Irving Mayfield's Music for Recovery

Irving Mayfield, the city of New Orleans' official cultural ambassador, reflects on his role as an artist in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the deadly flood that has all but empied his beloved Big Easy.

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ED GORDON, host:

Before we close, we wanted to bring you a bit of optimism from the Crescent City.

Mr. IRVIN MAYFIELD (Musician): I am Irvin Mayfield, cultural ambassador for the city of New Orleans.

GORDON: Mayfield is also one of the city's most celebrated musicians. The 27-year-old trumpeter is artistic director of Dillard University and the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra and, for the moment, homeless. Hurricane Katrina displaced his entire family and his father is missing. Yet, Mayfield remains optimistic about his city's future. He even has a plan to help rebuild his hometown.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. MAYFIELD: I may be a cultural ambassador, but first and primarily, I'm a trumpet player. And the first thing I'm going to do is pick up my trumpet and I'm going to play it.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. MAYFIELD: The thing that's a little hard to really see, because it's not as tangible for a lot of people to understand, is the cultural implications of the city of New Orleans. Number one, the only art form that is created by Americans and that's truly American resides in New Orleans and was created in New Orleans. The only thing that can make New Orleans more of a cultural mecca is if the Constitution of the United States reside and was written there. But the constitution of music was created there, and it resides and it lives and, not only that, the constitution of music is something that's addressed every day in the city of New Orleans by people from the upper class, people of the lower class, white people, black people, Asian people.

We have our own way we talk. We have our own way we dance. We have our own food. It's the only place where you could go at, you know, 5:00 in the evening and stand on a corner and say, `I want a tuba player, I want a trumpet player and a snare drum player,' and young, black, poor people come out with snare drums and trumps and bass horns, and they play like men who are in their 40s and 50s, and they play the music, the same songs that was played in the 1850s, same songs that were played in the early 1900s by Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. MAYFIELD: What I see for the rebuilding of New Orleans is, of course, the greatest of greatest jazz funerals to honor those who have been sacrificed and have been through so much through this experience in Hurricane Katrina. I see that jazz funeral as being the first piece in healing really for our city and to bring people together.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. MAYFIELD: The next vision that I have is for jazz to be used as a road map for healing and a way for people to come together and focus on the greatness of our city instead of, you know, whether it's black leadership or white leadership or--you know, I had someone come up to me the other day and say, `Well, you know, now is the time for the black leadership to step up.' And I said, `No, now is the time for all leadership to step up.' New Orleans was a great city. It wasn't a great black city or just a great city where white people did this or a great city. New Orleans was a great American city, and now is the time for all Americans to step up and save something that was very important and for us to rebuild it so it comes back better and is stronger and it represents the true American resilience that created jazz.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. MAYFIELD: We must create works that celebrate our city, that show what our city can be. We must create works that deal with this tragedy and help people heal from this tragedy. And if you're from New Orleans, the great thing is you can use the three fundamental elements of jazz: one, which is the blues. You know, it's like this old blues line where a guy says, `My baby done left me, I'm gonna lay my head down on a train track, and when the train gonna come, I'm gonna snatch my head right on back.' Well, that's the blues. It's bad, but it's going to be all right.

Then we've got to use improvisation. It's like wearing clothes. Everybody has a wardrobe. You put it on and you put different combinations on every day, so we can switch it up. You work with what you got, you use what's your strengths, use that to help your weaknesses, and you bring all those things together. That's improvisation.

And then the third element of jazz is swing. But then that's the true New Orleans sensibility. You've got to be stylish about it. It's like, oh, Duke Ellington said, `It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing.' And I think it's those three things that the artists have to bring together in their works that represent this great tragedy, and then people will have that as a resource. Jazz can be the resource that people can use, the country can use to get through this tragic time. We can rebuild and we should be examples for the rest of the world of how we deal with tragedy and how we make ourselves stronger through that.

(Soundbite of music)

GORDON: That was the official cultural ambassador to New Orleans, Irvin Mayfield.

(Soundbite of music)

GORDON: That does it for our show this week.

(Credits)

GORDON: NEWS & NOTES was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium.

(Soundbite of music)

GORDON: I'm Ed Gordon. This is NEWS & NOTES.

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