Back to a Jazz Future

Launched with Coltrane, Creed Taylor’s Impulse! Records helped make jazz the defining voice of its time.

Creed Taylor of Impulse! | Photo: Universal Music

At the height of the summer festival season, Porgy & Bess (Riemergasse 11, 1010 Wien) took the unusual step of playing host to a jazz programme without a single jazz performer or recording artist.

What fans realise (as do those responsible for programming the club’s main stage) is that jazz is, as much as anything, a lifestyle choice. Its history and its vitality, heading now into its second century, are a measure of our modern times.

For that reason, on this night the spotlight was on a jazz label and the man who brought it into being. The label so honored was Impulse! Records, celebrating 50 years of innovation in recorded jazz.

Featured was a visit with Impulse founder Creed Taylor, in the company of Ashley Khan, author of The House that Trane Built: The Impulse Story, who held court, sharing reminiscences and the inside story on the how Taylor was able to convince ABC Records to launch a jazz line under his tutelage.  Seated onstage, peppered with erudite questions from jazz scholar Kahn, Taylor shared his observations of the jazz scene then and now.

Taylor detailed the recording sessions that yielded the label’s 1961 market-making first volley of six LPs, which included Ray Charles’ Genius + Soul = Jazz, inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2011; John Coltrane’s Africa/Brass; Gil Evans’ Out Of The Cool; and Oliver Nelson’s Blues and The Abstract Truth  along with two albums by trombonist Kai Winding The Great Kai & J.J., featuring J.J. Johnston and The Incredible Kai Winding Trombones. These albums all went on to become classics, featuring such jazz landmarks as Charles’ “One Mint Julep”, Coltrane’s “Africa”, Evans’ “La Nevada” and Nelson’s “Stolen Moments”.

The “‘Trane” who became lmpulse’s linchpin artist in the early years was of course John Coltrane, who would have been 85 this year. It was Coltrane’s musical daring that set the tone for the label’s artistic legacy, establishing it as the spiritual home of  “new thing” artists, building a label and a brand known for innovation, long before the word branding had ever been heard in a business school.

In its first decade and a half, Impulse! gained a reputation for great – and some highly idiosynchractic – music delivered with a distinctive style. With its signature orange-and-black color scheme, the clever yin-and-yang-style “i!” logo, and vivid photography on gatefold jackets, with a double-wide spine for shelf visibility, Impulse! in the 60s defined the jazz “album” concept.

The Impulse! story was also a coup of timing. At the end of the 1950s, well before the maturing of rock ’n’ roll into “Rock,” jazz defined popular music. Miles Davis’ still best-selling Kind of Blue, Coltrane’s Giant Steps, Ornette Coleman’s Shape of Jazz to Come, Charles Mingus’ Mingus Dynasty and Ah Um were all released in 1959. Landmark music embraced by the listening public, these records made a strong case that America’s first real native art form was the sound of the times.

As conceived by Creed Taylor, Impulse! began as little more than a business plan, leveraging innovative marketing, strong positioning and a graphic concept, set to tap into the appetite for the modern among young adults in the post-Sputnik space age. Taylor’s jazz community was a vital cultural force of a piece with the “go-go” early 1960s. Confident that the music was strong enough – just waiting to be plucked out of the air and cut on wax – Taylor pushed ahead with the label’s launch under the aegis of ABC.

By the ‘70s, as the “baby boom” made its indelible mark, Impulse! Records shifted gears, and sought to bring jazz to a generation of Rock listeners. According to producer Ed Michel, who led the label into the ’70s, at the frenzied crest of the anti-war and civil rights movements, “it seemed as though Impulse! became the label characterized by the angry black tenor man,” in synch with the label’s definition of “hip”.

In reality, according to Michel, Impulse! artists “weren’t angry, they weren’t all black and they weren’t all tenor players” – it just seemed that way.

As this was a time of social and political change, Impulse, remained ironically steadfast as the platform for a style of jazz all about  searching and experimentation. Bob Thiele, the man who succeeded Creed Taylor as Impulse! chief, said in the late 1960s, “Jazz music has always reflected the times. Today, there are violent, social transitions taking place, and these changes that are sometimes confusing come out in musical expression.”

Adding further irony, Impulse! became a victim of its daring, of its leadership and its own musical progressivism. Times changed, tastes changed, and everyone, including the baby boomers, got older. Some even got jobs, and just as the be-boppers a generation earlier alienated the Big Band audience, tastes in popular music shifted, with jazz becoming the “new” classical music: it was brainy, appealed to an elite (some would say cult) following, and booked small record sales.

With artists on the Impulse! label ranging from Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, and Charles Mingus on one hand, and Pharoah Sanders, Archie Shepp, and Albert Ayler on the other, the stable was incredibly diverse, the appeal resoundingly broad. Despite a lengthy and successful run, by the late ‘70s the post-Altamont Impulse! suffered from the “experimental edge of sixties jazz,” and the label struggled under new leadership. Creed Taylor was long gone, leaving Impulse! clearly in retreat. Eventually, ABC shut the label down.

It took new owners to revive it again in the mid-’90s. The Impulse catalogue passed first to MCA, then to GRP, and ultimately to the Verve Music Group, part of Universal Music, thanks in large measure to consolidations and mergers within the music industry, a trend few labels have avoided in a time of uncertainty about the digital future of sound.

The good news is that with the celebration of its storied history this month at Porgy & Bess, it is evident that Universal Music fully recognises the significance of Impulse! The company has already begun an extensive re-issue campaign, which kicked off recently with the 4 CD set First Impulse: The Creed Taylor Collection 50th Anniversary, which includes those first six Impulse albums that Taylor produced in 1961.

To follow will be remasters and other catalogue upgrades set to trace the successive stages of one of the most significant recording enterprises of the 20th Century. But for this reviewer, the excitement only begins there. So long as jazz fans have forward-looking enterprises like Impulse! in business, the show will go on and on.

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