dialogue does not exist right now. That’s reflective of my generation and what we’re doing in American culture.”
Mayfield is determined to back up his brash talk with musical principles that speak louder than words. “When I was writing the music for Half Past Autumn, I wanted to make sure the music came alive like Gordon’s art, not some esoteric idea of jazz, or me trying to impress people with what I can write, or how good my interpretation of the trumpet is, or the technique I’ve got. The music is not about that. As a matter of fact, when I went to the studio in New York to record the music about a year-and-a-half after I’d written it, I felt like I was bringing my band scraps. Then I learned the power of Miles Davis, that bringing scraps to your band ignites them to figure out more. Jazz is about the process of trying to be better. That’s what democracy is about and that’s what humanity is about. It ain’t about gettin’ there. Once you get there, that’s some other shit. Maybe that’s some classical music stuff, but it isn’t jazz.”
* * * *
Irvin Mayfield (1-30-03) at the Knitting Factory:
TP: So let’s start with some nuts and bolts questions about this project. What’s the genesis. I gather you’d been doing series of concerts at the New Orleans Museum for events such as this, and this was a commission from them, and then Gordon Parks came and heard the music, and he liked it, and voila, you had a collaboration.
MAYFIELD: Right. Well, when I first lived in New York is when I first got my eyes open to visual art. I could never appreciate art before that. In fact, it was absurd to me that people would spend their money on these pieces of visual things. When I first got my eyes open to art, I fell in love with Picasso, I fell in love with Matisse, Cezanne, Bearden, Lawrence, all these great artists. Then I started wondering if there was any connection between the periods of the arts. Is there a Renaissance period throughout music and art, throughout politics? And what I found out is that there is. So what I wound up doing was I went to the museum at home. Now, I guess a lot of people don’t really use the resources that are there around them. But I went to the museum at home, I started going over there just looking at art that was around. So I went there and I started talking about them saying, here, let’s try… I would like to do some conversations or some dialogue or some research on the comparisons between Ellison, Bearden and Ellington, or Monk and Lawrence and Baldwin. I started doing this research, and they were giving me all these materials. People were coming out… We started this interesting dialogue. I think a lot of the people who were in the visual arts started looking at music in a different sense, because they figured their way of how they could relate to it…
TP: Who are you talking about now? The curator of the museum funneled materials to you, and then you’d share these materials with your circle of musicians.
MAYFIELD: Right. There’s a great group at the museum at home called the Champions Group, of African-American and Caribbean artists, and they were very much looking to do something that has an educational outreach and looking for somebody to do something like this They were really glad when I came along, obviously. Because you really have to want to do something like this, rather than have somebody hire you to do it. I did it at first for no money; it was just something we were doing. And it was really a lot of fun. I was learning a lot.
TP: Let me get a few things straight. You’re how old?
TP: So you’re born in ’77.
TP: You were in New York when?
MAYFIELD: I was in New York from 19 to 21.
TP: So in ’97-’99. Were you in school and performing at the same time?
MAYFIELD: I was living with Wynton, which was like being in school. But I was crashing at his place, and I was doing some Lincoln Center Gigs. I did several records, two Live at the Blue Note and also with Wessel Anderson, “Live At The Village Vanguard,” and hitting all the jam sessions at Small’s and Cleopatra’s. That’s where I hooked up with Jaz Sawyer and Richard Johnson. There was this club that opened uptown called the Home Front, which was open for four weeks and then closed down. That’s where I met a lot of my peers, like Eric Lewis and all the other musicians. This is the New York experience. So I’d be here, and then I’d fly back home and do these things at the museum and various gigs. But I was actually prepared to move up to New York. Wynton extended a favor to me to say I could stay with him as long as I wanted. If I hadn’t gotten my record deal, that’s exactly what I would have done.
TP: Staying in that part of town, the possibilities are infinite.
MAYFIELD: Right. I’m going to MOMA every day and doing performances there at their 5 o’clock jazz shows. I would use the band Wes had; it would be me and Jaz and Steve Kirby and Xavier Davis. Then I started doing more performances once I got the record deal, and that’s when the museum gave me their first-ever commission, and a very serious commission, to say, “Hey, Gordon Parks is coming to New Orleans for the first time with his art.”
TP: So that was the first commission. You’d been doing performances at the museum…
TP: I saw that nomenclature in the liner notes. What exactly does it mean?
MAYFIELD: An informance is you perform and you talk. You talk about each song, bring the paintings out, which is hop, and you talk about the paintings relating to the music and vice-versa.
TP: So you’ve been composing inspired by visual art since about 1999 or so…
MAYFIELD: Well, not really composing. I had been studying it. Studying music that had been inspired by the same themes. Like, Bearden and Ellington all used trains as themes. The train is a very specific theme. Everybody used the train. So I started thinking about realities, of things like that. Then they gave me this commission.
The wonderful thing about the New Orleans Museum of Art is that they give you ALL the resources you need. I mean, they gave me every book Gordon Parks ever wrote, I got the films, I got everything. They said, “This is what you need. So I literally went through all his stuff, all his books. I went through “The Learning Tree,” I went through his poetry, “Towards Infinity,” I went through his photography books, I went through “Half Past Autumn.” And it blew me away. It killed me. It almost was an impossible task to come up with a suite for a man who had been married three times and was the first significant African-American photographer, a filmmaker, writer, director… It started to become a hard task.
TP: I mean, he’s a weighty cat, and he spanned all sorts of worlds.
MAYFIELD: Right. And I started hearing his music. Then I was like, “I’m not worthy.” He can compose a suite himself. But I realized that the power of jazz is that maybe he can, but I can interpret everything he’s doing through jazz, and leave room for everybody else to engage in.
TP: So what sort of themes were you looking at to capture Gordon Parks?
MAYFIELD: Well, after I got through “Half-Past Autumn”… I read all the other books first, and I finished with this, which is appropriate. When I got through the book, I realized which pieces I would choose. I chose his modern pieces — “Evening,” “Towards Infinity,” “Moonscape.” They all represented a period of his, which is what the book is entitled, “half-past autumn,” where he feels he’s at in his life. I thought it was significant when I read that first poem… I was almost in tears when he told the story about his father, and the advice he gives him, “If in autumn you can still manage a smile after all this shit you go through…”
TP: It has a very melancholy quality. In the DVD pieces with you, his brow looks like… You know how a trumpet player when they’re 60 has a face that looks like they play the trumpet. His looks like he’s been concentrating all his life, the brow curves in like this…
MAYFIELD: Very serious. But serious and a sense of warmth. His music and his art is combining. That’s what I wanted to capture. And these pictures did that to me. When I looked at them, they looked like pictures I might possibly have painted, or taken pictures of, or things I would have concocted myself. But that’s Gordon’s gift. He can make things that seem like they already exist come to creation, and they’re warm. Because he’s dealing with the basic fundamental themes that we all know in life — pain, anger, passion, love, heartbreak, starvation. All that loneliness; he’s got that whole thing in his family. When I wrote the songs, being from New Orleans, I know those things deep down, because New Orleans has that type of stuff ingrained in the culture.
