Jazz Fest Diary: Irvin Mayfield’s Jazz Playhouse & More

Whether it’s pre-Jazz Fest anticipation or something else, New Orleans feels like it’s on an emotional upswing.

Mitch Landrieu, stepping down as Lt Governor and being sworn in as the city’s new mayor in less than two weeks, is listening to citizens and putting together his staff; Landrieu, voted in with strong support from blacks and whites alike, is one of the good guys, a vocal proponent of the arts economy.

Saints pride is still in full springtime bloom, with residents and visitors alike contiuing to revel over the end of the “Ain’ts” era, as a billboard near the SuperDome points out.

“Treme,” David Simon‘s superb new HBO series, focused on the lives of musicians and others in New Orleans, just after the storm, is the talk of the city, and the nation.

The 41st annual New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival kicks off tomorrow, following a successful French Quarter fest.

And then there’s this: Real jazz is back on Bourbon Street.

Wednesday night, trumpeter Irvin Mayfield celebrated the one-year anniversary of his Jazz Playhouse. It’s a plush nightclub inside the Royal Sonesta on Bourbon Street, a place, filled with the sounds of straight-ahead jazz (bebop, modern, post-bop, whatever you want to call it) and trad jazz.

Mayfield celebrated the occasion with a long evening’s worth of performances and jam sessions, in collaboration with the guys from his New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, and special guest trumpeter Kermit Ruffins (who plays himself on “Treme”).

The show was such a success that at one point potential patrons couldn’t get in.

Mayfield, who leads his own group in addition to fronting the NOJO and playing a major role as a musical ambassador for New Orleans, turned in a gorgeous version, muting his horn, of “My Funny Valentine.”

Shortly later, joined by a group including saxophonist Aaron Fletcher, he offered a long, rousing medley, with “This Little Light of Mine” segueing into “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” “I’ll Fly Away,” “The Saints Go Marching In” and “We’re Gonna Second Line.” Along the way, he engaged the cheering, singing, fired-up crowd in the Saints’ “Who Dat?” chant.

Earlier in the evening, at a reception honoring the club’s anniversary, Mayfield and his partners in the club, as well as pianist David Torkanowsky, talked about the significance of the Jazz Playhouse.

Torkanowsky recalled the high-quality jazz — by Al Hirt, Louis Prima, Pete Fountain — that was heard when he first strated playing Bourbon Street several decades ago, before the French Quarter started  “slow and steady slide into ‘Girls Gone Wild’.”

Mayfield’s club, Torkanowsky said, is “a symbol of hope that this street will come back (for good jazz). You can make money monetizing a true representation of this city through its culture.”

Also on hand for the reception was Wendell Pierce, AKA trombone player Antoine Batiste on “HBO.” He helped cut the cake (see pic) and added a bit of celebrity to the proceedings.

In town for Jazz Fest? The Jazz Playhouse offers a long list of great shows over the next 10 days or so, including shows feturing Mayfield, Torkanowsky, pianist Ellis Marsalis, drummer Jason Marsalis, singer Johnaye Kendrick, fiddler Amanda Shaw, Bob French and the Original Tuxedo Jazz Band, and tributes to Danny Barker.

For more information go to Mayfield’s site or the Royal Sonesta site.

Jazz Fest Poster Unveiled: Louis Prima, by Tony Bennett

This year’s New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival poster has been unveiled, and it comes with an intriguing story.

The poster features the great New Orleans-born trumpeter, singer and entertainer  Louis Prima, who would have turned 100 this year.

The artist: Anthony Benedetto, AKA legendary jazz and pop singer Tony Bennett, who played last year’s Jazz Fest.

“He was an exceptional performer and a dear friend and he embodied the buoyant spirit of New Orleans,” Bennett said about Prima, who died in 1978, in a press release.

This year, Jazz Fest will feature performances by Prima’s son Louis Prima, Jr., his daughter, Lena Prima, and Keely Smith, Prima’s fourth wife and stage partner (they also appeared together in the 1959 film Hey Boy! Hey Girl! ) Also on the fest bill: Bobby Lonero’s Tribute to Louis Prima with Johnny Pennino & the New Orleans Express.

My first encounter with the joys of Prima came when I was a child, and I thrilled to Disney’s The Jungle Book, and its accompanying soundtrack. Prima was the voice of King Louie, the orangutan who kidnapped young Mowgli. The unforgettable tune: A swinging “I Wanna Be Like You.”

The Prima poster apparently will be the first in a series of Jazz Fest posters created by musicians, according to the official press release:

“Although we can’t match the reinventive force of Louis Prima, 2010 also marks the launch of the third generation Jazz Festival Poster Series: The Musical Artist as Visual Artist. Graphic artists creating mostly imaginary scenes dominated the first generation of the series in the 1970’s and 80’s, followed from 1989 through the 2000’s by painters depicting New Orleans music legends, harkening back to our celebration of legendary grand marshals in the first two posters. We now turn to artists whose talents are not bounded by a single medium and who bring a heightened level of understanding to the subject.”

For more info on the poster, titled “The Chief of New Orleans: A Portrait of Louis Prima,” click here. And to see more of Bennett’s art, click here.

Last year, Bennett, now 83, donated dozens of musical instruments to a New Orleans charter school. For details, check out the USA Today story.