Overdue: Irvin Mayfield vs. The New Orleans Public Library

18 ANTIGRAVITY- Irvin Mayfield vs. The New Orleans Public Library Illustraton by Ben Passmore JULY2016-WEB_Page_24_Image_0001
Published  July 2016

18 ANTIGRAVITY- Irvin Mayfield vs. The New Orleans Public Library Illustraton by Ben Passmore JULY2016-WEB_Page_24_Image_0001

Even Irvin Mayfield’s detractors would be hard-pressed to deny that the Elysian Trumpet, which the musician commissioned in 2007, is magnificent. Brushed with a 24-carat pure gold finish, its soft exterior glow seems to emanate from within, and jewel-encrusted engravings of New Orleans iconography are etched across the surface in painstaking detail. Wherever the trumpet goes, it is accompanied by an armed member of the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office and it is insured by Lloyd’s of London for one million dollars.

Mayfield dedicated the exquisite instrument to his father and sees it as a way to honor those who, like Irvin Mayfield Sr., were lost in Katrina. For him, the trumpet is a symbol of hope and rebirth, representing the vibrancy of New Orleans’ jazz tradition. However, for others the trumpet epitomizes a penchant for self-indulgence grown to criminal proportions. Make NOJO Pay, a grassroots campaign to retrieve $1.03 million raised by the New Orleans Public Library Foundation (NOPLF)— which Mayfield redirected to his own nonprofit, the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra (NOJO)—has recently doubled down its efforts, even as NOJO reportedly considers the “matter concluded.” How, they wonder, can Mayfield get away with such ostentatious displays of wealth when he and the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra have yet to pay back the $1.03 million owed to the Library Foundation? As one outraged visitor to the Make NOJO Pay Facebook page commented on a post featuring the Elysian Trumpet: “Why not sell the trumpet, Irvin, and pay back the money you took from the New Orleans Public Library?”

In May 2015, WWL-TV’s David Hammer exposed Irvin Mayfield and his business partner Ronald Markham for using their positions on the board of the NOPLF (a separate entity from the public library) to direct money designated for the library to NOJO, the big band jazz ensemble turned non-profit which paid both Mayfield and Markham’s six-figure salaries. While the Library Foundation’s mandate since its inception was to raise money for the “benefit of the New Orleans Public Library,” when Mayfield came on as foundation chairman in 2012, he and Markham convinced the board to change the organization’s by-laws so that the money could go to other “literacy and community organizations.” The board also then voted to grant Mayfield the power to use his “sole and uncontrolled discretion” to enter into any contracts or agreements he “deems necessary.” In theory, this was an effort to expand the library system’s scope, and as Ronald Markham put it, to “think outside the box.” The result, however, was that over the next three years, Mayfield used this power to send substantial sums of money from the Library Foundation to his other projects. In 2012, for instance, NOPLF sent the library system just $116,775, but sent NOJO $666,000 to fund the People’s Health New Orleans Jazz Market, a multi-use performance center in Central City and headquarters of the Jazz Orchestra.

More recently it was discovered that around the same time, the NOPLF— under Mayfield’s leadership—also sent $150,000 to the Youth Rescue Initiative, the third nonprofit whose board Mayfield served. YRI is an organization whose primary focus is creating centers where underserved youth can access internet and develop computer skills. The $150,000 donation, however, only went to the creation of one independent “Illumination Center”—the other was set up inside Mayfield’s Jazz Market. Subsequently, the YRI used $45,000 of the money to issue its own grant  to the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra. David Hammer even reported rumors from inside the Library Foundation that some of the Youth Rescue Initiative money may have gone to Monette, the Portland-based trumpet maker who crafted the Elysian Trumpet, and made another, less extravagant one for Mayfield in 2012. It’s doubtful that in 2012 the nonprofit was in the financial position to be giving such a substantial donation, since by 2014, the Youth Rescue Initiative’s assets had plummeted so much that its budget could no longer cover its director’s salary.