Another thing is, when I was writing the music, I wanted to make sure the music came alive like his paintings, not some esoteric idea of jazz or me trying to impress people with what I can write, or how good my interpretation of the trumpet is, or the technique I’ve got. The music is not about that. As a matter of fact, when I went to the studio in New York to record the music about a year-and-a-half after I’d written it, I felt like I was bringing my band scraps. Then I learned the power of Miles Davis, that when you bring your band scraps, it ignites them to figure out more.
TP: So the pieces were set up collaboratively?
MAYFIELD: Not collaboratively. But they were sketches. More ideas. Like his pieces are. I want to give emotions. And it was really the first record. Which is funny to me, because I wrote the music for my last record after I wrote this music, and it came out first.
TP: So the one with you and the young lady on the cover you wrote after “Half Past Autumn.”
MAYFIELD: I wrote that music after that. So coming back to this music, I went through the artist’s thing. It’s like writing a story that’s two years old, and you put out this other big story. I said, “Damn, I don’t know…”
TP: So you’re saying you developed this music on gigs before you went into the museum?
MAYFIELD: Right. By this time, I was on the road, touring with this band and Los Hombres Calientes. And by the time we went back to record the record for Gordon, I wondered whether the music wasn’t complicated… I went through all these emotional things. Then you know what I said? I said, “Man, you know what? Fuck it. I’m going to go to the studio and I’m going to ask the cats to dig down deep.” I told them in the studio, “Man, this is about what you want to do.” I don’t know what you want me to do.”
TP: So you went in the studio and did it after you performed it for him?
MAYFIELD: No. We performed it for him at the museum…
TP: Give me the course of events. Slow down and tell the story.
MAYFIELD: I wrote the music in two weeks. [LAUGHS] I had something else to do…I don’t remember…maybe I was on the road. We rehearsed three days before, every day, and… It was packed! Man, there are so many people trying to see Gordon Parks. It only seats 240. There were a thousand people outside. So the museum was happy, but there were a lot of unhappy people who couldn’t get in to see that performance. We went through each of the songs; it was supposed to take 30 minutes, but it took an 1 hour and 15. We’re jazz musicians. We’ve got to play! And at the end of the night, Gordon Parks jumped up and started dancing with his daughter. It’s New Orleans. That’s what killed everybody. Here are these guys who are supposed to be modern jazz musicians, and here we are, doing the most fundamental thing that we do, and he got up and danced. It was a party. But the deep thing is, the people enjoyed the music. It had nothing to do with him. It was like, “Wow, the music’s great; we’re all partying and dancing.” We played a blues that night, and after we finished, Gordon got up and said, “That blues reminded me of my three ex-wives.” Everybody was just like, “Wow!”
TP: Is that the blues you did with Wynton?
MAYFIELD: Yes. His three ex-wives. It was a great night. I thought about it… After the performance, I sat with him and talked with him a little while, he gave me his home number and said, “Give me a call me any time,” and… I’m star-struck at the same time. Not only have I known his movies, but now I’ve researched him. There’s no greater thing than this guy seeing you perform and saying he liked it.
Then I realized that I was going to put that music out. And it takes a significant amount of work to get a world-renowned artist and Renaissance man like Gordon Parks to collaborate.
TP: What was your process in choosing the photographs?
MAYFIELD: I was sitting at the piano, and I’d put up the photograph and look at it. And if I felt moved by it, that would be the one.
TP: There’s one he spoke to you about on the DVD, “Flowerscape.”
MAYFIELD: When I looked at it, it reminded me of a flamenco dancer… It seemed like a woman at some level of pizzazz or some attitude. That’s kind of what I thought about it, and that’s why the music has that kind of thing.
TP: His comment on the DVD was funny. He said he wanted to get the redness within the blackness but when you use your imagination it takes you into crazy stuff; I don’t even want to try to explain it. But this is the one that got him. This one reminded him of his wives.
MAYFIELD: No, the one that reminded him of his wives is “Moonscape.” I can understand that. You know, it’s obvious! Oh, I’m sorry. It’s “Blue Dawn.”
TP: So the images correlated with musical shapes and velocities…
MAYFIELD: I think the tune “Moonscapes,” which is actually based on the image on the cover of the book, too, which is why I started the CD with that one… I tried to think about what the Moon represented to him. The Moon represented another night coming and another day passing. The guy was facing starvation, and I think he can find solitude in such simple things that we take for granted almost. That’s really what I deal with in the piece. There’s not a lot of things going on in it, but what you hear is the band coming together with a concept, and we’re laying down these textures, and I guess we’re trying to make people reminisce about things deep down inside of them. That’s what the record really is.
TP: So just to reduce it to a term, it’s programmatic music; music that’s unified around a theme or a personality or…
MAYFIELD: Oh, yeah, I’m a big theme person. There’s not a record you’ll have by me that’s not…
TP: The recent one, the love series, everybody’s got to go through their love record.
MAYFIELD: Yeah, I had to get that one out. I was so heartbroken when I did that. That was painful.
TP: But that’s another story.
MAYFIELD: Yeah, that’s another story.
TP: How many compositions do you have with your name on it, copyrighted now? Over 100?
TP: You seem like a very prolific composer. On the Los Hombres Calientes records, you do a lot of tunes in a lot of different idioms, you seem able to get to the essence of the idiom in some way…
MAYFIELD: That’s my background.
TP: But it is hard for many people to do that, to be idiomatic but personal at the same time.
MAYFIELD: See, being from New Orleans gives you a key to a lot of that stuff, because New Orleans has all that in there. It’s the northern port of the Caribbean, and you’ve got so many different peoples from so many different walks of life. I haven’t even been through all my childhood experiences in music yet. Another thing is, I want nothing more than to be a person who’s writing about music…
I’ll tell you what. When I’m putting a record together, do you know what I do? I have very few records that stay with me that I can listen to. I listen to a record one time, I can’t listen to it again. Actually, a lot of musicians I listen to who have modern-day record deals, very few of those records I like. I find I can’t get anything out of them. I’m not a person that is just give me a song because I like to tap my foot to it.
TP: There has to be a reason for the song to exist.
