Rob Wagner, an all-purpose man on the saxophone, has been pushing the boundaries of modern jazz for years. Until Katrina, Wagner was a central figure in the community of post-bebop players such as James Singleton, Tony Dagradi and others, in a city that rolls to traditional jazz, rhythm-and-blues and Zydeco. Wagner is a veteran of the Klezmer All-Stars, a range of Latin bands and funk fusion groups.
Four months after the flood, with most local musicians scattered across the U.S., Valid Records producer Benjamin Lyons oversaw Wagner’s fourth CD as a live recording at Café Brazil; the only available studio, Piety Street, was booked. “We got the live sound I wanted,” says Lyons, “though we didn’t do it with an audience.”
It took 18 months for Rob Wagner Trio featuring Hamid Drake & Nobu Ozaki to be released. The May 2007 launch during Jazz Fest brought good press for the recording with a bow to John Coltrane. Wagner works hard in the upper register with wailing, sinuous echoes of Arabia.
Nobu Ozaki is a bassist who made the transition from Japan to New Orleans in 2000 and is still here, still playing, with a cross-section of groups whose venues have shrunk since Katrina. Ozaki has been working lately at the Ritz Carlton with trumpeter and vocalist Jeremy Davenport.
Hamid Drake, the drummer and a mainstay of the Chicago jazz scene, has played with Don Cherry, Herbie Hancock, Kidd Jordan, the Mandingo Griot society “and a whole island of reggae artists,” says producer Lyons. “Hamid is one of the absolute greats. Until now he was mostly known in the ‘free jazz’ ghetto but he’s beginning to be acknowledged in the larger jazz world. His discography is well over 200 records long.”
Valid has a back list of seven records at this point. Producer and CEO Lyons – who for twice that many years worked as a waiter at Crepe Nanou – launched his independent label several years ago amidst a revolution in the recording industry.
From the 1980s into the mid-‘90s, Columbia was the preeminent jazz label with Wynton Marsalis leading the roster. Marsalis has since moved to Blue Note, a smaller label known for the jazz revival of the ‘50s, though not in the sales or marketing league with Columbia (since bought by Sony). Industry executives have watched, aghast, as the Internet made downloaded music widely available, sending profit margins into a free fall.
Into this cruel world stepped the intrepid Benjamin Lyons. “There had been little in the media about many of the musicians I was hearing in New Orleans on a nightly basis in 1999 and 2000 – Rob Wagner, Jonathan Freilich, their groups Wagner Trio and Naked on the Floor, saxophonist Tim Green, Jim Masakowski and others, at Café Brazil, Dragon’s Den [and] Kaldi’s Coffee Shop on Decatur. Wess Anderson was playing Monday nights at Kaldi’s for a long stretch. It was a kind of open space. Then the rent tripled. Kaldi’s was one of the first casualties in the Quarter.”
Producing the 2003 Robert Wagner Trio: Walking, Crying, Laughing, Running took Lyons many months. “I spend a lot of time listening to the tapes, deciding which takes, which sequences, working with the artist, getting artwork together, shipping off to the pressing plant, writing press releases and getting CDs out to reviewers across the country. I press 1,000 CDs at a time – it’s not much more than pressing 500.”
Lyons has a realistic view of the industry. “Wynton Marsalis moved from the big leagues to a specialty label, to the top of the jazz ghetto you might say. Small labels like mine are trying to reinvent a marketplace.”
Industry giants see a generation of consumers replacing store-bought CDs with downloads and iTunes. In digital media anyone can make a copy. A label like Valid relies on on-line sales and small stores. “Most people buy records at Wal-Mart or Target where there’s a very limited selection with few specialists [at the counter],” says Lyons. “You’ll find very few jazz records at Wal-Mart. Louisiana Music Factory is the prime retail site for probably 90 percent of New Orleans musicians. Most CDs are sold by musicians at their gigs.”
Rob Wagner has moved to Brooklyn, which takes the saxophonist into a new market for the Valid label. On the other hand, says Lyons, “We sell Rob’s records each time he comes back to perform.” With technology driving sales, major labels have to spend more on promotional budgets for fewer acts. That leaves a huge hole in the market, where Benjamin Lyons came in and still sets his sights.