Mark Samuels, founder of Basin Street Records, grew up in a household where music didn’t have a noticeable presence. And though he did play a bit of clarinet and piano in grade school, it never really captivated him. Attending Ben Franklin High School marked a time and place in his life when his musical tastes expanded. He had picked up the saxophone by then. He recalls fondly the benefit of having both Winton and Delfeayo Marsalis as a band mates, and his realization of the world of jazz. Simultaneously, his overall interests in music would transcend from The Police, Spyrogira, and The Kinks to local bands like The Cold, The Neville Brothers, James Rivers, and Astral Project. The gap between himself and the world of music began to close as he attended more and more shows locally, making friends who were musicians along the way. Though he would go onto college at the University of Texas, these were experiences that stuck with him. In college, he formed a band called The Urinals where he played saxophone and synthesizer. They would get up on stage and play in between other bands’ sets for fun. Earning a Masters in Finance, Mark would find himself off to New York to start a job in the consulting division of Arthur Anderson, implementing computer analytics for clients. The job meant he would travel elsewhere as well. At some point he was out in Atlanta, Georgia on a job for the Georgia Department of Labor, staying in the same hotel as the cast of the musical comedy School Days. You may recall our own Branford Marsalis played Jordan in that movie. Mark knew Branford from Ben Franklin High School and was friends with his brother Delfeayo. So, for the three weeks he was in Atlanta, he would get off of work and go sit on the set of School Days, spending time with Branford.
The Marsalis family had always been a big influence in Mark’s life. Watching them excel in school band was inspiring. He would spend time at their house as a kid, meeting Jason Marsalis when he was just three years old. Later on in New York, following their careers was akin to following the successes of your favorite local football player that made it to the NFL. He felt personally vested in some of the greats and shared in their triumphs. Winton, Branford, Terrance Blanchard, Donald Harrison and Harry Connick Jr. all hit the stages of New York at one time or another. And Mark would make it a point to go see their shows when they were in town. This would reinforce his tastes in jazz. Collecting their music led him to acquiring others like Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Art Blakey. It was Winton who would introduce Mark to a young Jeremy Davenport after Mark’s business trip to Atlanta. Jeremy, a junior in high school at the time, would later go on to study at the University of New Orleans with Ellis Marsalis and years later end up on the Basin Street Records roster. There were many personal connections over the years that helped form Basin Street Records. At the time, not even Mark realized how all of this would come into play. Because at this point in his life, he was tweaking code and analyzing portfolios of mortgage-backed securities. His life was in New York. And he had just met his future wife, whom he would marry just one year later. But his career was about to affect a major change in his life. He was about to get assigned through work to one of three stock exchanges. All of which were out of the country and would require he and his wife to move abroad. As fate would have it though, a change was going to come alright. But it would include neither of those places nor a move away from the U.S.
Amidst all of this, his father called with some intriguing news. His company had invented a chemical that would be used to treat and refine natural gas. There hadn’t really been a market for it prior to this. But with the rise of natural gas prices, selling now became economically viable. His father’s company expected a rapid expansion and needed someone with Mark’s expertise on their team. And just like that Mark’s compass was now pointed south. In 1989, he and his wife moved back to New Orleans to be in business with his father. The future would see the birth of three children, the freedom to dictate his own schedule, and a prosperous, yet complicated business endeavor. His father’s business came with two partners who were also a father and son team. Over time it became clear that their idea of what the business should become was different from Mark and his father’s idea. The disagreement would form a rift that became a difficult process of separation. Looking back, he draws the assimilation between business arrangements and band arrangements. “When you go into business, if you don’t need a business partner, don’t have a business partner. And if you do have a business partner, and this goes for today with bands and everything else. If you need a business partner, and you might need a business partner when you’re putting together a band. You need an arrangement for how you’re going to separate things when you’re done. In my father and I’s case, we spent a lot of money on lawyers. And it was painful.” The experience struck a chord within Mark. It made him realize that whatever the future held for him, he wanted it to be fun. The process of departing from this deadlock would be through the sale of the business itself, which would span throughout 1996 and 1997. During that time, a meaningful opportunity would arise by mere happenstance.
It would designate a point in Mark’s life at which he began to pursue a career in music business. Though Mark did not realize this until he had already begun down its path. His brother, manager for the Cutting Edge Conference, knew of Mark’s friendships with now famous jazz musicians and invited Mark to put together a jazz showcase for the conference. Trombonist Delfeayo Marsalis was first on his list. And Trumpeter Jeremy Davenport, trombonist Wes Anderson, saxophonist Victor Goines, trumpeter Michael Ray, and several others would soon follow. One of those musicians he invited was trumpeter Kermit Ruffins. Mark found himself discussing his current dismay in the energy business world with Kermit’s manager Tom Thompson. At the time, Mark was enjoying his role as an entertainment coordinator for the music conference and told Tom that he thought he might want to go into business as a manager or agent of artists. Tom would go on to tell Mark about how Kermit recently fulfilled his three-album contract to Justice Records and was ready to record his next album. But Tom needed five thousand dollars to make it happen. The seemingly two separate problems actually formed one solution. This is how Basin Street Records came to be. Together with Tom, Mark formed the company officially and used the entity as a vehicle to release Kermit’s record. On November 14th, 1997, Mark found himself at Tipitina’s recording Kermit Ruffins live to a packed house. In February of 1998, Basin Street Records would release its first record, Swingin’ Live (Later named The Bar-B-Que Swingers Live) just in time for Mardi Gras. Mark had zero experience running a record company at this point. And I pause to emphasize this. Because if there’s anything I would like for my audience to gather from my articles, it’s that anything is possible. And whether it be within the confines of music, or the confines of Louisiana, therein lies no exception! Together with his father, Mark would eventually see the sale of that energy business and officially be solely in the music business. He would also at this point buy Tom out of Basin Street Records as well. The near future would reveal another chance meeting that would yield Basin Street’s second release, Los Hombres Calientes, volume 1. Jason Marsalis, Irvin Mayfield, and Dr. Michael White would follow suit in the coming years.
At the end of 2000, Mark’s family was in a car accident that killed his wife. And he found himself having to raise three children on his own as well as run the label. Los Hombres Calientes, by now, was scheduled to record their third volume in six different countries. But Mark would have to stay behind to pick up the pieces and begin again. Looking back, you will find, this was one rare occasion when Mark took pause. But from this point on, he never stopped. Basin Street Records expanded over the next few years, bringing his brother onboard as his operations director. And that album Los Hombres Calientes left to record ended up getting a Grammy nomination. More artists were added to the roster year after year. In April of 2004, he released 6 albums in one day, including two movie soundtracks. And in 2005, he released three albums in time for Jazzfest. Four months later when Hurricane Katrina hit, he never quit moving forward. With staff scattered about the country and a flooded warehouse, he somehow kept the business intact while once again picking up pieces of his life. We went on for some time about how switching distributors landed him in with Sony, his take on digital downloads and streaming, and so much more. Please consider checking out the podcast episode titled Mark Samuels to get the full story. You can access it via your favorite streaming platform below. We thank Mark Samuels for being such a gracious host and inspiring us all to pursue our dreams at all costs.
Author: David Trahan