The Impulse! Records Story: The House That Trane Built
Never has one jazz label been so associated with one artist. As John Coltrane’s legend has grown, so has the legacy of Impulse Records. The label’s orange-and-black colors are as renowned as the wide range of music it has produced—from swing to the new thing.
The Vision Of Creed Taylor
The late ’50s—rather than the ’20s—may yet go down in musical history as the real “Jazz Age.” Jazz is moving into the pop market in every arena—records, TV, radio, TV films, singing commercials, etc.—and next Monday will even make the White House, via a “Jazz Jubilee” concert sponsored by Mrs. Dwight D. Eisenhower. —Billboard magazine, March 9, 1959.
Billboard’s optimistic front-page report seemed to herald an era in which jazz reached a high-water mark of acceptance, prevalence and profitability. But scanning further, readers of the trade weekly would have noticed a rather broad definition of jazz was used to sell its case: healthy sales of albums by Duke Ellington and Ahmad Jamal were lumped together with the breakout success of Henry Mancini’s jazz-style Peter Gunn TV theme. Even stalwart fans shared the rosy view that jazz had developed commercial muscle. Columbia Records producer Irving Townsend, noted for his work with Billie Holiday and Miles Davis, wrote in Down Beat in late ’59: “Jazz is now big business, and its new friends include some of the most distinguished squares alive”; even those, he added, “who thought Ella might be F. Scott’s daughter.”
“Wait a minute! I don’t call that jazz,” counters Jerry Wexler, top partner at Atlantic Records during that period. “‘Peter Gunn’ was a freak, an accidental crossover. It happened because of the television [exposure].” With a hate-to-burst-the-bubble sigh— “Every few years, there’s a hubbub: ‘Oh, looky here! Jazz is coming! Jazz is selling!’”—he adds:
“You know the old saying—as the tide comes in all the boats rise. When you have good years, there’s a general escalation of sales and jazz sales may come up with it somewhat. The only time jazz ever was a popular medium was back when pop was jazz—the big-band era.”
Nonetheless, common perception in 1959, was one of jazz renewal, enough to produce buoyant headlines and find executives willing to give the nod to jazz-related efforts. On December 5, 1960, Billboard printed the birth announcement for a project that had been gestating for more than a year: “ABC-Paramount Bows Jazz Label—Impulse.” Announced as the company chief was a former musician named Creed Taylor.
Like many of his generation, a teenaged Taylor heard the siren sound of big bands and recognized his life’s calling. By college age, he was balancing desires to play trumpet and pursue a pre-med path, yet his school choice was guided more by his love of music. “I could’ve gone pretty much anywhere, but I picked Duke University,” Taylor says. “The school’s jazz group, the Duke Ambassadors, were like the farm team for the best big bands: Les Brown, Sonny Burke. The Ambassadors inherited all the band charts from them. That’s what I wanted to do, finish my studies and get in one of those bands and I’d be happy as a lark.”
On occasion, Taylor journeyed up to New York and witnessed a scene centered on a new style of small-group, soloist-centered jazz. He was enthused but a little ambivalent toward the explosion that was bebop.
“The first time I came to New York was in the early days of Dizzy and Bird and the beboppers, with all of the 52nd street clubs, you know. It couldn’t have thrilled me more—I just spent every night there. They were playing these racing tempos that nobody could understand. That was the breeding ground for what jazz became. That was at the very tail end of some very good jazz; the so-called dance bands were fading out. Unfortunately, the demise of the big-band era took away so many great musical experiences.”
Taylor graduated, served in the Korean War and eventually moved to New York. By 1954 he was a top producer for Bethlehem Records, a small jazz-oriented label that hit its short-lived heyday with a two-year stream of recordings by bassists Oscar Pettiford and Charles Mingus, singer Chris Connor and the J.J. Johnson/Kai Winding Quintet. But Taylor was restless; he was looking for wider horizons and bigger challenges. A trade weekly report ushered him to his next career move.
“I read Billboard every week, and I found that ABC-Paramount was starting a record company. I wrote a letter to [the president] Sam Clark and got an interview. I said, ‘This is what I do very well,’ and that was it.”
