A Stand-up Guy

Like Jerry Seinfeld, Plano’s Steve Harvey was a successful comedian before he became a sitcom star. He still is.

May 1998By Comments

DONALD EDWARDS SIGHS AND PUSHES back from his drum kit, shoving open the French doors that separate him from the rest of his band. They have been laboring over the same 45 seconds of music—a rhythmically devious opening that only a drummer could invent—for 45 minutes. Much has been accomplished on this December day in the palatial, moldy elegance of New Orleans’ Kingsway Studio, yet with each false start the tension increases: To stay on schedule, the band must finish two more songs before quitting for the evening. Next door, Mark Elliott, the 27-year-old producer and co-founder of Dallas’ Leaning House Records, sits at the mixing board, his hair mussed, staring out a window as the shadows grow long on the streets of the French Quarter; he is losing light along with the collective focus of his musicians. Edwards wanders into the control room, and they murmur in low tones, Elliott looking down, rubbing a spot on the floor with his shoe. “It takes a mental thing, you know,” Edwards says, clearly frustrated. He lingers a moment, then walks back to his drums for another take. He has no other choice.

The tape rolls again, and this time the band sails through the introduction, swinging furiously until seconds before the end, when something—a sound—goes by very fast. The musicians laugh nervously. Hoping for a reprieve, they listen to a playback, but tape, as always, is unmerciful. It’s a perfect take save for one glaring and uncorrectable bad note. No one speaks. Elliott’s dark mood drops like a curtain as he abruptly stands and stretches. He smiles at Edwards, who has been eyeing him cautiously. “Want to try it again?”

Elliott and his 27-year-old partner, Keith Foerster, have come to Kingsway—a sprawling 1860 mansion owned by producer Daniel Lanois—to record what will be the eighth release for Leaning House, their fledgling jazz label. Friends since their elementary school days in Dallas, Elliott—medium build, intense, engaging—and Foerster—tall, serious, quiet—grew up as self-described misfits. Neither had a particularly keen interest in music until 1987, when Elliott first heard a Charlie Parker record and started on the seductive path of discovery that every jazz fan experiences. He came to revere vintage jazz recordings not only for their music but also for their sound, look, and feel; each was an audible memento of irretrievable history. After a whimsical attempt to start a jazz band, the pair began attending gigs around Dallas and getting to know the players, and soon Elliott was inviting musicians to record at a studio where he was studying engineering. By the time they graduated from Southern Methodist University in 1993—Foerster with an accounting degree, Elliott with a psychology degree—they were talking about starting their own label.

At first it was just that: talk. “Up to a point, these experimental sessions were just sort of piddling,” Elliott recalls. “We were not doing anything of great consequence.” Then he and Foerster met saxophonist Marchel Ivery, who is the stuff of legend in the Dallas area (“Tenor of the Times,” TM, March 1997). A thirty-year veteran of the jazz scene, Ivery could have made serious waves on either coast, but as a family man, he chose to stay close to home for most of his career, working the Texas rhythm and blues circuit, putting in fifteen years with pianist Red Garland and even a short stint in Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. Although Ivery was 55 when Elliott and Foerster coaxed him into the studio in 1994, he had never led his own recording session. Initially, he wasn’t sure what to make of these two young kids hanging around. “Were they for real or was it some kind of put-on?” Ivery remembers thinking. “But they kept coming, and they impressed upon me that they were genuine in what they wanted to do. So I went for it. I guess I should’ve done it long ago. I’ve had opportunities, but not doing the material I wanted to do. I waited for the right moment.”

“When Ivery expressed trust in our abilities to take his project on,” Elliott says, “that was really inspiring, because we didn’t know anything back then.” Indeed, the pair had no inkling whatsoever about the record business when they began the sessions that produced Ivery’s solo debut, Marchel’s Mode. But like so many fans, they knew what they wanted: to make an album in the tradition of classic Blue Note and Prestige recordings, from the ambience right down to the artwork. They had enough money saved between them to make it happen. They had the smarts to pull it off. And, like Ivery, they knew the right moment when they saw it.

