Ten years ago, the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra was founded as the only permanent performing arts institution dedicated to jazz in the music’s birthplace. Symbolic importance aside, practical and creative considerations must also be addressed.
Does the orchestra excel musically? Is it able to support itself and its musicians? Has it built a following at home and elsewhere? Does it effectively advocate for, and perpetuate, jazz?
Since 2002, the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, NOJO for short, has performed at arts centers around the world. NOJO’s 2009 release “Book One” won a Grammy as best large jazz ensemble album. An alliance with the University of New Orleans resulted in the New Orleans Jazz Institute, which mentors youth year-round.
Along the way, NOJO artistic director Irvin Mayfield, president/CEO Ronald Markham and their team have procured the corporate and philanthropic funding needed to support the orchestra’s endeavors and a full-time staff of nine.
So has the first decade of NOJO lived up to its promise?
“That’s a really big question,” Mayfield said recently. “There are so many different sides to it.
“And I’m not a sit-back-and-smell-the-roses kind of guy. My job as artistic director is to push the envelope, period. The day that I become complacent, or satisfied, is the day I’ll retire and give this job to somebody else. That day will come. But not this year, and not this season.”
NOJO’s upcoming 10th anniversary season is anything but complacent. The celebratory “NOJO 10” concert series kicks off Saturday when New Orleans-born contemporary R&B singer Ledisi sits in with the orchestra at Tipitina’s.
Other events include a tribute to Ray Charles featuring drummer Shannon Powell at Preservation Hall on Sept. 29; an Oct. 8 concert at Carnegie Hall in New York City with guests Aaron Neville, Dee Dee Bridgewater and Branford Marsalis; a narrated, themed performance with Cyril Neville at the Joy Theater on Nov. 17; and a culminating birthday concert at Mayfield’s Jazz Playhouse in the Royal Sonesta on Dec. 19.
There’s much to savor in the “NOJO 10” schedule, starting with Saturday’s showcase of Mayfield’s jazz band arrangements for Ledisi’s R&B. Mayfield also is excited about cramming the 16-person NOJO into Preservation Hall later this month.
“That’s going to be fun. The NOJO should play in Preservation Hall. Why haven’t we done it before? Beats me.”
Celebrating anniversaries is all fine and good, but Mayfield is not inclined to rest on his laurels. Jazz, in his estimation, needs effective advocacy as much, if not more, than ever.
“When you look at jazz in this city, at the end of the day it’s still looked at as a service position — it’s something cool to have at parties. It’s treated as ancillary.
“It’s part of the fight to remind people that Louis Armstrong was not playing at the Spotted Cat (on Frenchmen Street) for tips. There’s nothing wrong with starting there. But it is wrong to end there, if you are a creative genius playing this music.”
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