MAYFIELD: Yeah, some greater thing… I can even appreciate somebody like Frank Sinatra, because there’s a certain thing he’s implying when he’s doing these things, he’s representing something… I need something there. I can’t just get with a record that’s out, and the name of this record is “From This Moment On” and…
TP: But your stuff is very modern. If I were going to try to describe to someone what it sounds like, it would seem like you’re piggybacking on some things Terence and Wynton did on top of other things, with various rhythmic stuff and phrasing…
MAYFIELD: It’s interesting, because some people will say I sound more modern than Wynton and Terence. Being from New Orleans, I think people are sometimes surprised when they hear my record and it sounds like what people would call a New Yorker, and then if they hear a Los Hombres record they say, “Oh, this is a real New Orleans musician.” I think what I’m doing is much like Picasso. Hey, man, one day you’re doing a still-life, the next day you’re doing Cubism.
TP: That’s not so easy for musicians to do. It’s a characteristic of what a lot of musicians are striving, to jump between a lot of different things…
MAYFIELD: Because I think musicians are striving… My only thing is that I’m just trying to develop my own personal goals. I don’t want to write any song to sound like another song.
TP: When did Los Hombres Calientes start? That’s obviously been a huge thing for you. It’s taken you around the world, it’s been a popular band, it’s obviously opened up a lot of compositional and improvisational possibilities.
MAYFIELD: It started when I was living up here. I met Chucho Valdez with Wynton the first time he came to New York. They were trying to talk, and they couldn’t talk at all, man, because Chucho didn’t speak English, and Wynton started talking… It wasn’t working out. But they started playing together. I said, “Damn, what is this connection between Cuba and New Orleans?” I always liked Cuban music, and these guys are playing together and it’s making sense. Terence made this record with Ivan Lins, the Brazilian singer. I’m thinking: Why do I like Reggae music? What is the connection with Brazilian music? Then I came home and decided I was going to put together a band that dealt with all those connections. And the connection was that all that music is dance music, but the level of integrity is very high, whether it’s Reggae or whether it’s Brazilian music.
So I called up Bill, who I called “Mister Sommers” then. He had just moved to New Orleans. I’d gone to school with Jason Marsalis. And I decided I’d put this band together. We were just going to do a couple of gigs. It was going to be a thing where we got together maybe twice or three times a year. I wanted to be funny. Because people always say jazz musicians are so uptight, I named it after a rap group, “the hot boys.”: Then we did this gig, and more people wrote about the gig before it started than probably any band I’ve ever known in New Orleans.
From there, the project led me and it led Bill — it molded us. Then Jason left the band. Then I think we solidified the concept after Jason left. Jason was more into interpretative things. He’s more like Gordon Parks. That’s interpretative. When you’re dealing with the music of Los Hombres, it’s not as interpretive; it’s about laying down the foundation of what it is — the essence of it. I think that’s always the balance between the two groups. One is about essence, one is about interpretation.
TP: Take me back a bit, to how you found the trumpet or how the trumpet found you.
MAYFIELD: I only started playing trumpet because my best friend, Jeffrey, played trumpet. He doesn’t play any more! But he made good grades, straight A’s, the girls liked him — I wanted to be like Jeffrey. So I wanted to get a trumpet. Then my Dad said, “Well, you know, if you get this trumpet…” My Dad used to be a drill sergeant in the Army. He said, “If you get this trumpet, you have to play it til you get to college.” I said, “Yeah-yeah-yeah, I want to get the trumpet.” Then I found out later he knew how to play the trumpet somewhat, so he started giving me lessons. Man, i tried to quit at least 10-11 times, but he wasn’t going for that. He wasn’t on that program. He’d spent his money on the horn, and he was going to get his money’s worth.
Then I fell in love with it. It was shocking. At some point, I decided… I think he had ambitions of me being a physicist or a mathematician or something like that…
TP: It backfired on him!
MAYFIELD: Yeah, it backfired. But I fell in love with the trumpet. But being from New Orleans… Man, I remember being on my street and seeing second line bands pass down the street outside.
TP: Did you ever do the second line thing as a kid?
MAYFIELD: Of course. I was the youngest member of the Algiers Brass Band, which was a traditional brass band that played all the old tunes. And I played with Danny Barker.
TP: Oh, you got to play with him before he passed.
MAYFIELD: Oh yeah. I played with him a lot before he passed. I learned a lot of stuff with him. I think Danny Barker represents the true essence of what jazz is. I think one difference between jazz and any other idiom of music is that jazz is always modern. You talk about a cat like Danny Barker, man he was hip when he was old. There was never no point in time when he wasn’t hip. And he would talk about…
TP: Hipness is not a state of mind; it’s a fact of life.
MAYFIELD: He’d sit down and he… Here’s a guy who was in his sixties talking about “bitches and hos” and at the same time he’s talking about his chord structures on the guitar, and Louis Armstrong, what he did for American music. This is the scope of a conversation in New Orleans.
TP: For a teenager, that’s quite a scope of conversation.
MAYFIELD: The other thing about the older musicians, they always talked to you like a man. He wasn’t not going to say “bitches and hos” around me just because I was a little boy. That was not tolerated. You have a horn, son; this is what the valve is.
TP: So that probably paved the way for you to relate to someone like Gordon Parks.
MAYFIELD: Clearly. Exactly. Not so much relate to him as much as respect the shit out of him.
TP: But to do a suite about someone who’s 90 years old, you have to have the empathy to get under their skin and have the confidence you can project those things.
MAYFIELD: But he writes so well… I don’t know, man. He writes so well… A great writer like Hemingway and Faulkner, they can do something to you. It seems like you know them personally. He had that Hemingwayesque approach of writing. You know how you read Hemingway and you start getting hungry because he’s always talking about food? You don’t even know what food it is necessarily, but it sounds mighty tasty by the time he gets finished describing how he ate it. And Gordon’s the same way. He remembers those exact moments of how somebody looked at him before they slapped him, or how a woman looked at him before she wanted to be with him. It’s things we all know. We all go through them. We know that look before we’re about to get our ass whipped, and we all know that look before we’re about to consummate our relationship with a woman or a mate. That I got to know from musicians, appreciating them stories. I’ve never laughed as much as I laughed when I hung out with Danny Barker.
TP: So do those stories correlate to the way you think about music and framing a solo and writing a phrase?
MAYFIELD: The band is always laughing at songs I write. Because there are some songs that they all know what they’re about. Some are clearly about anger, some are about love, some are about sex. So when we’re in the studio, they’re all…
TP: There’s a subtext.
MAYFIELD: Oh yeah. Then they start making words to the songs! I think that’s realistically… Look, I’m a 25-year-old and I’m approaching it my way. Wynton’s way is his way, and that’s 20 years before, what they did.
