Irvin Mayfield, New Orleans Jazz Pillar, Indicted For Laundering Library Funds
In three-quarter profile, half-smiling at the camera over his elaborately tattooed shoulder, New Orleans trumpeter Irvin Mayfield, Jr. appeared on the cover of the April 2015 issue of the venerable Louisiana music monthly Offbeat. The story, headlined "Irvin Mayfield's Expanding World," caught up with the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra (NOJO) founder and artistic director on a long list of activities, including the imminent launch of a project that had been long in the works for Mayfield and his team: the New Orleans Jazz Market, a 340-seat theater in Central City, a historically African-American neighborhood in Uptown New Orleans. A $10 million renovation had transformed a discount store on a faltering commercial strip into a sleek lounge that, Mayfield said, would be a multi-use community space as well as a performance home base for the 16-piece NOJO, which is also a nonprofit offering free after-school and weekend music instruction.
Just a few weeks later, Mayfield was the focus of another lengthy piece in the local media. On May 5, 2015, reporting for New Orleans CBS affiliate WWL-TV, investigative journalist David Hammer published a report questioning, in depth, the financial relationship between the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra and the New Orleans Public Library. Appointed by then-Mayor Ray Nagin in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Mayfield had served as chairman of the library board and also on the board of the New Orleans Public Library Foundation, a charity whose job is to raise funds for the library. According to Hammer's report, while Mayfield was serving on the Library Foundation board, he was given extraordinary discretion with regards to spending, resulting in the alleged funneling of more than $800,000 into the coffers of NOJO — which paid both Mayfield and NOJO president and CEO Ronald Markham, a childhood friend of Mayfield's and also a library foundation board member, salaries in the low six figures. (Disclosure: Alison Fensterstock is a quarterly columnist and freelance project editor for Louisiana Cultural Vistas, a magazine published by the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, where Ronald Markham's wife serves as executive director.)
In 2012, for example, Hammer's original report noted that the library had received $116,755 from the foundation. The NOJO had received $666,000. Mayfield and Markham said, at the time, that the money was going to the Jazz Market, which — also supported by state tax credits, public grants and several million dollars in financing from Goldman Sachs — would serve as a library branch as well as community center and performance space. In interviews with Hammer, Markham cited air conditioning, computers and wood as big-ticket expenses for the space.
Hammer's subsequent reporting found that money, donated to the cash-strapped public library via the foundation after Katrina, had apparently paid for, among other things: a single $18,000 stay at the New York Ritz-Carlton and a $15,000 24-karat gold-plated trumpet. In August 2015, he resigned his professorship in the University of New Orleans' music department. The Jazz Playhouse at the Royal Sonesta ended its partnership with Mayfield the following year, when he also stepped down as creative director of NOJO. Markham resigned from the NOJO as well in early 2017, when Sarah Bell was appointed as its president and CEO and longtime NOJO drummer Adonis Rose its creative director. The group had not performed for over a year when it returned to the Jazz Market stage in October 2017. Reached via email, Bell declined to comment on Markham and Mayfield, but was enthusiastic about the ensemble's future: "We have made great strides in the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra's forward progress, and I am incredibly proud of the work we are doing," she wrote.
Mayfield was not immediately available for comment, while Markham did not respond to a request for comment.
Mayfield and Markham had also made a formal agreement to repay about $500,000 in cash to the Library Foundation, and to hold benefit concerts to raise funds to make up the rest. That wasn't good enough for library supporters who, Hammer reported in June 2016, paid for a billboard a block away from the Jazz Market reading #makeNOJOpay. Mayor Mitch Landrieu replaced Mayfield, Markham and the other members of the library foundation board that had voted to give them unprecedented control of its funds.
This past Thursday, Dec. 14, Mayfield was formally indicted by a federal grand jury on one count of conspiracy, four counts of wire fraud, one count of money laundering conspiracy, 11 counts of money laundering, one count of obstruction of justice and one count of mail fraud. Markham stands as co-defendant in 18 of the 19 total counts; he was not charged with the mail fraud. The indictment alleges that starting in 2011 the two men simply spent the money — close to $1.4 million — and lied to their colleagues at the library and the NOJO about what they were doing. It also suggests that Mayfield moved Library Foundation money to the NOJO through an account in the name of the Youth Rescue Initiative, another local nonprofit on whose board he served in 2012, and that the pair altered transcribed minutes of Library Foundation meetings in the hopes of dissuading investigators.
