In the digital age, putting out a CD may be easy, but starting a real record label remains serious business. 32 Bar Records — founded by longtime collaborators, bassist Jason Jenkins and guitarist Alan Parker — hit the ground running in early November with seven nearly simultaneous releases.
"We are not trying to reinvent the world," Jenkins says, "just trying to build Richmond's jazz identity." The label's catalog spotlights some of Richmond's hardest-working musicians. It includes both long-established players and some of the best of a new generation from the Virginia Commonwealth University jazz studies program: drummer Devonne Harris, bassist Andrew Jay Randazzo and trumpeter Victor X. Haskins. "I don't want to call them the 'unsung heroes' of the local scene," Parker says. "We have a common cause, but everyone came to it for a different reason."
Structuring a serious company takes effort and a significant investment of money, time and paperwork. "A lot of it is learning as we go," Jenkins says. "But that is part of the fun of starting a new business."
Cheerful and outgoing, the bassist was familiar with business fundamentals from his family's enterprise, the Joseph Jenkins Jr. Funeral Home. The patience and compassion required to work effectively with people under great emotional stress perhaps was ideal preparation for getting wary artists to sign binding agreements.
"People are kind of skeptical when you put a contract in front of them," Parker says. "They have heard all the stories about record labels scamming artists. They start looking at you like you are the Man. It helps that Jason has a very good vibe. It's his nature to bring people together."
The partners felt the debut release was critical to their credibility. "When you are trying to convince other artists that you are building a real record label, starting off with your own stuff seems egocentric," Parker says. Ultimately they convinced Charles Owens, a respected New York City player who'd moved to Charlottesville to raise a family, to be their leadoff artist. "It would have been easy for him to see this as small potatoes," Parker says. "But he was genuinely into the project."
Others signed on. By the time the label made its public debut, in a November showcase at Capital Ale House sponsored by the Richmond Jazz Society, its catalog had grown to seven records. Some of the artists joined with finished product, including Larry Branch's "Labragenda Volume 2" and Aaron Binder, whose "Fortune Smiles on Aaron Binder" is a straight-ahead area classic from 2001.
Part of Parker's motivation for starting the label was two recordings he'd already completed — the guitar trio "Juke" is the one released. The Jason Jenkins Group put out "The Cole Porter Songbook," featuring Hampton swing singer Charles Darden and, on the closing track, Sharon Rae North.
There are high hopes for North, whose big, charismatic, soulfulness is captured on her 32 Bar debut, "Gee Baby."
"Of all the people we have signed she will probably be the most profitable," Parker says. "She has a following from her years in Atlanta, and she is rapidly getting one here as well."
The label's final current release, the Christmas record "A Season to Remember," is both an appealing local artist sampler and an opening display of good corporate citizenship. Proceeds from the sale benefit Children's Hospital. It also features two poetic duets from hyper-promising young trumpeter Haskins, whose first recording as a leader is the next big thing on the 32 Bar schedule. "For him the sky is the limit," Jenkins says. "And wherever he goes in his career, we will always have his debut album on our label."
Such bright visions of the future are tempered by the short-term objective of survival. Neither sees the label as a gold mine. "The surefire way to not make money is to say you are not out to make money," Parker says. "If we can be self-sustaining and put out five to 10 records a year, I will be ecstatic." With seven strong releases in the label's first month, it's achieved the first step toward that objective. S
The Jason Jenkins Group with Alan Parker plays every Saturday at 7 p.m. at the listening room of the Barrel Thief on Patterson Avenue. Parker plays solo there every Wednesday. Charles Owens has the Monday night slot at Millers in Charlottesville. The Larry Branch Agenda is at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts on Dec. 13. The Victor Haskins Group plays Bogart's on Dec. 19.