Flush with pride, Elliott and Foerster took the tapes to California to be mastered by Phil De Lancie, who had worked on records by John Coltrane, Miles Davis, and other jazz legends. Only while talking to De Lancie did it occur to Elliott that he had no idea what to do next. “He’s working on the master,” Elliott recalls, “and at one point he turns to me and says, ‘So what are you guys planning on doing with this?’ And I say, ‘We’re going to sell it.’ He asks, ‘Do you have a distributor?’ and I say, ‘No, but we’re going to get one. It’s a good record. It has [legendary Dallas pianist] Cedar Walton on it. I think people will like it.’ And he says, ‘Yeah, but you know, there’s a lot of records out there. What are you guys going to do?’ It was our first reality check. We weren’t in Texas anymore. We weren’t around anyone who would have any reason to appreciate what we were doing. I guess it was naive, but it wasn’t until then that I worried we had done something we weren’t really prepared to follow through with. Fortunately enough in the jazz world, there are a lot of little labels out there.”

There was about to be one more. Leaning House—a label appropriately named for Elliott’s eighty-year-old foundation-impaired home, which also had nothing much to shore it up—released Marchel’s Mode in late 1994. After considering various distributors, Elliott and Foerster accepted an offer from Dallas’ Crystal Clear. And then they sat back and waited. They knew that Ivery’s music, steeped in the tradition of great black American jazz, was recorded honestly, infused with star power (Walton), and packaged in reverential fifties-style art that was striking enough to grab any jazz fan’s attention—that is, if the fan could find it.

As Elliott and Foerster quickly learned, distribution is often the death knell of small labels with limited resources. A distributor signs on after the people who run a label guess how many copies of a record to manufacture. The distributor then approaches buyers for various stores, who are inundated with new releases, often with little accompanying information about the artist. The distributor agrees to pay the label for everything it sells, but it can get back almost as many unsold copies as it ships. The process takes time, which means the label must wait and wait to see any money while it is being hounded for payment by studios, manufacturers, and the like. And when a distributor collects from a retailer, it often delays payment to a small label so that it can pay a big label with more clout. Small labels, then, are in a bind: With few other records to rely on as leverage, they can go for years without seeing a return on their investment.

Complicating matters is the fact that jazz represents a sliver of the total music market: According to the Recording Industry Association of America, it accounted for just 2.8 percent of the $12.2 billion in recorded music shipped in 1997. And the majority of those sales were of “contemporary” jazz albums: recordings of pop instrumentals that outsell the genuine article by a wide margin. The genre’s archetype is Kenny G, a contemporary jazz saxophonist whose albums have regularly gone gold—meaning they sold more than 500,000 copies—during the past eleven years. (By contrast, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, and Charles Mingus, jazz giants who made innumerable classic recordings from the twenties to the seventies, never had a single gold record between them.) What’s left of that 2.8 percent is mostly absorbed by major-label jazz recordings, whose average budgets, depending on crossover appeal and the talent involved, can range from $25,000 to $75,000 and are expected to sell from 10,000 to 50,000 copies.

So where does this leave a label like Leaning House, whose average budgets run from $5,000 to $10,000 per album? With a tiny share of a small marketplace already crowded with many independent jazz labels, with a need to sell one thousand to two thousand copies of each release just to begin to break even, and—since they do not draw a salary from Leaning House—with a need for its founders to keep their day jobs (Foerster is an accountant, Elliott is a sound engineer). Plus the label is in Texas, which, despite its distinguished roster of native-born talents (from guitarist Charlie Christian to trumpeter Roy Hargrove), has never been considered much of a jazz oasis by the rest of the country.