ABC-Paramount was a corporate couple initially forced together in the early ’50s when federal antitrust decisions rocked the entertainment industry, severing theater chains from film studios (like Paramount Pictures) and smaller TV broadcasters (like the Blue Network) from larger, sister networks (like NBC). Blue was reborn as the American Broadcasting Company, linked with the orphaned Paramount Theaters chain and immediately sought to establish itself as a cross-media force. ABC-Paramount had TV and theaters; what they wanted was a record label.
Sam Clark, a Boston record distributor, was recruited as the label’s first president; Harry Levine—Paramount’s top talent booker—took on a V.P. role. Clark brought in Larry Newton, head of the R&B label Derby Records, as his number two. With deep, corporate funding, Clark’s mission was clear from the outset: affect the stance of a major label. Newton recalls the playing field they entered: “In the ’50s, there were mainly two levels of record companies. The big ones—Capitol, RCA/Victor, Columbia was big with [producer/artist] Mitch Miller, and Decca was still strong. That was it—the rest of the labels were indies [independents]. We were shooting to be a major.”
To achieve the appropriate robustness—hit records, a full catalog—ABC-Paramount pursued a two-part plan: purchase or partner with smaller record companies; hire in-house producers to develop new talent and projects. A successful deal with Philadelphia’s Chancellor Records, yielding pop charters from teen idols Frankie Avalon and Fabian, was evidence of the former; Creed Taylor and arranger Sid Feller were examples of the latter.
Feller recalls ABC-Paramount’s early trickle of hits. “We were in existence almost five months before we issued our first record in November 1955. Paul Anka came to us in our second year and we had a few million sellers with Lloyd Price, Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme. That kept us in the major leagues.” But there were growing pains.
“We spent a lot of money, and sold very little,” Feller says. “Columbia had a dozen artists selling at that same time—same with RCA and Capitol. We would have one or two [singles] selling but put out hundreds of other records which meant nothing. Was it a struggle? Yes, but we always had somebody who was selling.”
By 1959 The Music Reporter was able to salute the label’s first four years, listing their “honor roll of million-dollar smashes”: “A Rose and a Baby Ruth” by George Hamilton IV, “Diana” and “Lonely Boy” by Paul Anka, “At the Hop” by Danny & the Juniors, “Stagger Lee” and “Personality” by Lloyd Price and “Venus” by Frankie Avalon.
That year, ABC-Paramount threw the dice and offered Ray Charles a generous advance with an unheard-of twist: structuring their deal as a partnership, allowing the star pianist/singer to maintain ownership of all his recordings. Charles was lured away from Atlantic Records and the wager paid off. “After Ray came, everything went major from then on,” says Feller, who arranged many of Charles’ ’60s hits. With an unbroken series of best-selling singles and albums, Charles returned ABC’s investment many times over, helping to fund other adventurous projects.
Meanwhile, Creed Taylor had been toiling away quietly, recording thematic albums for empty niches in an expanding music market. “I would go to the record bins across the street from the Paramount building and think about musical categories that were not represented. For instance, they didn’t have any Oriental music, so I did Hi-Fi in an Oriental Garden and it really sold quite well.”
Taylor had a quiet agenda. Though his concept-driven titles proved satisfactory to ABC, “jazz was my mission [but] I didn’t push it as a priority; I snuck it in.” Taylor stealthily recorded multi-instrumentalist Don Elliott’s The Voices of Don Elliott, pianist Billy Taylor’s My Fair Lady Loves Jazz and trumpeter Kenny Dorham’s Kenny Dorham and the Jazz Prophets, of which the producer proudly notes: “it sold well for its time—about 10,000 copies.”
Trombonist Grachan Moncur III was working in ABC’s sales department in 1956 when he witnessed one of Taylor’s early signing efforts. “Cannonball and Nat [Adderley] came through the office one day—they had just migrated into town. Creed was giving them a tour of ABC and they looked into my office and saw me sitting there with a desk. They were so surprised to see a black dude with a desk, you know what I mean? Cannonball was very impressed. He said, ‘Good to see you, my man.’”
