My Way

Join along as jazz artist Irvin Mayfield rides a Mercedes-Maybach through the streets of New Orleans.

New Orleans. The home of jazz, Mardi Gras, perhaps even of music itself. The Mercedes-Maybach S 600 appears to glide through the streets of the French Quarter, the Disneyland of New Orleans, where each day thousands of tourists flock to seek out the soul of the city on the Mississippi. On this occasion, however, the main attraction on Bourbon Street is not Preservation Hall, the pulsating heart of traditional New Orleans jazz, but the person sitting inside the impressive black car.

Irvin Mayfield laughs. As a true native of the city, the Grammy Award winner is both its official cultural ambassador and one of the world’s finest trumpeters. “By the way,” he asks, giving a friendly wave to inquisitive passersby, “do you know how the whole jazz thing started?” We take a moment to enjoy the hustle and bustle out on the street from within the luxurious, climate-controlled environment of the rear of the Mercedes-Maybach S-Class. Outside, the temperature is still 30°C and evening humidity levels have risen above 90 percent. By contrast, the Maybach’s temperature gauge shows a pleasant 21°C inside. While the tourists trudge through the heat in flip-flops and shorts, I let my feet sink into the deep, soothing pile of the Mercedes-Maybach carpets. Lean back and try the massage function in the seats, I suggest. Mayfield pushes the button and stretches out his legs. The car is five and a half metres of pure luxury and power. The exquisite Burmester sound system is playing Mayfield’s “Angola,” a smooth track from his CD/book project New Orleans Jazz Playhouse.

“When I mix my music,” says Mayfield, forming an invisible sphere with his hands in front of his face, “then I want to have the music right here, like I can grab hold of it.” And his music really is right here where he wants it. “This luxury sedan has 24 built-in speakers,” I point out to him. “The Burmester High-End 3D-Surround-Soundsystem has 1,140 watts with an additional 400 watts for the subwoofer in the trunk, plus speakers in the roof liner,” I add. “It sure is impressive,” he replies.

There is not a sound from outside in the brief gap between Mayfield’s tracks, even though we’re driving over the cobblestones of the noisy French Quarter. The Mercedes-Maybach soaks up the ankle-deep potholes without so much as flinching. But with all the crowds in the city, the car’s 12-cylinder bi-turbo engine with 523 hp hasn’t yet had a chance to really show its stuff. For that, we’ll need some open road.

Home to the greats

Mayfield was born in Seventh Ward, one of the city’s poorest neighbourhoods, yet his welcoming smile belies his humble beginnings. The residents stare at us with a mixture of surprise and menace. “It’s a rough neighbourhood,” says Mayfield with classic understatement. But he waves to his former neighbours. And they wave back – suddenly friendly.

The people here are what make this place, he says: “They’re just different here.” He has difficulty explaining his love for New Orleans in words – it comes across better in his music. Whenever there was a funeral, processions of mourners would pass by Irvin’s parents’ house; he would listen to the brass bands and follow the hundreds of dancers. In the neighbouring street, he would hear Fats Domino practising, and Irvin’s father gave his son his first trumpet for his ninth birthday. “That was my first real contact with our culture,” he recalls. “If I hadn’t grown up here, I would never have played music. New Orleans is a magnet for musicians.” And home to the greats. Wynton Marsalis, Irvin’s friend and mentor, comes back often. The Neville Brothers are school friends of his father. Louis Armstrong was born here. And among those greats are the musicians who play here now.

He has difficulty explaining his love for New Orleans in words – it comes across better in his music.

Irvin and I drive up Frenchmen Street, to the true heart of the music scene. Miss Sophie Lee is singing the blues in the Spotted Cat. In the bar across the road, dba, a funk band is playing the kind of music that gets even non-dancers like me on their feet.

On a street corner, a group of kids armed with trumpets, trombones, drums and tuba are improvising the best street jazz I’ve heard since Cuba. “New Orleans is the only city where people with nothing react to a tuba and drums as if it was magic, as if it was the hottest thing around,” says Mayfield. He seems to know every musician here personally. He greets a doorman, then continues: “We still dance to jazz, we eat to jazz, we celebrate parties to jazz. We play jazz at birthdays and at funerals.”

Well, I think to myself, if you’re going to die, then it might as well be here. Where every door leads to music, where behind every steamed-up bar window there is more talent on show than in all the trendy clubs put together. Nowhere in America does a city’s heart beat as loudly as in New Orleans. When it celebrates Mardi Gras, even places like Rio are envious. This was “sin city” long before Las Vegas was invented. Louisiana’s largest metropolis is steamy and sexy. Around here, anything goes.

The Mercedes-Maybach glides like a modern-day magic carpet along Jackson Square. A stereo camera scans the street and presets the suspension for any bumps in the road. It’s as if we are floating – past the grand old mansions to Bourbon Street and back to Irvin’s own club, Irvin Mayfield’s Jazz Playhouse. As usual, his gig here is a sold-out sensation. The whole place joins in. There’s nothing sweeter than live New Orleans jazz – though I can’t help thinking that the sound from the Burmester is pretty good, too.


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