When the story first broke—less than a week after the city had rallied around approving a tax millage dedicated to the library system—library supporters, musicians, and public figures such as Mayor Landrieu called for Mayfield to immediately repay the NOPLF. Although the nonprofit reportedly was running a $246,000 deficit (as of the last public audit in 2014), NOJO released a statement agreeing to pay back the money in order to “remedy any misperceptions.” Yet, it has taken a full year after the initial report to negotiate the return of the money, much to the outrage of some of the library’s most strident defenders.

To Warren Dufour, a New Orleans native and active participant with the Friends of the New Orleans Public Library, a volunteer group which organizes book sales and fundraising events for the library system, even the idea of negotiating with NOJO is infuriating: “Why negotiations? Money was stolen from the library foundation for someone else’s benefit. You don’t negotiate with a thief.” Terms of the final settlement agreement involve the repayment of $483,000 over a period of five years, and the rest would be repaid in “in-kind expenditures,” such as benefit concerts. To irate library supporters like Carol Billings, group spokesman for Make NOJO Pay, these terms are “unacceptable.” Why should the public have to pay twice by attending benefit concerts and other events, when their initial contribution was is appropriated from the beginning?

Ohers feel that people shouldn’t be so quick to vilify Irvin Mayfield. Basin Street Records’ Mark Samuels, who first signed one of Mayfield’s early groups, Los Hombres Calientes, remains a strong supporter of the trumpeter. “I’ve worked with Irvin for nearly 18 years, and don’t believe there is anyone who works harder to improve the lives of musicians. He employs multiple bands each night at Irvin Mayfield’s Jazz Playhouse and many more through his work at the NOJO and [Jazz Market].” To supporters like Samuels, the Jazz Market is a worthy cause, and has sufficiently  overlapping goals with the library system to justify the expense. “The use of library foundation money,” Samuels argues, “to provide a satellite library in Central City (a project on the library’s master plan) at the Jazz Market… was a great project and an example of forward thinking that I’ve recognized in Irvin since he was 20.”

Without question, there was a conflict of interest between the NOPLF and NOJO. Since both Mayfield and Markham are employed by the Jazz Orchestra, it is difficult to assume a purely altruistic  motivation when it comes to directing outside funds to the organization. However, Ronald Markham insists that none of the money went to salaries, but was put straight towards building the Jazz Market. In January, in a final effort on the part of NOJO to refuse repayment to the Library Foundation, NOJO spokesman Malcolm Ehrhardt released a statement which claimed that a review conducted by “outside counsel” found that “no funds allocated to the NOJO were spent on projects or initiatives for which they were not intended. Likewise, the funds allocated to the NOJO by these organizations were not used personally to benefit NOJO leaders in the form of salaries, bonuses, commissions, or additional compensation.”

19 ANTIGRAVITY- Irvin Mayfield vs. The New Orleans Public Library Illustraton by Ben Passmore JULY2016-WEB_Page_24_Image_0001To determine the extent of Mayfield and NOJO’s ethical breach, it’s worth taking a look at their Central City monolith and its impact on the surrounding community. Between the cost of the architecture, its nebulous mission statement, and the rather scattered community programming, it’s hard to know just what to make of the People’s Health New Orleans Jazz Market. According to their home page, the purpose of NOJO’s “first building project” is meant to be “investment in the soul of the city.” And what an investment it is. Every inch of the 13,000 square foot space is sleek and carefully renovated. With an infrastructure that, as Ronald Markham put it in an interview with WWL-TV, is absolutely “stuffed” with money—from the wood paneling to the high tech computers used to access the Market’s digital jazz archive—the building’s $10 million price tag comes as no surprise.

While NOJO representatives and supporters frequently refer to the Jazz Market as a “revitalizing force” in the neighborhood, NOJO’s new headquarters (located on the corner of Oretha Castle Haley and Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.) opened amidst an intense effort to rapidly gentrify the area. Purloo, a high end culinary hotspot, and the Dryades Public Market, a multi-vendor food market, are both a stone’s throw from the Jazz Market. In light of the subsequent rise of rents and property taxes, it might be difficult for long-term members of the Central City community not to associate the swanky space with the changes being imposed.

