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Posted on April 15, 2011
By MARC MYERS
Producer Creed Taylor changed the direction of jazz when he founded Impulse Records in 1960. Jazz fans are more likely to recognize his signature than his picture: His oversized John Hancock has appeared on hundreds of jazz albums on five labels, but the 81-year-old Mr. Taylor has always maintained a low profile.
Jeffrey Salter for The Wall Street Journal
Jazz producer Creed Taylor started Impulse Records more than 50 years ago. He was up against a music industry dominated by pop.
Next week, the Universal Music Group is celebrating the first six Impulse albums that Mr. Taylor released in 1961 with “First Impulse: The Creed Taylor Collection 50th Anniversary.” The four-CD set includes albums by Kai Winding, J.J. Johnson, Gil Evans, Ray Charles, Oliver Nelson and John Coltrane.
Mr. Taylor left Impulse in 1961 for Verve and later formed another influential label, CTI. In an interview, he spoke recently about starting Impulse, crafting a brand and producing Coltrane.
Africa/Brass, The John Coltrane Quartet
The Wall Street Journal: What was the jazz record business like in 1960?
Mr. Taylor: Small and growing smaller. Pop dominated sales, and rock was coming on. Prestige, Blue Note, Riverside and other jazz labels were recording great musicians. But those companies did little to generate sales. They viewed marketing as selling out. I wanted to create a jazz label that sounded great, looked great and sold extremely well.
Sounds like a no-brainer.
It wasn’t. I was obsessed with jazz but I also knew that records were a business. I wanted to run a label where I could choose songs that appealed to different radio markets, build a mystique for artists through album packaging and create excitement among retailers and consumers.
Who came up with the Impulse name?
I did. My first choice was Pulse. It meant a beat, being alive and driven. But after I submitted Pulse for trademark registration, I heard back that another company already owned it. I wanted to put through another name fast, impulsively. That’s when I said to myself, “Hey, Impulse, that’s even better than Pulse.”
Why use black and orange on all of the albums?
For consistency and branding. Those colors stood out at stores. But I also wanted the records to feel dark and mysteriouslike at night, when most people went out to hear jazz. The color black made you feel like it was midnight. The orange had the feel of a neon sign. You were drawn to go inside the album to hear what was going onjust as though you were outside a club.
Impulse covers were glossy and swung open. Why spend the extra money?
Laminated covers and gatefolds made the records feel precious, like lacquered furniture. As a result, consumers would treat them better and leave them out at home for others to see.
You released the first four Impulse albums at once in February 1961?
Yes, to create a large footprint in stores. If I had released them one at a time, the label wouldn’t have made as much noise or signaled to retailers that we were here to stay.
The four albums purposefully covered a range of jazz styles. “The Great Kai and J.J.” was small-group jazz. Ray Charles’ “Genius + Soul = Jazz” was funky big-band jazz. Gil Evans’ “Out of the Cool” was orchestral and “The Incredible Kai Winding Trombones” was pop. My goal was to convince different late-night disk jockeys to play the albums. I also urged them to tell the drive-time DJs who followed to play them, too. It worked.
So what exactly did you do as Impulse’s producer?
Do? [laughs] I had to come up with an album’s concept. Then I needed to choose the right mix of jazz musicians, pick the songs and work with the arranger. In the studio, I would read the arranger’s score while listening hard to what we were recording.
In the engineer’s booth at Rudy Van Gelder’s recording studio, where I recorded, I typically stood with my left ear close to the monitor speaker. I did this to get a feel for the dynamics and hear in detail what the consumer would experience.
Oliver Nelson’s “Blues and the Abstract Truth” was the fifth album released by Impulse. What does the title mean?
I wanted the names of all the Impulse albums to be a little offbeat, to make people wonder. Much of the material on Oliver’s album was blues but it also was abstract. Even when abstract, there was an honesty and truthfulness to the music.
Did you sign John Coltrane to Impulse?
Larry Newton [president of ABC-Paramount, Impulse’s parent company] did based on my recommendation. I had heard John at the Village Vanguard toward the end of 1960 and called him to see if he wanted to switch from Atlantic.
How did you produce Coltrane’s “Africa/Brass?”
John came up to my office at ABC with saxophonist Eric Dolphy. Oliver Nelson was supposed to arrange the album but couldn’t do it. Eric took on the assignment. John wanted the album to have an Africa theme. I suggested adding the brass concept.
All of John’s albums up until that point had featured just a rhythm section. Brass would add dimension and texture. Eric took the concept one step further and arranged the orchestra to depict wailing humanity, that sort of thing. Wailing required a special kind of instrumentation that captured sadness and blues.
So what’s with the jumbo signature on all of your albums?
In the late ’50s, an Australian writer visiting Brazil picked up an ABC album I had produced and suggested I sign them, like a painting. I realized that by doing so, buyers would see that a real person was responsible for the album, not an anonymous corporation. One day I just added my signature. No one at ABC said a word.