Indeed, Ivery’s name recognition is all but nonexistent outside the Metroplex, which is why initial orders for Marchel’s Mode came in very low. But they began to build over time, largely through word of mouth, until sales eventually climbed to about 2,500 (it remains Leaning House’s biggest seller). Braving the odds, Elliott and Foerster pressed on, releasing Dallas drummer Earl Harvin’s Trio and Quartet in 1995. Flowing and loose—and more modern than Ivery’s—Harvin’s session, which featured a great pianist named Dave Palmer, was different enough to keep the label from being typecast. The next Leaning House project was not jazz at all but a book of poetry accompanied by a CD of the authors reading from their works. Working with his former SMU poetry teacher, Elliott hoped to illuminate the writings through narration. Leaning House Poetry, Volume One piqued the curiosity of educators, and at least one university has framed a course around it, but it did not meet sales expectations (Elliott admits he did not spend enough money to market it). The rest of 1996 was taken up with recording, and the following year Leaning House released four CDs: one by Houston tenor saxophonist Shelley Carrol with members of Duke Ellington’s orchestra, an Ivery session with keyboardist Joey DeFrancesco, a follow-up collaboration by Harvin and Palmer, and a sit-down by a group assembled at Austin’s Clarksville Jazz Festival, a bluesy date led by Austin pianist Fred Sanders and featuring Roy Hargrove. Sanders’ East of Vilbig also included Donald Edwards, who would lead Leaning House’s next project, its first outside Texas.

Though relatively young, the musicians who accompany Edwards at Kingsway (Roland Guerin, bass; Nicholas Payton, trumpet; Wessell “Warmdaddy” Anderson, alto; Brice Winston, tenor; Mark Whitfield, guitar; and Peter Martin, piano) are heavy hitters. Three (Payton, Anderson, and Whitfield) have led their own major-label sessions. Anderson is a member of Wynton Marsalis’ band, and Guerin plays with Marcus Roberts. This cast of talented and dedicated musicians disperses into the New Orleans night by the midnight hour, leaving Elliott and Foerster to listen to playbacks in a room aglow with kitschy multicolored globes and candles surrounding the control board. Especially for small labels with low cash flow, the pressure is always on during a recording session: The high cost of securing a studio (Kingsway runs around $9,000 per week), renting equipment, buying tape, and paying musicians means there’s only one shot to get it right. Although it has been a successful day, Elliott is anxious. “This is the first time I’ve had all the equipment that I had dreamed about using,” he says. “We have high-profile people involved, a lot of whom I didn’t know beforehand, and I know the material less well than on any of our other recordings. It’s a testing ground to see whether I can pull it off.” He needn’t have worried. The result is a fine set of music, reflecting the same ideals and aesthetics that Leaning House has maintained since its first release. Edwards’ album, In the Vernacular, will be in stores on May 5.

Though Elliott muses about recording a Texas tenors tribute or a session led by Wessell Anderson, he’s not sure what’s next for the label. He and Foerster are committed to documenting the work of Texas jazz artists, but they have not ruled out more projects outside the state. Undoubtedly, they will continue to work with the stable of artists they have already assembled. The four 1997 releases have tapped their resources, though, and a certain amount of reconnoitering will be required. Elliott and Foerster are also beginning to see the value of more promotional time between albums. Fred Sanders’ Vilbig made the jazz charts early this year.

And they’ve finally settled on a regular distributor, Allegro of Portland, Oregon, that is good about paying regularly, though orders are still low and they have yet to put away their red pens. A seemingly obvious solution would be for Leaning House to increase the size of its catalog quickly, but Elliott scoffs. “We could take on projects that other people are doing and license them,” he says, “but the point from the very beginning has been to make records that we thought were good. That’s not to say that other people aren’t making good records, but it’s never really the way we would do it.” It doesn’t matter that only half of his label’s projects have broken even to date. “Part of what keeps us going,” he says, “is the need to be involved in something meaningful and challenging. Certainly the odds are long for us to become a financially successful company, but I think the things we are doing will still be valid many years from now. I don’t go around calling myself a record producer or flaunting the fact that I have a record label all that much because I see the delicacy in the whole financial arrangement. I just hope that we can continue to make records the way that we want to for years.”

Jeff McCord hosts Left of the Dial, which airs Fridays at midnight on Austin’s KUT-FM.

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