Rhyme and Reason

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.

Leaning House, though, is an anomaly around Dallas and, for that matter, the rest of the country: It's a jazz label. And there's no market for jazz in the 1990s, not unless it's Kenny G or John Tesh--and then, it's not jazz at all. It's unlikely saxophonist Marchel Ivery, who's well into his 50s, will ever sign to the sort of extended major-label deal a Young Turk like Joshua Redman has with Warner Bros. Records.

Elliott has been told more than once that no label needs one more middle-aged sax player, no matter how brilliant he might be. Ivery probably knew that after years of watching his good friend and colleague James Clay wither away in Oak Cliff and in anonymity. And if Earl Harvin makes the leap, he'll probably do so as a member of Seal's band, with whom he's been touring for more than a year.

So Elliott must continue to borrow money for his projects, since the albums barely break even, much less eke out a tiny profit. He estimates Ivery's album has sold 2,000 copies, while Harvin's has sold about half that--respectable enough for independent releases, though hardly the sort of quantity that turns red into black.

Now, Elliott is sinking money he does not have into a book of poetry that comes with its own CD, turning Leaning House the record label into Leaning House the publishing house. Elliott is like the actor who takes lousy film roles to finance his vanity projects: By day, he works at local recording studios, engineering and producing mediocre local musicians so he can scrape together the seed money for his noble and usually unprofitable projects.

"It's shitty doing that kind of stuff, because obviously music is something I love, so whenever I have to do something that sucks, it just pains me more," he shrugs. "If I didn't have any concern about it, it would be easier."

Elliott says Leaning House Poetry Volume One cost about $7,000 to produce, and even then, of the 2,000 books printed, only 1,000 were bound; and only 1,000 CDs were manufactured.

"Since we started the company two years ago, money has come from a variety of different places," he says. "Like with Marchel Ivery, some of the money came from people who had known him for years and had wanted to see something like this happen, and that's one thing that's fortunate about what we do. There are a certain number of people who have the same kind of ideals we have and help us out a lot.

"It's not like we're turning stuff out all the time. Over time, it's much easier to save money and collect money to do stuff. I'd love to do more, but we'd really have to have the money to do it."

Elliott conceived of the idea for a poetry CD a year ago, just after Earl Harvin Trio/Quartet was released. It began as a simple enough concept: Elliott wanted to assemble the best contemporary American poets and have them read a sample of their work. He believed if people heard the poems rather than just read them, they would better understand the art form. Poetry would then no longer seem a dated, abstract form; rather, it would come to life for the audience as an urgent and important art capable of communicating as much as short stories or even song lyrics.

Elliott contacted his old poetry professor at SMU, Jack Myers, hoping to secure his guidance--and his list of contacts. In 1991, Myers, who has taught at SMU for 20 years, and Roger Weingarten, a professor at the Vermont College of Norwich University, edited an anthology titled New American Poets of the '90s that's used as a textbook in English departments around the country, and Elliott knew Myers could lend the Leaning House project a measure of immediate credibility.

Myers, himself an award-winning poet and author of several collections, would in turn help several of his colleagues find yet another outlet for their work--rare enough in a publishing business that still treats poets as though they are fringe artists at best and bastard prose writers at worst. Though he and Elliott had not remained close after Elliott graduated SMU in 1992--"All I knew was Mark went to work as a clerk in a tobacco shop," Myers says, "so we'd trade cigars and shoot pool"--he was quick to work on the project.

If nothing else, Myers was attracted to the originality of the idea, and he was intrigued by the notion of allowing the reader to hear the poets present their work as they meant it to be understood. Though Elliott and Myers had originally conceived of the project as just an audio release, they discovered it would be impossible to include all the poems in a small CD booklet; they were forced by necessity to expand the idea to the larger book, thus giving the reader a way to test the writer's interpretation of the words against his own.

"I think something like this is going to happen down the road a lot because it's a perfect medium," Myers says of the CD. "When a poet reads, you get inflections, intonations, and styles of presentation that make the meanings more available. Otherwise, you hear your own voice talking. With something like this, you get a certain kind of presence with the physical voice. And with the text, you can go inward, the more intellectual analysis. You get an inward-outward thing going on. It's a complete presentation."

Myers began contacting many of the same poets whose work he featured in the New American Poets collection--all of whom are considered among the best contemporary poets in the world, many having garnered numerous National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, Pushcart Prizes, National Poetry Series awards, and other prestigious accolades. They came from all over the country--Mark Cox from Kansas, Lynn Emanuel from Pennsylvania, Mark Halliday from Michigan, Tim Seibles from Virginia (by way of Dallas, where he taught poetry at SMU for 10 years), Li-Young Lee from Chicago via Indonesia, and Naomi Shihab Nye from all over.

And they all possess one thing in common: They are writers who use the language of the everyday to craft their poems. There are no florid words or grandiose sentences or convoluted themes, but the prosaic turned into the poetic.

Myers writes of the thoughts that ramble through his head as he buys groceries: Right here in the hyped-up screaming/of the cereal aisle, the kids used to fly around/the kitchen like cartoon characters.

