WHEN THE MINNESOTA ORCHESTRA announced its latest staff addition last summer, it did so not at Orchestra Hall, the august home of classical music in downtown Minneapolis, but just down the street at the Dakota Jazz Club & Restaurant. In an upstairs banquet room, the orchestra’s music director, Osmo Vänskä, welcomed the media while a young African-American man with a gleaming shaved head stood off to the side, the tattoos that creep up his neck and down his arms hidden under a dapper tan suit and tightly knotted tie. ¶ Vänskä, in his measured Old World tones, acknowledged that jazz was the aesthetic equal of classical music in its variation and virtuosity. Then he introduced the visitor—Irvin Mayfield, the trumpeter, bandleader, and composer from New Orleans—as the orchestra’s first director of jazz. The music once denigrated in a poll of classically trained musicians as “thoroughly objectionable” and a “Bolshevistic smashing of the rules” (from which you can gauge the age of the poll), was having its local coming-out party.
Mayfield, who is 31, was deferential toward the elder maestro: “This is his house and he’s the daddy,” he said. But he revealed broad ambitions: a slate of five performances at Orchestra Hall this season by leading jazz figures, educational initiatives in local schools, and a commission from the orchestra to compose a work combining jazz and classical traditions to an extent never heard before.
Mayfield is essentially alone in his mission. There are only a few jazz curators in the country associated with major orchestras. The reasons are tied to inertia. It’s not every music director who feels compelled to branch out, and only a few orchestras have the resources to try. But as the audience for classical music continues to gray, orchestras are seeking new patrons wherever they can be found, by venturing into popular movie scores (conjuring orcs and elves from Lord of the Rings) or by asking oboists and flautists to drop their tuxes and boogie (to the music of Led Zeppelin, Queen, and ABBA). But until now, none have tapped the late-night vibe of Miles Davis and John Coltrane, whose music was often made in the shadow, not the embrace, of institutions like classical orchestras.
The Minnesota Orchestra is gambling on the assumption that jazz and classical fans crave similarly sophisticated concert experiences. And, more profoundly, that the ingrained perception of orchestras as rooted in elitism and intellectualism—as foreign, in other words—can be reversed, indeed must be reversed if the ensembles are to survive in America. “Perhaps we can be the first institution that really makes European classical music and American music function together,” Mayfield said, then grabbed his trumpet and ripped out a jazz riff, a cappella.
Irvin Mayfield’s trumpet tells you almost everything you need to know about him. His father, a former drill sergeant, perished in the floodwaters of New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, and the trumpet was made in his memory. It is called the Elysian Trumpet—both for the Elysian Fields of the mythical Greek afterlife and for the street on which his father’s body was found. The horn’s 24-carat-gold curves contain etchings of jazz icons, symbols of the hurricane, and the city’s dead; its finger buttons are set with semi-precious stones in Mardi Gras colors; and a turquoise-inlaid Mississippi River swirls across its length, a ruby marking the location of New Orleans. President George W. Bush called the instrument “a cultural treasure.”
Mayfield is New Orleans personified—Congress said as much in naming him the city’s cultural ambassador in 2003. He founded the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra as a performing and teaching institution at Tulane University, and he is an artist-in-residence at the University of New Orleans, where, he delights in pointing out, he flunked out 10 years ago. It all turned out for the best: Mayfield went to live with trumpeter and composer Wynton Marsalis in New York City and stayed, as a sort of jazz ward, for two years.
Mayfield was 21 when he met Lilly Schwartz, who had booked his quintet, Los Hombres Calientes, at the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts in Philadelphia. In 2006, Schwartz was hired by the Minnesota Orchestra as the director of pops and special projects, charged with transforming Orchestra Hall into more of a broad-based performing-arts center. As Schwartz puts it, “They wanted someone to blow up programming.” And one of the first things she did was initiate a jazz series, eventually hiring Mayfield to lead it.
The hope is that blending jazz and classical music will enhance the audience for both genres. Other orchestras dipping their bows into jazz have found this to be true. The St. Paul Chamber Orchestra is featuring six “half and half” concerts this season, offering patrons a choice at intermission between jazz in the atrium and more classical music in the hall. “There are lots of complementary qualities between the two listeners for us to reach out to,” says John Mangum, vice president of artistic planning with the SPCO. “They’re both musically literate and open to all kinds of musical experiences.” But if CD sales are any indication, most classical and jazz fans will still need to be introduced to each other’s music for a full-fledged crossover to work. According to Amazon.com music editor Hugo Munday, only about 10 percent of CD buyers on Amazon currently purchase both jazz and classical discs.
The programming shift at orchestras is at least as much about highlighting the American heritage of jazz as the music itself. After some 150 years of nearly absolute ties to European traditions, American orchestras are finally bridging the culture gap with their audiences, despite their music directors remaining predominantly European. The SPCO, for instance, has to some degree chosen its recent artistic partners for their affinity with American music, such as vocalist Dawn Upshaw, who created an SPCO program around jazz and folk music. Vänskä, who has occasionally played jazz clarinet at the Dakota, says the change is overdue. “American orchestras,” he says, “need to support American music.”
The need is as much financial as cultural, says Munday. “Potential donors today have more cultural debt to the Grateful Dead than to Stravinsky,” he says. “How do you court that kind of sponsorship if the art you are producing is foreign to them?” Schwartz is confident that orchestras will find their way. They are, after all, simply a collection of instruments—there are no rules about what to play, only expectations. And those can be changed, says Schwartz. “Everyone says orchestras are dying,” she says. “They’re not dying, they just have to mutate.”
On a recent visit to the Twin Cities, Mayfield more openly sported his tattoos beneath a tight T-shirt and a Harley-Davidson jacket. He is short and muscular and energetic, like the “bop!” at the end of a jazz lick, and he speaks of music more sensually than academically. Classical music and jazz are “fundamentally different on one level,” he admits, but he is locating connections in the emotions they conjure, in “higher concepts: adventure, romance.”
In the music room of Central High School in St. Paul, Mayfield takes the baton and rehearses the student jazz ensemble, part of his educational outreach to the Minnesota Orchestra’s next generation of patrons. He prompts the kids: “The most important thing we gotta do is?” And they respond: “Swing!” He asks them to “vamp” with their eyes closed—to play the same chord progression over and over, then faster and faster, pushing the music into them.
The instinctual, play-by-feel aspect of jazz is something Mayfield and other composers are seeking to inject into orchestras—or re-inject: Orchestral music was never so stiff historically as it was in the last century, which may explain why audiences still largely prefer the classics over contemporary orchestral music. “The most compelling music, the music that’s had a lasting impact—the music from 200, 300 years ago—is fundamentally rooted in popular idioms,” says the SPCO’s Mangum. Haydn used folk music in his symphonies; Beethoven and the Romantic composers also cribbed popular tunes. “It’s only in the middle of the 20th century,” says Mangum, “that music got more academic and lost some of that connection to the more popular vein.” The “pleasure principle,” he says, has only recently been re-introduced.
The flexibility of jazz—its potential for being played differently, and better, each time out—can return orchestras to their roots while also modernizing them, Mayfield believes. The music is inherently contemporary, as New World as the country that birthed it. “Jazz is modern music,” he says, “the best, most available way we know to celebrate America.”
Tim Gihring is the senior writer and arts editor at Minnesota Monthly.
Irvin Mayfield leads A Minneapolis Mardi Gras at Orchestra Hall on February 12, featuring Irma Thomas, the Rebirth Brass Band, and the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra All-Stars.