NEW ORLEANS — On a recent Wednesday night in an otherwise lonely part of town, a crowd of young people spilled in and out of the big, glassy building at the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. and Oretha Castle Haley Boulevards, where the words “New Orleans Jazz Market” are blazoned above the doorway. Inside, a weekly jam session had attracted enough 20- and 30-somethings to fill most of the atrium, where the house band was playing a heady, smoldering mix of ’90s R&B and classic jazz.
The following Saturday, the corner was again overflowing for the season-closing set by the Market’s Grammy-winning flagship band, the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, which was performing a tribute to Whitney Houston at the facility’s 370-seat main theater. The 20-piece group gave a rollicking take on “How Will I Know” that ended in a fluttery denouement, with hand percussion, scattered piano and guitar all nipping at each other as three vocalists traded ad-libs.
The New Orleans Jazz Market is among the newest musical landmarks in a city with plenty of them. And its orchestra has a reputation for proudly representing New Orleans culture on the international stage while keeping its identity planted firmly at home. The orchestra’s new album, “Songs: The Music of Allen Toussaint,” fulfills that mission, offering up nine lively arrangements of tunes by the city’s most iconic pop composer.
But things nearly didn’t get this far. The organization’s founding artistic director and its chief executive were indicted in 2017 on charges of embezzling over $1 million from the New Orleans Public Library Foundation. The Jazz Market’s title sponsor, the Peoples Health insurance company, has long since run for the hills. Donors evaporated. The paid staff was slashed from 17 to five.
“Most organizations probably would have went under and failed,” the drummer Adonis Rose, a charter member of the orchestra who took over as artistic director after the scandal broke, said in an interview last month. “Thankfully, we did not.”
He attributes its perseverance to the orchestra’s board of directors, which stayed intact through the scandal, and to the devotion of Sarah Bell, who stepped in as president and C.E.O. But that durability also owes to the group’s serious sense of purpose.
Irvin Mayfield, the now-indicted artistic director, founded the orchestra in 2002, taking Jazz at Lincoln Center as a model but emphasizing the hyper-localism of New Orleans’s music culture. It’s an ethic that Mr. Rose has carried forward: The Houston concert ended with the band exiting the stage in a second-line parade, where the tuba player (absent in almost every jazz big band outside New Orleans) got his moment to shine.
When asked to pinpoint the sonic identity of his hometown, Mr. Rose answered: “It’s gumbo.”
“It’s just a whole lot of musical styles thrown into the pot that you have to be able to play convincingly, in order to be able to work on the scene,” he said. “And that influences the music.”
Since taking over as artistic director in 2016, Mr. Rose has pushed the orchestra to explore musical worlds adjacent to jazz: At the New Orleans Jazz Fest in April, the orchestra played a set of Aretha Franklin’s music to an overflow audience on the central Congo Square Stage.
This marks something of a shift from the approach of Mr. Mayfield, a trumpeter who tended to emphasize classic New Orleans fare and his own original music, and who has all but vanished from the public eye since he was indicted. (His trial, in which he and his former business partner, Ronald Markham, are each facing 23 counts of fraud, conspiracy and obstruction of justice, is now slated to start in September.)
For a while, Mr. Mayfield was operating on every cylinder. In the mid-2010s, not yet out of his mid-30s, he was a professor at the University of New Orleans, where he taught music and the humanities and ran the New Orleans Jazz Institute, in addition to leading the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra and working to open the Jazz Market. He was named by President Obama to the National Council on the Arts. He ran Irvin Mayfield’s Jazz Playhouse on Bourbon Street, a busy club off the lobby at the Royal Sonesta Hotel, earning royalties for the use of his name and likeness. And he was on the board at both the New Orleans Public Library and the Library Foundation, where he eventually ended up controlling the cash.
The idea for the Jazz Market was always to create a community center as much as an arts venue. Ms. Bell, who came on board just before the scandal came to light, said in an interview that the organization seeks to make the Market “a place of community access.” She lives just three blocks away, and first became aware of the Market after attending a community meeting there in 2014.
This is how Mr. Mayfield and Mr. Markham intended it. “I thought jazz should be a public service, which is why we called it a ‘market.’ I wanted people to embrace it with the same open nature that they embraced food,” Mr. Mayfield said in a phone interview. (He declined to speak on the record about his legal case.) By celebrating jazz’s past as well as its present, he and his co-founder saw a chance “to remind this city — that has a very large poverty rate, that has a very large illiteracy rate — that the underclass cannot only ascend, but they can change the world.”
The Market seems to be aiming at something beyond even the organization that inspired it: Though Jazz at Lincoln Center invests deeply in educational initiatives for underserved students, its concerts treat jazz as a high-priced commodity, and one with a fixed cultural identity rooted in its 20th-century heyday. But at the Jazz Market, both the free Wednesday jam sessions and the orchestra’s own performances attract enthusiastic, majority-black crowds, seeming to articulate the argument that jazz ought to serve the community that gave birth to it.
When it opened in 2015, the building was known as the Peoples Health Jazz Market, and its offerings were diverse. Working with its title sponsor, the Market offered events promoting wellness and free exercise programs for neighborhood residents. It made its practice rooms available free to musicians, and opened its meeting rooms to other local nonprofits. And the building was set to operate as a satellite location of the New Orleans Public Library, allowing residents of an underserved neighborhood to digitally access the library’s jazz archive, and to drop off borrowed books.
At that point Mr. Mayfield and Mr. Markham made up two-fifths of the library foundation’s board, and in 2012 they rewrote the bylaws to allow themselves discretion over how its money was spent. That year the orchestra pulled $666,000 out of the library foundation’s endowment, more than five times the amount the actual library system received. Overall, Mr. Mayfield and Mr. Markham are accused of misdirecting over $1 million in library funds. On one trip to New York, Mr. Mayfield spent about $28,000, including close to $3,000 a night for a stay at the Ritz-Carlton, according to a state auditor.
When a New Orleans TV station reported on the spending in 2015, it became a citywide scandal. The two old friends were indicted by federal prosecutors in 2017. (Mr. Markham, through his attorney, declined to be interviewed.)
But today, against the odds, the orchestra seems to have weathered the storm. The organization has slimmed down and cut back on its education programming, but the Jazz Market remains a critical gathering place in Central City, and the orchestra is more tightly bonded than before.
Amari Ansari, a young saxophonist who has been with the orchestra since 2012, credited Mr. Rose with keeping the group’s spirits intact. “There had always been somewhat of a lack of communication” between the leadership, including Mr. Mayfield, and the rest of the band, he said.
But that has changed. Mr. Rose “strongly believes that the people in his band are the best musicians in New Orleans, so of course he’s going to listen to them,” Mr. Ansari said, reaching for his cellphone. “Man, I can call Adonis right now if I want.”