UNO Pays Homage to Literary Legend Ernest Gaines

Grammy-Award winning trumpeter and University of New Orleans Professor of Professional Practice Irvin Mayfield, Jr. honored Louisiana storyteller Ernest Gaines on Friday with a star-studded concert honoring the author's life work.

Before the concert, Gaines read from his novel, A Lesson Before Dying, at the University residence to the enjoyment of local literati, select UNO alumni, administrators and UNO President Peter J. Fos, as well as celebrated figures in town to attend the event.

Gaines, 79, was born on River Lake Plantation in Pointe Coupee Parish and has used the small community where he grow up as the setting for his eight novels, including A Lesson Before Dying, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, In My Father's House and A Gathering of Old Men. Gaines, like the previous four generations of his family, helped pick cotton in plantation fields during his childhood. He moved to California at age 15, attended San Francisco State and Stanford Universities. He published his first short story in 1956 and has been writing and publishing since then. Gaines resettled permanently in Louisiana in 2004, taking up residence along the False River in Pointe Coupee.

A Lesson Before Dying, the literary legend's most recent novel, won the 1993 National Book Critics Circle Award. Gaines has also received a MacArthur Foundation grant for writing books" of "rare historical resonance."

Mayfield wanted to put Gaines' memorable stories to music, he told The Times-Picayune. The artistic director of the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra created more than an hour's worth of music based on Gaines' life's work. Development took him about three years, he told The Times-Picayune.

The resulting jazz opus, "Dirt, Dust and Trees – A Tribute to Literary Legend Ernest Gaines," premiered Friday at the newly renovated Joy Theater on Canal Street. The concert, hosted by the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, was part of the Pirate's Alley Faulkner Society's annual "Words and Music" arts festival, which this year honors Gaines. The event also helped to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the orchestra, founded by Mayfield.

Renowned television broadcaster Soledad O'Brien and actress Cicely Tyson, both of whom attended the UNO reception, read excerpts of Gaines' work.

Mayfield read Gaines' complete works from novels to short stories and essays before composing, he told The Times-Picayune, adding that Gaines' work forces audiences to "wrestle with what's right and wrong."