The federal investigation into Mayfield and Markham came to light just a few weeks after Hammer's initial investigation broke on WWL. Local media, which had generated a flood of positive reports on the opening of the Jazz Market, hustled to keep up with the Mayfield story. The timing, Hammer said during a recent phone call, was coincidental, even though Mayfield appeared to think that the Emmy-winning reporter had it out for him (in Offbeat's April story, questioned about his tenure with the library, he cracked a joke about Hammer).
Between 2007 and 2011, when he served on both the Library Foundation board and as chairman of the actual library, Mayfield raised eyebrows by aggressively restructuring its staffing and budgets. In 2008, then a print reporter with the Times-Picayune, Hammer had written a long feature about Irvin's controversial moves there. It was the struggling library, not the trumpeter, that had kept his interest.
"Fast forward to 2014 and I had done a story on how the libraries were out of money, they didn't have the money to keep the lights on," Hammer tells NPR. According to the available nonprofit tax reports, the foundation seemed to be giving little money to the library in comparison to what it was giving to NOJO, "which didn't make any sense," he said. Sources within the library system advised him to look further into the foundation; apparently, at the same time, similar sources were giving the same advice to the New Orleans Metropolitan Crime Commission, which passed the tip on to the FBI.
The son of a schoolteacher and a military man, Mayfield was raised in the working-class Gentilly neighborhood and attended the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts, the respected high-school conservatory that is also the alma mater of Harry Connick, Jr., Troy "Trombone Shorty" Andrews, Terence Blanchard, and multiple Marsalises. He earned a scholarship to Juilliard, but was persuaded to stay in his hometown by jazz patriarch Ellis Marsalis, then the director of jazz studies at the University of New Orleans. After only three semesters, he wound up in New York after all; a brief visit for a gig, during which he was Jazz at Lincoln Center co-founder Wynton Marsalis' houseguest, led to several years studying, playing and living with the Pulitzer prizewinner.
At the turn of the millennium, Mayfield returned to New Orleans inspired and energized by Marsalis' example. He founded the Latin jazz big band Los Hombres Calientes and the NOJO, which both earned praise from the national jazz press and toured extensively. In 2002, Los Hombres Calientes, signed to the local independent label Basin Street Records (as Mayfield still is) were nominated for a Grammy in the Latin Jazz album category. The next year Nagin, who is currently serving a 10-year sentence in federal prison for bribery and fraud charges stemming from his time in office, named Mayfield the city's official cultural ambassador, tasked with identifying opportunities for artistic exchange and arts-driven business in other cities both foreign and domestic.
During the years following Hurricane Katrina, Mayfield, who was 27 when the storm hit in 2005, emerged as an ever-more influential player on the New Orleans cultural and political scene. He lent his name to the nightclub at the Royal Sonesta and to another, the I Club, at a J.W. Marriott hotel. He teamed up with the Hornets, New Orleans' NBA franchise, to write a theme song and present local music at halftime for home games. When Stevie Wonder's scheduled performance at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival was rained out in 2016, after Hammer's initial reports were published, Wonder joined Mayfield onstage at the Royal Sonesta for a surprise pop-up performance that night. In 2009, NOJO won a Grammy; the following year, he was inducted as a member of the NEA's National Council on the Arts. He was teaching at the University of New Orleans, the school he'd dropped out of to study with Wynton Marsalis a decade earlier, and, of course, directing the nonprofit NOJO as well as chairing the library system and the library foundation board. At the funeral of Louisiana painter George Rodrigue in 2013, Mayfield was photographed in a front pew sitting between then-Governor Bobby Jindal and New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu. A 2009 Offbeat cover story on Mayfield — the photo an extreme close-up of his face — was titled "The Face of Power." That year, the Associated Press reported he had considered a run for mayor.
"Irvin created amazing art for Basin Street Records in the 20 years we've known each other," said Mark Samuels, the owner of the local indie label. "And he always pushed us to strive for greatness."
The I Club shuttered after a few years, as did his record label. Other efforts to establish multipurpose jazz-driven venues, including one at the still-shuttered, city-owned Municipal Auditorium (where, in 1952, Hank Williams, Sr. was publicly married) and another at a former Hyatt Regency hotel, fell through. But Mayfield still continued to work double-time, showing an appetite for influence and action rare in the city that is — tiresomely to residents, but accurately — nicknamed the Big Easy. John Swenson, an early editor for Rolling Stone who moved to New Orleans in the '90s, spent a significant amount of time on Mayfield as a post-Katrina figure of note in his 2010 book New Atlantis: Musicians Battle For The Survival Of New Orleans published by Oxford University Press, at one point comparing the musician to a (pre-presidential) Donald Trump for his love of big projects that prominently bore his name.