Mark Cox writes of domestic tranquility and the restlessness seething underneath the placid surface: I am so close to her that if I were to speak one word/silently, she would feel it and toss the covers to one side/and for this reason I'll say nothing as long as I can.

Naomi Shihab Nye writes of lost loved ones and forgotten memories: A man leaves the world/and the streets he lived on/grow a little shorter.

And Li-Young Lee writes of death and the pain it brings to the survivors: At this hour, what is dead is worried/and what is living is fugitive.

The writing contained in Leaning House Poetry Volume One is as personal as Emanuel's essay on why she's a poet ("The Politics of Narrative--Why I Am a Poet") and as political as Seibles' piece on the aftershocks of the 1992 Los Angeles riots ("Kerosene"); they're as abstract as Lee's "With Ruins" and as poignantly specific as Halliday's "Divorce Dream." But more to the point--and to Elliott and Myers' purpose--the poems read like finely condensed prose, short stories with huge enough gaps to allow readers to fill in their own interpretations and emotions.

From the beginning, it was Myers and Elliott's intention to present poetry as an "accessible" (their word) and living art form. As Elliott constantly reminds, this isn't Walt Whitman or William Shakespeare or even e.e. cummings, but a handful of living American poets crafting their works in a modern context using contemporary vernacular.

"I think it's beautiful," Elliott says of the work. "It's like great prose, really condensed prose. It just takes an intelligent audience to make those leaps. These people are masters of language, and anybody who says modern poetry is without craft hasn't experienced it, because it's a very crafty kind of thing. It's different. It's heavily dependent upon imagery."

"When I was in high school, the poets read to us were from the 19th century and earlier," says Myers, who has edited five other collections, including A Profile of American Poetry in the 20th Century. "I never tuned into these poets very much and felt like I had to be educated to their idiom. I vowed I would teach poetry in the same age in which people were living. Most of the poems [in the new book] are very conversational, as though someone's talking to you."

Which is perhaps an ideal way to describe the CD itself: Recorded in four studios around the country, the disc is what distinguishes Leaning House Poetry Volume One from other poetry anthologies. Though the history of recorded poetry goes back to at least the 1950s, when Jack Kerouac read his work accompanied by the jazz of Zoot Sims and Al Coen, and MTV's radio network recently tried to make a go of its "Man in the Moon" spoken-word series hosted by former KERA-FM disc jockey Liza Richardson, the Leaning House project is the first of its kind to feature published poets interpreting their own works in front of a microphone.

This isn't the stuff of poetry slams and coffee-house poetry nights--the confrontational, sloppy rantings of anyone with a pen, a notebook, and caffeine in their blood. These are bona fide artists and teachers, men and women who have taken jobs in the academic world to support their writings, since the larger publishing houses now stay away from releasing poetry collections by single authors, leaving that to the university presses and other smaller specialty houses.

Some of the poets were skeptical about the idea at first, if only because there existed no precedent; others were more than willing to lend their works and their time to the project, especially because of their friendships with Myers. Lynn Emanuel admits she was at first "skeptical" of the idea, but slowly came around to the notion of a book and a CD.

"These days poetry has gotten to be such an oral medium that this made incredible sense," she says from her home in Pittsburgh. "More and more, it's the performance people are interested in, the sound and music of the poem, and I thought it was actually a great idea...People no longer want to sit isolated in a room with a book. They want to share the experience of the poem with other people."

Whether the idea will translate into sales is a wholly different matter. (There are indeed plans for a second volume.) For the time being, Elliott does not plan to market Leaning House Poetry in book stores; it is available only at the Borders Books and Music in the Preston Royal shopping center. Rather, he's aiming to get the book into the hands of college professors and students--the 25,000 or so who purchased New American Poets of the '90s.

"The book is an endless labor of love and a money pit, too, and hopefully the marketing thing will work," Myers says. If--and only if--the book sells "a shitload," Elliott says, will the poets receive money for their contributions; otherwise, they will make nothing from their work.

Perhaps the Leaning House project will set a precedent: W.W. Norton is preparing a CD-ROM to accompany a new poetry anthology the publishing house is releasing this summer, and PBS-TV's The United States of Poetry series will be released on CD by Mercury Records later in the year.

Elliott, however, is concerned only about keeping Leaning House afloat so he can record another album with Ivery, which he is planning to do in the fall, and a follow-up to the Earl Harvin Trio/Quartet release last year. He also has another album completed and ready to go except for a few final tweaks, and it's the sort of record that could bring his tiny label a tremendous amount of recognition--saxophonist Shelley Carrol backed by members of the Duke Ellington Orchestra. Then there are the Red Garland tapes, not to mention all those other unheard treasures taking up shelf space in his leaning house.

"Poetry, like jazz, is an unappreciated art form," Elliott says of his reasons for balancing his label with its new publishing counterpart. "It's just a natural complement to what we're doing, because it maintains the integrity and quality of the things we're trying to feature in a variety of ways. It's underappreciated, it's amazing kind of stuff, so I think it's very much in line with the kind of standards that we have. It's one more thing to do. I'm busy as shit, but that's good. I'm just glad Leaning House is still here.

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