TP: So you were in the brass band, and then you wound up at NOCCA.
MAYFIELD: That was a real reality check. Because see, being in a brass band, hanging around these older musicians, I was quite cocky to be so young, because I was better than everybody.
TP: You could play the instrument.
MAYFIELD: Yeah, I could play the instrument and I knew these old cats, and I had a certain level of sophistication that everybody didn’t. Until I got to know better, and then I met Jason Marsalis, who was 14 and could play Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” on the drums and interpret it. He had that total recall in music, so he could go through scores and memorize it. He was a monster. And Nicholas Payton (he was 29, but he was still hanging around) walks in, and he’s playing bass the first time I heard him. I said, “Oh, what a great bass player.” Then he starts playing piano, and then he played the drums and sounds like Elvin Jones. Then he picked up the trumpet. And that made me have to really decide, hearing Nicholas Payton for the first. There’s a lot of cats. Adonis Rose. And the thing is, these cats were working. These cats had gigs. They were like 14 and 15, traveling and working… It was a different experience.
I didn’t really come from a musical family, because even though my father knew a lot of the technical aspects, he wasn’t a musician. New Orleans is a town of tradition. It’s very aristocratic in that sense. And you deal with a lot of the Creole tradition. Tradition plays a big role. So a lot of times, if you’re not fitting in, in some way it’s hard to deal with. I think I went through a lot of that when I was coming up, trying to figure out which group I belonged in, or I didn’t have any of those things. So I think it essentially made me work harder to define what I wanted to be doing.
TP: So when you were in high school, what were you thinking defined what you wanted to be doing?
MAYFIELD: In high school, I think I was always dissatisfied with what I was doing. That was the biggest important thing I knew in high school. I knew I was not where I wanted to be, and I knew it was going to take a lot of work and it was almost an impossible task. But I made a decision that no matter what it took, I would do it, because I loved it so much. I really love music, and not just jazz. Jazz is one of the mediums in which I lay out what I do, but it’s art. I love literature, I love visual arts, I love theater, I love dance — I love people communicating.
TP: Did that start at NOCCA? I know it’s a multidisciplinary arts high school.
MAYFIELD: It started at NOCCA. When I got to New York, New York seriously nurtured it.
TP: Did you go straight up to New York from NOCCA?
MAYFIELD: I went to UNO. I studied with Kidd Jordan, Clyde Kerr… I’ve been mentored by damn near every trumpet player out of New Orleans.
TP: Were you listening to other trumpet players historically?
MAYFIELD: Oh yeah. In New Orleans, man, Louis Armstrong’s music was very vibrant and alive.
TP: So you had to play that music too.
MAYFIELD: Oh yeah.
TP: That’s a thing that trumpet players outside New Orleans don’t really have to do.
MAYFIELD: Well, see, in New Orleans, not only do you have to play all that. Then you’ve got to go on the R&B gig. See, ain’t no prejudice about music in New Orleans. I never knew anything about period playing until I got to New York, because here cats talk about what type of jazz they play. I never heard that shit. When I was in New Orleans, if you wanted to do a gig with Kidd Jordan and play some avant-garde music, that’s what you played. Happily. You were happy to be playing. Then you went and played an R&B gig, or maybe you played some horn parts with cats from the Grateful Dead. Or maybe you’d go and play some Classical music. You don’t have those distinctions. You are a trumpet player, much the same as Louis Armstrong was. People start defining it after you do it. I had a hard time when I first got here because of that. Because everybody thought you fit in a bag. Well, if you’re hang with Wynton, then you only like to play stuff with changes and blues, and you don’t like to play music that is conceptual and has no structure to it. Which is ridiculous anyway, because most of the music of the early ’80s is actually non-structural — it’s really free music. That’s what Wynton and them were trying to do, ironically enough, especially Terence Blanchard. People want you to stay the same.
So when I think about what molded me, growing up in New Orleans is a… It’s a great thing, but then it’s a bad thing, because at the same time, nobody in New Orleans appreciates what you’re doing, because everybody is a musician. Everybody is an artist. Everybody cooks. You’re not special. “Yeah, so what? The cook plays trumpet. His grandson plays trumpet.” We have a lineage of people who play trumpet who are all great who never did anything. “So what about you?”
TP: That’s a great environment to develop what you do, because you just have to do it, but then you have to get out to make it…
MAYFIELD: New Orleans is a homebody place, and if you’re really a true New Orleanian you never want to leave home. So you go through this emotional thing. It’s weird. But being up here in New York, when I first got here, at that point it was so different from New Orleans, it was the only place I said, “I could live here and never go back home.” Because it was so much!
TP: Donald Harrison tried it. Terence tried it. I don’t think Nicholas tried it. But most of the people…
MAYFIELD: Well, Nicholas went on the road. He was up here hanging for a second. But what I realized is being here after two or two-and-a-half years, man, it wears on you. You have to know how to cleanse yourself if you’re going to be up here. But I guess that’s the thing I liked about it. I felt proud every day I made another day in New York. Because everybody’s trying to make it up here.
TP: Has the music for the “Half-Past Autumn Suite” changed or evolved since you wrote it?
MAYFIELD: Man, I’m on the stage with four guys who are determined to play something different every night. And it’s a hard process, because when you write music, you intend on it staying the same way, but it just ain’t happening! They take over. You may be the bandleader, but whoever is playing the most music per song is the bandleader. So you’ve got to follow them. So yeah, it changes, and depending on the night, it is what it is. One night everything is a certain way, and another night, you know… The thing I’ve noticed about the response to the music is that most… See, I would assume that this record wouldn’t have gotten as many reviews artistically… I knew people would say, “It’s nice Gordon Parks and you have collaborated,” but I don’t think people would have appreciated it as much as my last record. But what I guess I’ve found — and I’ve learned my lesson through this record — is that sometimes less is more. I guess I started I’ve started to understand more what Miles Davis really did through his reductions down to simplicity in music. He really reduced things down to those fundamental assets of what’s really required. It’s an interesting experience. I’ll tell you one thing. when you’re playing music like that, you’ve got to really trust the musicians. Because, man, you’ve got some musicians who can’t carry that off… It’s all about the musicians at that point.
TP: Are these guys from New Orleans.
MAYFIELD: No. Aaron Fletcher is from Tipino, Louisiana. It’s New Orleans, but he’s a country bumpkin, man. Victor Atkins is from Selma, Alabama, so he’s a product of the Civil Rights movement. Jaz Sawyer is from the Bay Area. Jaz is like my soulmate. Me and Aaron are like brothers, because we play so well together, but me and Jaz are like… We’ve played and worked together so much.
TP: He’s a very accomplished drummer.
