This particular Wednesday evening in April in Lafayette Square could almost be a scene lifted from pre-Katrina days. The city block between Gallier Hall and the Federal Court of Appeals is filled shoulder-to-shoulder with the CBD after-work crowd -- sipping cocktails in plastic cups, eating and checking out art, jewelry, clothes and crafts from local artists displayed under a sea of white tents. Onstage, Theresa Andersson is singing a song from her new EP, a cover of Lucinda Williams' "Jackson" -- a song whose lyrics, which take place as the narrator drives through central Louisiana, could almost be mapping out an evacuation route.
The music label to which Andersson belongs -- Basin Street Records -- is, on the one hand, just another small business trying to stay afloat after taking Katrina's wallop. But in its brief history, it has (in just short of a decade) become a New Orleans institution that has quietly served and promoted local music. The boutique label's roster is a modest nine artists -- all familiar faces in the New Orleans clubs and at Jazz Fest -- but between them, they have garnered Grammy nominations, Billboard Music Awards, top-10 hits on the national jazz charts and steady nationwide CD sales and bookings. A lot of attention is being paid these days to the idea of bringing the major players of the music industry to Louisiana, and if that effort results in the economic shot in the arm the film industry's patronage gave the city before Katrina, it's something worth looking into. But it's also worth noting that this boutique-label-that-could has been supporting local acts, at home, with significant results.
In the label's second year, for example, Los Hombres Calientes' first release, hit Billboard's Top Jazz Albums chart, bolstered by sales at Jazz Fest, and subsequently went on to win Billboard's Latin Jazz Album of the Year, an accolade they're up for again this year for Vol. 5: Carnival. New Orleans talent is top-tier, obviously, and while many argue it's often passed over by major labels or stuck in a regional genre wasteland, it's also apparent that plenty of Basin Street's acts have won themselves the kind of national notice that could move them further up the ladder. But they stick with Basin Street.
The question now, after the economic slap of the storm, is, will Basin Street be able to stick with them?
Basin Street Records' founder Mark Samuels reports suffering "hundreds of thousands of dollars" in property damage to Katrina, and has written off his former Canal Street offices. He's also functioning as the label's sole staffer these days, down from its previous staff of five as well as multiple independent contractors. Shuttling between New Orleans and Austin, Texas, since the storm, he balances optimism with pragmatism as well as the by-now-familiar post-Katrina strategy of not making too many long-term plans.
This Jazz Fest, he says, has a lot riding on it.
"The first thing we need to do is establish cash flow," Samuels explains. "If people buy enough CDs at Jazz Fest, then we can start putting out product." This Jazz Fest is the first he can remember without presenting multiple releases planned to coincide with his artists' performances at the Fair Grounds. Currently, he's got a new, five-song EP from Theresa Andersson ready to sell at the Fest. The EP will be released nationally at the end of May, along with a project in the can that features trumpeter Irvin Mayfield performing with Ellis Marsalis and the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra -- with a release date yet to be determined. "To release one record, for me, at Jazz Fest, is pretty small," Samuels says. "Last year, I put out three in one day.
"There's really just a different set of priorities since the storm," he continues. "I no longer can write a check for $20- or $30,000 out of pocket. I financed this label for nine years now, and I'm no longer prepared to do that. I can't say we've never had positive cash flow, but most years we spent more than we made. We've been making a lot of money over the past few months, though, because I've cut expenses."
Samuels' right now is keeping his artists touring, staying on the radar and selling product on the road. This year, Samuels also stepped up to serve for the first time as the Fest's official CD and DVD retailer, when he learned that the Virgin Megastore would not be setting up its usual tent.
"We heard it wasn't going to come together, that Virgin wasn't going to be there, and the fact is that Jazz Fest is so important to us sales-wise," he says. Initially, Samuels approached festival organizers with a plan for setting up his own small tent to make sure his artists' CDs were available for sale, when they turned around and asked him for a proposal to handle all CD and DVD retailing. "I don't know if it'll be close to the experience the Virgin tent was," he says, noting that he'll be handling consignment sales for any artists represented at the Fest that contact him, "but we're making a splash for sure."
Even though their label's been reduced to, essentially, one guy who is more often than not, a moving dot on the highway between Austin and New Orleans, sticking with Basin Street is a foregone conclusion for at least a few of the artists on the roster. Clarinetist and jazz historian Dr. Michael White has been with Basin Street since 2000, after a stint with Antilles Records, a subsidiary of the national label Polygram. White says he prefers keeping it local.
"For me, it's been much better being with Basin Street," White says, noting that larger labels are more likely to barter support for an artist's compliance with a particular sound or image the label wants to push. "To have the company actually in New Orleans, dealing with the artists fairly -- that's a great thing. Local labels are extremely important. Not only do they have a different attitude toward promotion of local music, but at this time they're in a position to document the creativity that will come from Katrina.
"They'll help the local economy and keep the name of the artists out there, and also keep a record of the new developments -- a lot of New Orleans music has been born out of the spirit of survival in the face of adversity."
Andersson, the label's youngest artist, credits Basin Street's personal attention for her career's growth. "They've really done a lot for me," she says. "They showed me that if I'm willing to do the work, so are they. It's the personal connection. I'm not so much like the more traditional artists on the label. In my experience, Basin Street really has been willing to try to explore different roads for me." Andersson put together her new EP in the months between Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest and plans to spend the summer writing for a new full-length release -- the one she wanted to record last fall -- to start recording this fall.
Since the storm, Basin Street artists have gotten their share of attention. NPR profiled Kermit Ruffins on its All Things Considered show on Fat Tuesday, and he appeared with the Rebirth Brass Band and Irvin Mayfield on Good Morning America. The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer profiled clarinetist Dr. Michael White twice as he returned to his flooded home and ruined collection of vintage instruments and other musical artifacts from the history of New Orleans jazz.
Basin Street artists are also racking up miles on the road and receiving their fair share of awards. White will perform at the Apollo Theater in New York City on Thursday, May 4, Henry Butler will be at Carnegie Hall on May 23, and later this summer White will kick off an eight-week concert series in Colorado that will feature a different New Orleans act each Wednesday. Henry Butler and Jon Cleary are both up for the WC Handy Blues Award for Piano Player of the Year, which will be presented in Memphis on May 11, marking Butler's sixth nomination and Cleary's second. And several Basin Street artists -- Cleary, Andersson, Butler, Ruffins and Rebirth Brass Band -- were featured in a documentary filmed by the Starz in Black cable network, and are scheduled to perform at a benefit show produced by the network at Tipitina's on May 13.
"It's been a lot more difficult to not be able to visit the office and deal with people directly," White says. "And if not for Katrina, I'd probably have a CD ready right now. But Mark's belief in the company hasn't waned at all -- he's been great. We will be back, and we'll be back strong."
- Donn Young
- Basin Street Records founder Mark Samuels, who lost his staff and Mid-City office to Katrina, has found new life as the organizer of Jazz Fest's CD/DVD retail tent after Virgin Megastore backed out. "I don't know if it'll be close to the experience the Virgin tent was," he says, "but we're making a splash for sure."