Rhyme and Reason

Leaning House Records puts a new slant on poetry

Mark Elliott and Keith Foerster named their jazz label Leaning House Records for a very good reason. Their Lower Greenville house-cum-business headquarters sits at a disorienting slant, so much so that if one were to place a marble on the floor at one end of the house, it would seem to magically roll to the other end. Elliott has lived in this house for five years with various roommates, and it has always sloped--though, lately, it seems to be toppling.

"The foundation is several inches higher on one end than on the other," Elliott says by way of explanation of the vague sense of vertigo. "Any time people come over for the first time, they go, 'Whoa.' They get kind of disoriented. Maybe it's a metaphor."

The walls of this leaning house are decorated with portraits of jazz greats--John Coltrane, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Count Basie, Billie Holiday. A piano sits in a corner, though Elliott spends more time on his Mac computer's keys than those of the upright.

Shelves overflow with boxes of reel-to-reel tapes and digital audio tapes (DATs) containing the music of such Dallas jazzers as drummer Earl Harvin and tenor sax player Marchel Ivery, both of whom made their recorded debuts on Leaning House within the past two years. Ivery's 1994 album, Marchel's Mode, was a particularly proud achievement since it featured a collaboration between Ivery, an unheralded Texas Tenor who once shared a stage with the legendary Bud Powell, and another Dallas-born jazz great, former Coltrane sideman and Jazz Messenger pianist Cedar Walton.

The shelves heave under the weight of even more tapes containing hours and hours of unreleased music made by the likes of xylomarimba great Ed Hagan (once a member of Benny Goodman's and Frank Sinatra's bands), Cafe Noir, and Bedhead, the latter of which has recorded several jazz covers for an album that may or may never see release.

And next to them are rows of tapes featuring Elliott's most prized possessions at the moment--more than 70 cassettes, many of which have been transferred to DAT, featuring long-lost 1970s live recordings of pianist Red Garland, the Dallas-born jazzer who was once a member of both Coltrane's and Miles Davis' influential bands. Those tapes were recorded at the long-defunct Recovery Room shortly before Garland's death, and they're a bona fide piece of missing jazz history--the final chapter in Garland's estimable biography.

Just having turned 25 years old, Elliott--along with his partner and old Thomas Jefferson High School buddy Foerster--is a young keeper of a flame that too often is little more than a dying ember.

Three years ago, Elliott and Foerster founded Leaning House when jazz belonged to the pop world and when only the most mammoth of multinationals could maintain a few superstar jazzers on their rosters--musicians like Wynton and Branford Marsalis, Terence Blanchard, Joshua Redman, even Dallas Arts Magnet graduate Roy Hargrove.

Their intention was a noble one--to preserve and promote some of the finest jazz musicians in the country who make their homes in Dallas. Yet Elliott also approached it with an attitude that becomes this Southern Methodist University psychology graduate: "I'm trying to figure out what the hell to do with my life," he told the Observer three years ago, before a release had ever hit the shelf.

Now, Elliott is struggling, running a business out of his house, happy just to sell more than 1,000 CDs of any given release, which works out to be the break-even point, the dividing line between an empty bank account and one more project. It's a Leaning House, all right--leaning closer toward bankruptcy every day and forcing Elliott to lean toward a real job instead of this dream gig.

So when Elliott begins talking about Leaning House's latest project--Leaning House Poetry Volume One, a book and CD package featuring seven contemporary American poets--he laughs and shrugs at once.

"There were a lot of people who, when I told them I was doing this, said, 'What the fuck are you doing?'" Elliott says. "It's bad enough doing jazz, and then I get into this genre. Li-Young Lee, one of the book's contributors, asked me when I met him, 'You really think there's a market for this?'" Elliott exhales and shakes his head.

"A lot of people thought I was crazy," he says. "They wanted to know how I was going to sell this, and I told them, 'I don't know.' But that's never been the first thought in our minds in anything we've done. It's certainly not a very businesslike way of going about things, but it's our way of going about things."

Dallas boasts up-wards of 50 independent record labels--like Direct Hit, Last Beat, One Ton, and Carpe Diem--and like most indie labels around the country, they peddle one thing: so-called alternative rock in its various incarnations. Such is the legacy that started with Memphis' Sun Records in the 1950s and stretches to Seattle's Sub Pop in the 1980s: Independent record labels are the minor leagues preparing bands for the major leagues and major labels that await with bigger money and better distribution. Elvis left Sun for RCA, Nirvana jumped from Sub Pop to Geffen, and the bush leagues never looked quite the same.

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