Efforts have been made to make the Jazz Market a versatile space. There are practice rooms available to local musicians, and services offered include children’s programming on the weekend, free yoga classes on Fridays, and extensive youth music instruction. In New Orleans, where low-income residents often cite the scarcity of community centers and activities for children as a root cause for the skyrocketing rates of youth violence, it is important to offer as many of these services as possible. Nonetheless, citing their children’s programs is a rather thin defense for appropriating library funds for this purpose. According to NOPL spokesman John Mark Sharpe, whereas public tax money funds books, librarian salaries, and infrastructure costs, just about every cent from the NOPLF goes to library programming. In the summertime, the public library offers over 350 different programs throughout the city. The activities range from reading programs to a variety of presentations from hula hoopers, EMTs, and the Audubon Bug Mobile. For the school with the highest number of logged reading hours, the legendary children’s writer R.L. Stine (of Goosebumps fame) will come for a school visit. No matter what the activity, according to Sharpe, they are “fun and interactive” and there can be as many as two or three a day at one branch.

20 ANTIGRAVITY- Irvin Mayfield vs. The New Orleans Public Library Illustraton by Ben Passmore JULY2016-WEB_Page_24_Image_0001By contrast, apart from regular music lessons, held Saturdays and throughout the summer, NOJO’s  educational opportunities are few and far between. While none of the programming is available on the Jazz Market website, NOJO’s website lists monthly jazz literacy courses, an annual high school jazz festival, and the bi-annual Irvin Mayfield Lectures—with topics such as “The Courage to Create” and “Life, Love, and Jazz.”

When it comes to establishing a satellite library in Central City, Mayfield is no librarian. The contents of the bookshelves tucked into the left hand corner of the space range from coffee table books on jazz—including Irvin Mayfield’s own $70 volume—to tattered bestsellers which half-heartedly fill out the rest of the shelves. Gerald Duhon, Jr., a former Library Foundation board member who resigned in 2013 when he felt he no longer had a clear understanding of where Mayfield was sending the Foundation’s money, had initially thought the money would be funding increased jazz programming at the library. It’s a shame that this was not the case, since bolstering digital jazz archives and adding a richer selection of jazz literacy options at local libraries would have been a good meeting ground between Mayfield’s jazz education agenda and library needs.

However, from the beginning of his involvement with the library system, Mayfield was determined to do things his own way, and had little interest in compromise. Before Katrina, Mayfield was named by Mayor Ray Nagin as a Cultural Ambassador of the City of New Orleans, and participated actively in the rebuilding process. He performed in numerous benefit concerts, including many which directly benefited  he library system. In 2006, Nagin appointed Mayfield to the city library board, where he quickly became Chairman.

According to a 2008 Times-Picayune article in which David Hammer first raised red flags about the trumpeter’s library leadership, Mayfield used his position to clean house at the highest level of library administration, replacing many distinguished members of the old guard with less experienced workers. He appointed Rica Trigs, former aide to Mayor Marc Morial— whom Mayfield has referred to as his “partner-in-crime”—as chief library administrator, although she had no training in library science.

When he moved from the library board to the library foundation, Mayfield was fined for violating a state ethics law after directing a portion of foundation funds to augment Trigs’ salary. His leadership approach led to a number of veteran resignations, and the significant loss of experienced librarians profoundly limited the library’s ability to effectively administrate. In the wake of the suspension and firing of library business manager Monna Mathieu, a bill pileup caused the deterioration of library relationships with its vendors. Most of the librarians Mayfield removed from the NOPL had been devoted to the humble task of working within state budgets to provide as many resources as possible to the community, and they had worked at least as hard as he throughout the recovery process. It’s hard to say what direction he had in mind for the library when he came on. His response to pushback from those who were concerned with his lack of regard for the library establishment was that anyone with “the audacity to be great” within city government was likely to be criticized.

