The news came via e-mail late Friday, just before most people were leaving the office to begin the weekend: Leaning House Records, after five years in existence and twice that many releases, was going out of business. Even though it was the news that people friendly with the label's owners, Mark Elliott and Keith Foerster, had been expecting practically since the beginning, it was still surprising to hear it was over--finally, uncomfortably.
The jazz label, started by high-school buddies Elliott and Foerster in 1993, shortly after the two graduated from Southern Methodist University, was never on steady ground, quite literally: The Lower Greenville "leaning house" out of which the label was based always threatened to collapse before the label did. Yet with each successive release--beginning with Marchel Ivery's solo debut Marchel's Mode in 1994, ending with Ivery's 3 last year, and including albums by Earl Harvin, ex-Atlantic recording artist and Wynton Marsalis sideman Wessell "Warmdaddy" Anderson, Shelley Carroll, Donald Edwards, Fred Sanders (whose disc featured Roy Hargrove), and the gospel act The Fantastic Voices of Harmony--Leaning House looked as if it were ready to stand on its own two feet, even if it wasn't standing very tall. Each disc seemed to bring Leaning House closer to the black than to the red, even if that would have been almost impossible. (Leaning House also released a book and accompanying CD of poetry in 1996: Leaning House Poetry Volume One. Seems there will not be a second volume.)
After all, as Elliott pointed out in the label's suicide note-cum-press release, recent figures from the Recording Industry Association of America reveal that jazz discs account for 1.9 percent of all CDs sold in this country. On the phone from the office of ACME CD, the disc-manufacturing company he co-owns with ex-Bedhead guitarist Bubba Kadane, Elliott says, "People who have small jazz labels are either lucky or really wealthy. That's how they stay afloat. It's a difficult thing to do, especially in jazz, when you're dealing with such a small part of the pie." Unfortunately for Leaning House, Elliott and Foerster didn't catch many breaks, and neither one of them had much money to speak of.
That's why the label was in suspended animation, even before the July 7 announcement. After Ivery's 3 was released in October, Leaning House suspended operations. There it remained until Foerster and Elliott decided to face up to what was--had been, really--apparent to both of them for quite some time, putting Leaning House out of its misery rather than letting it linger any longer.
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"It's been a while since we talked about doing any new releases," Elliott says. "I just felt like rather than be silent, I'd just go ahead and make it official. It didn't happen overnight. It's been pretty imminent for many months. Not something that I wanted to happen, obviously, but it was something that was inevitable." Pausing, he adds, "What can I say? Not that much, really."
Elliott says he might make records again, "but under different circumstances," and he'd even consider doing another jazz label. Should that happen, he says, he'd rather just be involved on the creative side.
"Having a label involves many different things," Elliott says. "I learned maybe I don't want to deal with a lot of them. I enjoy making records. I don't enjoy calling DJs. Or calling press people and hassling them. Setting up tours. Artists may be better served by someone else doing those things."
One unfortunate by-product of the label's folding is the fact that Elliott has in his possession unreleased live recordings from Dallas-born pianist Red Garland, once a sideman in Miles Davis and John Coltrane's band. Leaning House is also in possession of never-before-heard live tracks cut by the late vibes master Ed Hagen, and now such treasures are likely to remained buried--along with one of this city's best record labels. Maybe Ivery can round up some buddies for the funeral; moments like this deserve a processional, if not a wake.