MAYFIELD: Oh, he’s a monster. He is really… I would say if there are any new innovations, they really come from the drums. He’s the kind of guy who just refuses to do anything anybody else does. He’s his own person. You know he’s going to show up late to the show. I just wish I could expose everybody to the band, because the band is so crazy. It’s young guys, but…
Neal Caine is a wild man! [Benny Green, Harry, Elvin] Don’t leave your girlfriend around if Neal Caine is around. He’s a wild man.
TP: Did you do that?
MAYFIELD: Hell, no! I learned from experience! Aaron is a nice guy. Aaron will cook for everybody, make breakfast. He’s country. But Neil and Jaz, I don’t know what’s going to happen. On the stage, we’ll be playing songs, and they’ll start yelling words from other songs…
TP: The music isn’t local any more.
MAYFIELD: Well, you’ve got to go with the guys who can really deliver what you need. Like, Aaron is living in L.A. right now.
TP: Is that because Terence is out in L.A. a lot?
MAYFIELD: Well, he’s not in Terence’s band any more. But I think he wanted to find a different… Everybody goes through that. I did New York and he wants to do L.A. I’m not a big L.A. fan necessarily.
TP: Tell me about Gordon Parks’ music.
MAYFIELD: The first time I heard Gordon Parks’ music, I was watching an HBO documentary. I was like, “Damn, this music is killing; who did the soundtrack?” The name of Gordon Parks came up. Then I was about fed up at that point! Does the guy have to do everything and be successful? You feel insignificant inferior next to a cat like this.
You know that Gordon can’t read any music, so he came up with his own notation system. Can you imagine coming up with a whole nother written language? His music is beautiful. It’s very melancholy, like you said. When I asked him to play on the record… He said, “I think there’s this piece you may want to check out. I wanted to do it for Leontyne Price, and it deals with the sentiments of September 11th.” He played it for me. I said, “Well, Gordon, why can’t we play it together. You play it.” He said, “No, you should get your piano player to play it.” I said, “No, you should play it.” He said, “I’ve never done a recording session before. I’ve never been in the studio and played on a record.” I said, “But you’re Gordon Parks!” Do you know, he practiced for three days and came to the studio. The studio was packed.
TP: He’s got some left hand.
MAYFIELD: Oh, he’s a monster. Everybody asked me, “Who’s that on piano? Do you have a classical pianist on there?” He’s amazing. And the title of the song is “Wind Song.” I was extremely nervous playing that song, because I knew I doing something that very few people get an opportunity to do in life.
TP: But you’d listened to his recordings. Are they all within the rubric of classical?
MAYFIELD: Well, you know, he used to play blues in juke joints and all that stuff. But he has that kind of blues interpretation to it. Yet at the same, it’s a very French…
TP: Is it like a deeply harmonized blues?
MAYFIELD: You can hear all the elements. You can hear that honky-tonk piano. You can also hear the influence of France — Debussy and Ravel. You can hear that shit all up in his stuff. You can hear the interpretation of… His sound is still American, despite the fact that it’s very heavily influenced by French composers. And it still sounds like Negro music. That’s Gordon Parks.
TP: That’s a beautiful piece.
MAYFIELD: I like it, too. I can put it on, it’s a nice day, I put it on at home… My mother likes it a lot.
TP: Obviously, Gordon Parks is a holistic personality, with all his activities integrated with one another. Talk about your impressions of the ways in which his music and his photography are linked.
MAYFIELD: I think his music and his photography are linked in the sense that he loves to function in… See, the thing about music is that it’s the only art form that is in the same space as emotion. He understands that completely, and he tries to transcend that with his art. Because his photographs… But then the photographs become visual art. They’re not just photographs. They’re paintings… I’ve asked him and he says, “I don’t know what I was thinking of.” It’s like asking Miles Davis, “What were you thinking when you were doing…” And I know I’ve made a lot of comparisons between Gordon and Miles. But there’s a lot of comparisons to be made. Because I think that’s true, exceptional genius, is when you can take something, which is anything, and reduce down to its fundamental level, and exude beauty from it. The guy is a master.
And it’s hard for me to detach myself from how amazing it is. Because you have to realize, when I’m writing these pieces, I’m digging down so deep inside myself and what I’m capable of, because I’m amazed at what he’s able to do. His pieces are all different. Some artists, they make one piece, and another piece it’s like, “Ah, you can tell it’s him.” Gordon Parks’ shit is not like that. Every piece is distinctly different. You don’t know what he uses. He don’t even know what he uses. And he’s challenging himself. You know what Gordon Parks’ art is like? It’s like being on the edge of the abyss, looking out and then jumping off. That’s his art. Each one of his pieces.
TP: Whether it’s music, whether it’s photography…
MAYFIELD: I mean, even to come up and make a black action hero! That was absurd, man! To be the first to really say, “I’m going to make a black action hero.” Then they said, “Well, damn, why don’t you direct it?” So then he directs it. Then he decides what music he wants. And tell me that music didn’t become the definitive music of the era. I think a lot of people don’t… You have to realize, no Gordon Parks, no Curtis Mayfield. No Gordon Parks, you miss out on that whole aspect of what people define as black music during the ’70s. Much as people don’t want to admit it, because I know a lot of people think that he didn’t take enough of a stand throughout the ’60 and ’70s — but that is a stand. I was in an argument not too long ago with a guy who was saying the same thing about a musician like Miles Davis. I can’t say he took a serious stand like James Brown. But that’s what art is. Art is a stand. That’s what we’re doing out here, is making a stand. And Gordon Parks’ art makes a stand, a stand towards humanity, not towards political achievement. When you look at his art, it transcends all that.
It’s like Louis Armstrong. You’ve got more people around the world trying to imitate Louis Armstrong and singing his songs than anyone else. He’s the one singer…the most performed artist all over the place, more than Michael Jackson. Why is that? Because he’s challenging on a humanity level, not on a political front and not on a specific genre and not on an American front. Actually, the concept he really deals with… This is what we mean by the concept of jazz being democracy, is that the concept outgrows the people who create it. And Gordon Parks’ art does that. It outgrows him. So a lot of times I know why he doesn’t want to explain any of the shit he’s doing, because it’s bigger than him.
TP: Right. I understand. He channels it.
MAYFIELD: Yeah. And it’s the same thing with me… You know, people ask me, “How did you write all this?” I can’t respond to that. It’s because I’m just following what’s out there.
TP: You really got a lot out of living at Wynton’s house. Sounds like it was a higher education for you.
MAYFIELD: Oh, the arguments, man. I wouldn’t argue with him. But I’d see some great debates go down.
TP: Stanley would be there?