While the conflict of interest between NOJO and the Library Foundation has particularly far-reaching implications, unfortunately Mayfield’s decisions were made within the context of increasingly common public-private funding structures, whose actions take place outside the public eye. Consider the Audubon Nature Institute. While public money funds the Audubon Commission, the Audubon Zoo and its associated parks, the Audubon Nature Institute is a private nonprofit which runs the Audubon Commission, and its financial records are not available to the public. Nonprofits are exempt from financial disclosure laws even if they run on public money. The Institute recently received scrutiny for attempting to enter an exclusive contract with the Sazerac Company, who would then be the only alcohol vendor permitted to sell in a new sports development intended for the Fly. The Sazerac Company is run by Paul Fine and Jeffrey Goldring, who are both on the board of the Audubon Nature Institute. The implications of this contract strengthened an already firm public stance against further developing this public green space. By the time The Advocate, NOLA.com, and WWL-TV had covered the backroom deal with the Sazerac Company, any remaining enthusiasm for the sports complex fizzled, and the project was derailed. However, public disclosure laws, which do not require board members to declare financial interests, remain unchanged.

The Audubon Nature Institute also uses public funds to pay the $500,000 plus salary of its Director, Ron Forman. Forman has been at the center of New Orleans business and politics for decades. In the past he headed the Louisiana Stadium and Exposition District Board, and in 2006 ran for Mayor. Incidentally, he was also Chairman of NOJO’s board and on the board of the Library Foundation (along with his son, Dan Forman) when Hammer’s story broke last year. In a May 2016 WWL-TV interview, Forman emphasized the “complexity” of the issue, and insisted that any improperly spent money would be repaid, though he defended the use of library money for the Jazz Market. When he was asked about whether the board majority of he, his son, and Mayfield and Markham could have made some dubious decisions in handing over the reins to Mayfield, Forman became defensive and questioned the “values and ethics” of the accusation.

In light of the evidence produced recently by the indefatigable Hammer that Mayfield racked up an $18,000 bill courtesy of the Library Foundation for a five-day stay at the Central Park Ritz—including a now infamous $1,400 breakfast—it’s clear that he sought considerable personal benefits as part of his role in both nonprofits. If, though, we give Irvin Mayfield the benefit of the doubt at least enough to understand his justification for so wantonly spending such large quantities of the public’s cash, it seems to be that in his mind all the while he was both generating and spending the money for the sake of an abstract artistic ideal he calls Jazz (with an audible capital J). In a video featured on the Jazz Market website titled “Goldman Sachs Impact Investing: New Orleans Jazz Orchestra,” Mayfield refers to jazz as the religion of New Orleans. If so, then the gold, jewels, and feats of architecture he offers for his faith are no less impressive than an Egyptian pharaoh erecting a temple filled with gold statues, or the Pope commissioning the Sistine Chapel. But when Buddy Bolden, namesake of the Jazz Market’s cocktail bar, first blew his horn, he probably didn’t have much in his pocket and neither did the people listening. The New Orleans Public Library has more to do with jazz at its best and truest than any high tech concert hall. It acts on behalf of all New Orleanians, especially those with the greatest need.

It would be easy to reduce this story to one man’s hubris. But Mayfield was given the keys to the city long ago, and if it weren’t for the dogged determination of one investigative journalist, it’s likely most people would have continued turning a blind eye. Irvin Mayfield may play a mean trumpet, but we have to expect more than virtuosity out of our cultural standard bearers. Those of us who live in New Orleans have a responsibility to remain vigilant when people make speeches about Jazz, Art, and Culture. Irvin Mayfield has taught us that not everyone who speaks fervidly about standing up for the city is necessarily talking about the same thing. As library volunteer Warren Dufour put it, “Just because someone is from here, doesn’t mean they have the city’s best interests in mind.”

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