"The musicians from New Orleans who are most ambitious leave town," Swenson said during a recent phone call. "Irvin really broke the mold by trying to be ambitious in New Orleans. And he was, apparently, brought down by his own hubris."
Mayfield appeared to have a taste for luxury. In one of his earliest local interviews, another Offbeat cover on which he appeared topless, the writer mentioned that the then-23-year-old had his housekeeper prepare a steak dinner for their talk; in one of the photos that accompanied the piece inside the magazine, Mayfield drank champagne in a Jacuzzi. In 2014, the daily Times-Picayune newspaper published a pictorial in its Home and Garden section showing off his four-bedroom house; he rode a motorcycle and drove a Maserati, and talked to reporters about creating a "branded experience" for both himself and for New Orleans jazz, invoking celebrity chefs like Martha Stewart as a model. He put out a 300-page coffee-table book about his eponymous venue at the Royal Sonesta, which included his own essays and musings as well as seven CDs of NOJO performances there (a "multimedia package" retails for $120).
And he was, and is, a natty dresser, preferring either tailored suits or snug T-shirts that show off his tribal tattoos — which were painstakingly reproduced on the arm of the papier-mache Irvin that served as the figurehead of a Carnival parade float in 2016, in keeping with the Mardi Gras tradition of satirizing major news stories. A price tag reading "$15,000" hung from the effigy-Irvin's trumpet.
The gold-plated trumpet was commissioned in 2006 from the Portland brass-instrument maker David Monette. A press release from Mayfield's label, Basin St. Records, announced that it would be insured by Lloyd's of London for $1 million, and accompanied at all times by a sheriff's deputy for safety. When not in use, it would be kept in a vault at New Orleans' Christ Church Cathedral. Representatives from the church, Hammer said, have not confirmed whether they have it or not. Called the Elysian Trumpet, it was named in honor of Mayfield's father, Irvin Sr., who died in the flooding that followed Hurricane Katrina. Elysian Fields Avenue is where his body was found.
Keith Spera, a longtime local music critic and a member of the Times-Picayune team that won the Pulitzer Prize for public service reporting on Katrina, saw Mayfield, Jr. perform in the immediate aftermath of the storm at Christ Church on Nov. 17, 2005. Less than three months after landfall, the city was still barely functioning.
"It was one of those watershed moments," Spera said. "Thousands of people, all kinds of national media. He played an incredible set, partly celebratory and defiant, partly somber and sad. And they hadn't found his father yet at that time, so there was that heavy emotional backdrop."
Mayfield had played Spera's wedding; seeing him perform felt like a small ray of hope. "He was a catalyst. That was one of the signposts on the road to recovery for sure," he said. "And he really was a driving force for cultural revitalization in the city, there's no doubt about that."
In October, Mayfield sold the elegant home that was once featured in the newspaper for, Hammer wrote, nearly no profit. He was appointed a public defender, implying that the musician charged with spending tens of thousands of dollars at luxury hotels — who had, in fact, in just hit No. 1 on the Billboard Jazz Albums chart with his 2017 album A Beautiful World — was indigent.
In the close-knit New Orleans music scene, the response to news of Mayfield's indictment was mixed. On social media, commenters made jokes and expressed schaedenfreude: A thread on Offbeat's page included comments like "We've got a room that won't cost you $18,000 like your stay in New York." Speaking off the record, though, there were also writers, photographers, DJs and other people who had worked with or known Mayfield who were quick to defend the work he had done as a performer, as a representative for the city and with community programming via the NOJO.
"There's stuff he's done that was clearly beneficial," Hammer said. "Cultural development. Music programs for kids. And the creation of art is a very real thing."
But most of all, there's a strong current of sadness that the energetic and charismatic figure who, as Spera said, had been such a visible face of recovery for his battered and beaten hometown, might also have been bilking it.
"People who used to talk highly of him and praise him are just crestfallen," Hammer said. "Seeing it in black and white, seeing how the government put such a fine point on it — those people who were defending him to the hilt or refusing to acknowledge what I was reporting was true are all now saying 'God, I'm so disappointed.'"