MAYFIELD: Oh my God, the greatest debater of all time, whether he’s wrong or right. And that’s the idea. That’s why I got Stanley to do the liner notes. I said, “Well, whether he’s wrong or whether he’s right, he’s going to make some point for people to engage in a dialogue about it.” I think that’s what people miss about jazz. Jazz is about the dialogue. It’s about the process. That’s what democracy is about and that’s what humanity is about. It’s about the process of trying to be better. It ain’t about gettin’ there. Once you get there, that’s some other shit. Maybe that’s some classical music stuff, but it isn’t jazz.
TP: Well, it’s great that there are still people who want to do that, because it certainly isn’t the zeitgeist in terms of the mass.
MAYFIELD: I think we live in sad times, with sad movies and sad things that take up a lot of what’s going on. And even in the jazz realm. A lot of what people call jazz, I would consider to be sad music. I can’t say I’m really impressed with a lot of artists who are around right now.
TP: Who do you like these days?
MAYFIELD: Do you want me to be honest? [LAUGHS] I like Brad Mehldau. I like his conception, because I like how he’s a master of form. He’s very specific on forms. I like Abbey Lincoln. But out of the young cats, I can’t say I’m too enthralled by a lot of the others. I like Roy Hargrove’s trumpet playing, but I’m not impressed by his records. They’re two different worlds. Because hey, when Roy walks in the room, everybody starts playing. Even me. I love Roy. That don’t mean when I pick up his records…
I think that’s part of the challenge of where we’re at right now. I take my records very seriously. I try to make records that I want to listen to, and there’s a lot of records I don’t want to listen to.
TP: What’s your current project now? Some author you’re reading a lot of? Some filmmaker…
MAYFIELD: There’s a lot of stuff. Reading list: Ralph Ellison. Faulkner. I’m actually trying to finish every Faulkner book. I’ve read about 7.
TP: You have 15 to go. Have you read the Trilogy yet?
MAYFIELD: I haven’t read the trilogy. Absalom, Absalom, The Sound And The Fury. Hemingway, the same thing. I’m trying to complete him by next year. I’m trying to complete Faulkner in two years. I’m trying to complete Ellison in the next eight months.
TP: Who do you talk to about it?
MAYFIELD: Well, I’m the director of the Institute of Jazz (?) at Dillard.
TP: So you talk to the faculty at Dillard.
MAYFIELD: Oh yeah, man. The eminent scholars over there are wonderful, and I engage in conversations with them. People disagree with me a lot. And that’s fine. It’s about of the process. But for me, Ralph Ellison embodies that person I go back to as far as literature. Picasso is that person in Art — and Bearden. They’re the two people. But Picasso is really my guy. Alvin Ailey blew me away not too long ago with the new pieces that Judith Jameson is doing. In theater, you can’t ever get away from Shakespeare. I’m trying to deal with actually reading some more Shakespeare. So I’m starting with the poems and some shorter versions of the plays. There’s a lot of the stuff, because at the same time…
TP: You’re doing a lot of things. Plus trumpet is an instrument you have to practice.
MAYFIELD: Have to practice. And then we just started this jazz orchestra in New Orleans. So now I’ve got four of the guys in the trumpet section all out for blood, so I really have to practice now! Really, mostly I’m thinking of the bigger picture as far as tying all these things together and start engaging in dialogues about how these things are related.
* * *
Irvin Mayfield (4-19-03):
TP: One thing I wanted to address with you is the attitude with which you approach Los Hombres Calientes. There’s a certain level of showmanship and presentation involved in it. It’s a very effective live band.
MAYFIELD: I don’t really think that Los Hombres’ presentation is necessarily different from my quintet. It’s more that the music to lends itself that maybe people who are not familiar with the music might have a different outlook on it. But when I play quintet… One thing the band was saying the last time we were in New York is that we felt the audience was very stiff, and it was strange for us. Even when I play quintet, I still play some of the…
TP: You said that the last time you played in New York, the guys in the band thought the audience was stiff.
MAYFIELD: Yes. I guess in New Orleans people have jazz as part of the culture, as a cultural thing, and people react very differently to jazz. It has a different meaning to people in New Orleans than it does to people everywhere else, and sometimes we get spoiled by that.
TP: How does it have a different meaning?
MAYFIELD: Well, meaning that it’s ceremonial. Meaning that if I play the music that I was playing for the Gordon Parks suite for a bunch of kids in New Orleans who go to public schools and are from impoverished areas, they would be reacting to the music, screaming and enjoying themselves, because they’re used to reacting like that. They’re used to going to the second-lines and the funerals. They know all the traditional New Orleans jazz songs, such as “Saints” and “High Society” and “Flee As a Bird.” So it has a different meaning to them. So when I’m playing, they’re interacting with the music. It’s an interactive thing. When we leave New Orleans, it’s kind of like we’re playing for foreigners. They’re enjoying it, but they’re enjoying it by just listening and watching.
TP: That’s both bands, both ways of playing.
MAYFIELD: Well, Los Hombres is a little more successful because the music lends itself…
TP: It’s dance music.
MAYFIELD: Right, it’s very specific dance music. But the thing about Los Hombres is… Of course, you could argue that the rhythms are danceable. It’s not as interpretive as the music that I do with my quintet, of course. But Los Hombres is pretty much a jazz group. We’re just showing people that it’s okay to interact with jazz. If you’d seen some of the performances that we’ve done with the quintet where people interact, it’s not too much of a different reaction.
TP: In what way is Los Hombres Calientes a jazz band? Is it as flexible and fluid and improvisational as your quintet music? That’s pretty complex music, after all.
MAYFIELD: Well, they’re pretty much on the same level of complexity. I think the difference is that the quintet music is more interpretive. Meaning that a jazz musician, when we’re playing music, we’re not dealing with the indigenous part of it. Except when we play certain… [LAUGHS] It gets real complex. Really what’s happening is that on one level it’s more interpretive. Once you get the music, the interpretation sets in for the jazz musician, because the genre you’re playing is jazz. So there’s more flexibility in interpretation of all kinds of things. The functionality of things can change easier than they can when we’re playing Los Hombres. For instance, if Bill wants to play a certain rhythm, then Ricky has to play that same style of rhythm. Well, in the quintet, we don’t have that problem, because there’s only one drummer. Neal Caine is interpreting the bass part and Jaz is interpreting his Brazilian music that we played on the Gordon Parks record, as opposed to when Bill and Ricky play the Brazilian songs — they’re playing the specific samba rhythm.
TP: And is Edwin Livingston playing the same rhythm also? He’s interlocking with them.
MAYFIELD: Exactly. But the interesting thing that happens is that the more you understand the rules, the more you can break them. Like, if you listen to our first record, which was light years behind where we are now, you hear less interpretation. Now, when you listen to our records, we’re doing many things. We’re keeping with the vibe of what the music really is, but we interpret and take more chances and really develop the motifs more than we have been doing in the past.
TP: Do you have any particular group in Los Hombres Calientes? I’m thinking the Fort Apache Band might be an antecedent…
MAYFIELD: What we’re doing with Los Hombres has never been done before.
TP: Why? Because the rhythmic template is so broad?
MAYFIELD: It’s so broad and it’s so indigenous. The level of study we’ve done, it would take… This is a band that’s been five years of study. It would take a long time for people to really get that together. Another thing is that it’s very hard for Latin musicians to play swing and to play blues.
TP: I’m saying this for the point of argument, but I’m wondering if bands like Fort Apache Band set a template for you in conceptualizing this or if it’s a purely home-grown thing.
MAYFIELD: The difference between a band like Los Hombres and Fort Apache is that Los Hombres is a New Orleans band, and a New Orleans musician has more flexibility than any other musician from anywhere else. Meaning that a New Orleans musician… With some very rare exceptions. Jaz Sawyer is a very rare exception, but where is he living right now? New Orleans. A New Orleans musician can play the Brazilian styles and the Cuban styles and the New Orleans styles. When Horacio — El Negro — was in the band… And don’t get me wrong. With Horacio, you’re talking about the foremost influential Cuban drummer in the world today. He is the top cat, the top-number-one guy from Cuba playing the drums. But as far as the flexibility of playing funk music and New Orleans music, it was good and he did his best, but it’s not as strong as, for instance, when Ricky plays it. Because it’s very hard to get the New Orleans type of feel if you’re not in New Orleans. It’s an American approach, and it gives you a different outlook as far as jazz and how all those things relate to each other.
TP: You’re talking about the entrepot aspect of New Orleans as a Gulf City.
MAYFIELD: Exactly. One thing people have to realize is that we’re including New Orleans in there, and the reason it gets to be complicated is because New Orleans music is jazz. You have New Orleans music that gets to be less jazz, it gets to be more jazz-influenced, like the Neville Brothers or Bo Dollis and Wild Magnolias and the Mardi Gras Indian type of things. But what we’ve clearly stated on our records is we’ve even shown to a certain extent that all those musics really are just a hybrid. They’re the foundation that laid the palette for what Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton and all those people started to do.
TP: One record I thought was very radical when it came out was Donald Harrison’s “Indian Blues,” which came out a couple of years after the first really complete Fort Apache records. Did Donald’s return to New Orleans in the early ’90s have an impact, or the things Wynton was doing with the Septet?
MAYFIELD: What really influenced me… I think Wynton even credits me for being ahead of him, as far as him really wanting to get a good hold on the whole indigenous music of the Caribbean and the African diaspora. What really influenced me was actually that when I heard this music, I always heard the connections, even when I was a kid. And when I lived in New York, Chucho Valdez came and met Wynton, and I got to hear them play together. It worked. It made sense to me. See, Wallace Roney playing with Chucho Valdez does not mean the same thing as Wynton playing. Not to take anything… A lot of people think, being New Orleans, that we’re trying to talk shit on people…
TP: Yes, they do!
MAYFIELD: But it’s not really that, man. If you don’t live there, you just don’t know. Here’s Donald Harrison. Here’s a motherfucker who puts on a fuckin’ Indian headdress and can function… When he’s playing with them, he doesn’t sound like Donald Harrison. For instance, Wallace Roney, everything he does sounds like Wallace Roney. Donald Harrison! You can put on a fuckin’ Eddie Palmieri record, you’d be like “Who the hell is that?” “That’s Donald.” “Oh, okay.” Nicholas Payton is the same way. Here’s a guy who can play many different styles many different ways. I’ll tell you, that’s been part of the problem for many New Orleans musicians.
TP: That’s a problem.
MAYFIELD: Yeah, because the fuckin’ major markets have no idea how to expand upon that. That’s hard for them. Nicholas Payton runs into that problem all the time. What is he? A traditional New Orleans musician? That’s what he got his Grammies for. They want to lock him into what he’s doing with Doc Cheatham. And in New Orleans you have so many different indigenous types of musicians. The Mardi Gras Indians shit that Donald does and the traditional shit that Nicholas is so versed in are two completely different things. Then, if you want to start getting with the gospel element that happens in New Orleans music, that’s a whole other thing. But they all co-influence each other.
I think that’s really what we’re trying to say with Los Hombres, is that we try to exhaust these different elements of music from the Caribbean. And don’t get me wrong. This record, Volume 4, could very easily have been a New Orleans record. I didn’t exhaust anything. I gave a little snippet just to try to give people an idea that they have entertain New Orleans in a different fashion from what they have been.
TP: Los Hombres sounds like it’s going to be a perpetual work in progress so long as you and Sommers both have the energy to do the fieldwork.
MAYFIELD: One day we would like to take a band of 80 musicians on the road, where we would have three or four musicians from a country.
TP: Did you say 80?
TP: Sort of like Dizzy Gillespie’s United Nations concept extrapolated…
MAYFIELD: If you really want to know, I’m really taking the bench from where Dizzy left it. I’m really taking his mark, and we’re taking it into the new millennium. No one has done that. Dizzy’s shit was groundbreaking. And he was interested in African shit. People don’t understand that the easiest place to get to Africa is Cuba. That’s Africa. People look at it as just some Spanish shit. There ain’t shit Spanish about that music except for the words. Matter of fact, really Latin…
TP: A lot of the Spanish music is African, too. North African.
MAYFIELD: The term “Latin” is a European term. When you think of Latin, you think of the Pope, you think… When you hear Horacio or Cha-Cha, or you hear these guys singing in Yoruba, and you see these guys beating on drums, I’m sorry, that’s just some African shit. You know what the whole Volume 4 of Los Hombres is about? There is no such thing called Latin music. That shit does not exist. And we’ve been trying to dispel that for a long time.
TP: Stephen Bernstein a few years ago did a record called “Diaspora Soul,” where he put Afro-Cuban rhythms on Jewish cantorial melodies, which have a North African component to them, and in his notes he was calling it a Gulf sound.
MAYFIELD: Even that kind of doesn’t work. Really what is, is the concept of the African diaspora? As it gets to certain places, it survives and mutates in different ways. When it got to Cuba, it was one thing; when it got to Haiti, it was one thing; when it got to Brazil, it was one thing. But when it got to New Orleans, a very interesting thing happened. I think in New Orleans, our music is the true representation of democracy, and the concept of music and the concept of Democracy is much greater than the men who created it. I think it’s one of those rare things. That’s how it happened. You look at the legacy and the magnitude of Louis Armstrong’s music, it was much greater than he was as a man. I think that’s the same thing with Los Hombres. It’s a concept that’s so large and so big, it’s much bigger than Bill and I. We’re trying to do the best we can to keep our arms around it and keep moving forward.
It’s very hard to define this shit in words, because the music defines it. That’s what we really try to do. We can sit up here and say there’s no such thing as Latin music and get controversial, which we haven’t really taken that stand in the press yet, because we take it with the records. And if people check out the record, it is what it is. Here are the Mardi Gras Indians. They have their own specific rhythms, their own specific things, and all this music is ceremonial.
TP: In New Orleans, it sounds like you have, for the most part, a ceremonial context in which to perform the music.
MAYFIELD: That’s what I mean is the difference between when we play in New Orleans as opposed to when we play in New York. Because of the ceremonial aspects, because it has to do with celebration of life and different things, when we play in different places it doesn’t really transfer to people that same exact way as far as how they react to it. It does transfer to them as far as how they feel, obviously. That’s why I feel that New Orleans musicians have always been at the top tier of the people who tour and represent the music. Even when you talk about the legacy of Miles Davis or the legacy of Dizzy Gillespie, it still doesn’t have the same magnitude as the legacy of Louis Armstrong because his music was so celebratory. It has to do with that same thing that happened when Dizzy started working with Chano Pozo. You know, they play rhumba at ceremonial parties. It’s a religious thing!
TP: It’s pretty secular stuff, like courtship rituals for dock-workers.
MAYFIELD: Well, the same thing happened with jazz. All the jazz songs before 1900 were religious songs. That’s point-blank, and people don’t really understand it. Without the New Orleans funeral, there would be no jazz. Field hollers come from the gospel, from the spirituals.
TP: It always seemed to me that the reason why African music traveled so well is that rhythm and timbre were language, and it couldn’t be quenched. That’s how I read Wynton’s meaning by “black codes from the underground,” and it’s why rhythmic innovation is so key in jazz, because that language is coming through in different iterations, no matter how conscious the person who’s producing those develops is of the context. There’s still that metaphorical quality.
MAYFIELD: I agree with you 100%. You are right on the concept. The amazing thing about Los Hombres is that the band gives you that ceremonial experience.
TP: In terms of your identity as a trumpet player, how does it fit into the ceremonial context? What you’re talking about is something that’s collective. But then there’s the tonal personality that someone associates with your name, which is going to happen more and more, because I’d be 95% sure that by the time you’re 40 you’re going to have a certain impact on the way this music is going. So where does your individuality fit into this? In America, imperatives of individualism stand for more than they do in Cuba or in Trinidad or in Haiti.
MAYFIELD: The first thing is that I’m a trumpet player from New Orleans, and that’s a very individualistic thing. That means that my approach and how I play is very specific. I play the New Orleans approach. I play the New Orleans way. I play the way I was taught by the old men who played in second-lines, who played the halls, who played the clubs with the suspenders and the white hats — and I follow that legacy. The second thing is that I challenge the concept of what Wynton puts out there by redefining the concept of what jazz is and what it can be.
TP: What is the concept and how are you challenging it?
MAYFIELD: Meaning the concept of the records he’s put out versus the type of records that I’ve put out.
TP: Is that what Albert Murray means by “counterstatement”?
MAYFIELD: Exactly. That’s that important thing of a dialogue. I think a lot of times people get so pissed off with what people say, that they don’t understand that the dialogue is what’s so important. It’s not who’s wrong or right. A lot of times it gets into who’s wrong or right. Can we just get some interesting dialogue! Maybe I am wrong! Maybe I am right. Can we have a dialogue about it. I think that’s what the Los Hombres records are about versus my own solo records. That’s why I think it’s important to bring out these two records — Gordon Parks and Los Hombres — close to one another. It’s two very different concepts dealing with two very big-ass issues that are not being addressed right now. In my generation now, if you had to ask Joshua Redman what visual artist of his age group is his counterpart right now, he couldn’t tell you.
TP: You asked him?
TP: And he couldn’t tell you?
MAYFIELD: No. Or if you ask Nicholas Payton. Not only couldn’t tell me, but he don’t really give a damn.
TP: Joshua would give a damn, but Nicholas wouldn’t.
MAYFIELD: That’s Nicholas’ personality. And that’s a jazz musician. That’s a guy who’s open to this shit. Don’t even ask the visual artist! That’s the type of collaboration that used to go on in the 1960s. You had this global understanding, especially amongst African-Americans, that they were all interested to check each other out. And a lot of them didn’t like each other! But they were engaging in a dialogue. That dialogue does not exist right now. That’s part of my generation and reflective of what we’re doing in American culture right now.
TP: Do you think that music governed by the aesthetic you bring to it can penetrate the corporate media? Do you see yourself having a consequential impact on the global aesthetic?
MAYFIELD: It does impact. I go all over the country, all over the world, and people have my records. I’m not selling millions of records, but people understand the concept of what we’re doing, and every time we play more and more people are interested. What people don’t really notice is the true impact that bands have. When we play New York or Boston and young guys come out, and we go to the universities or colleges or high schools, and they see a band like my quintet where they hear Jaz, this young guy playing all that shit he’s playing, and being serious and really playing his style… Jaz is a very conceptual player. In my opinion, he is probably the top drummer in country now for the approach he’s playing, really expanding upon what Max Roach and Billy Higgins and Roy Haynes and those guys did — not playing like them, doing something different.
TP: Talking swing drums.
MAYFIELD: Exactly! You got it. When they see a band like Los Hombres, here you’ve got those young guys like Leon Brown and Devon and Stephen Walker. Here are New Orleans musicians, these young guys, and they’re supposed to be the traditionalists! They’re supposed to be this thing that everybody’s so afraid that Wynton has instilled in everyone, and here these guys are playing shit from Woody Shaw on, trying to expand what they’re dealing with constantly all the time, and at the same time shakin’ their ass and partying and having a good time. That’s Los Hombres. That’s the type of concept I don’t just have with Los Hombres. Even though Los Hombres is very specific as far as the type of project we’re doing, we know we’re going to travel and bring all these cultures in, I’m still the same guy with both groups. It’s just that I’m using different resources with each of them. That’s really the difference. The resource on my record with Gordon Parks was, “Shit, I got Gordon Parks, so I can do all kinds of shit with him.” There my musicians are interpretive guys. When I’m in Los Hombres, I’ve got Bill. I can do a different thing. I’ve got more people.
TP: It’s holistic for you.
MAYFIELD: It is. It’s all part of that one thing.