In 1957, Taylor was approached by writer and singer Jon Hendricks with a bold concept: a vocal recreation of Count Basie’s biggest hits, with singers handling the horn arrangements and solos, plus a rhythm section. Utilizing the then-young studio technique of overdubbing—recording and rerecording different performances on the same reel of tape—the album was built around the trio of Hendricks and two bop-flavored singers, Dave Lambert and Annie Ross.
Lambert, Hendricks and Ross’ resulting album, Sing a Song of Basie, was a smash. “It just came out of nowhere, it made Lambert, Hendricks and Ross,” Taylor notes, recalling the marked incongruity that resulted. “Here they were on the same label that had Paul Anka and Danny & the Juniors—the rock ’n’ roll bands of the time.”
By 1959, the time was ripe for a distinct, dedicated jazz label at ABC. When Taylor unveiled his proposal to his higher-ups, it was fully conceived: top jazz artists, high production standards and elegant packaging. He already had a name in mind. “I first tried to clear Pulse [as a label name] because I had thought of the motto ‘Feeling the Pulse’ but that wasn’t available as a copyright-able word. So I put the ‘I - M’ in front. The exclamation point was the designer’s idea. I put the [plans for the] first four titles together and then I talked to Harry Levine, who was my quiet ambassador.”
Levine proved a needed and effective buffer.
“He was an invaluable kind of conduit, he knew how to handle Larry and Sam so Sam wouldn’t be looking at his balance sheet and, ‘What the hell is this, Creed went an hour overtime at Rudy Van Gelder’s [studio] with 10 pieces?’ I didn’t have to come to them directly—I just talked to Harry about it.”
Notwithstanding Levine’s role as an intermediary, there was another reason ABC’s top brass would have smiled on Taylor’s idea: long-term investment. “Jazz was—what was the expression?—a catalogue item,” recalls Bill Kaplan, then ABC’s staff counsel (and currently lawyer to the Coltrane family). “There was no grand market for jazz; it was always a limited kind of thing. If you sell 10,000 copies of a jazz album in a year, you’re doing all right, and that was true in those days as well. But jazz and classical were catalogue items—they’ll sell forever. It’s money in the bank in the long run, but it’s a long, long process.”
Taylor was given the green light. With his design team, Taylor chose an eye-catching orange-and-black color scheme for the label’s logo and albums. He decided to employ laminated, foldout covers normally used for double albums as a standard feature. “The gatefold was not being used except on very special albums, but all of the Impulse titles were to be gatefolds.”
And the album titles merited close attention, too.
“I tried to juxtapose the visual on the album cover with the title itself, like Gil [Evans]’s Out of the Cool or [jazz composer/arranger] Oliver Nelson’s Blues and the Abstract Truth. They’re all combinations of words that grab you. I mean, there’s nothing really abstract about the blues, but it’s a truth.”
By mid-December 1960, Impulse catalog numbers A-1 through 4 were ready to ship: one title by composer/arranger Gil Evans, two from trombonist Kai Winding, and, as Taylor points out, “with Larry Newton’s very great cooperation, Impulse was able to borrow Ray Charles for this jazz project.” But that wasn’t all ABC-Paramount provided. Impulse drew invaluable benefit from the parent company’s marketing chief.
“We only had one promotion man for all our labels—Irwin Garr,” remembers Feller. “And he handled whatever promotion people were on the road.” Garr marshaled his forces and—as Taylor tells it—did not hesitate to use the label’s pop prowess to help introduce their new jazz child. “ABC-Paramount Records was getting stronger and stronger. [When Impulse debuted,] it was in the day of Dick Clark, what hit was he going to introduce next on his weekly TV show, and it usually was on ABC. Frankie Avalon, and all those Fabian records—the whole beach blanket thing. But to have a solid merchandising machinery in place to put this Impulse thing into, that helped immensely.”
Taylor describes the initial reaction to the label’s first wave. “It was a landslide on all fronts! Radio airplay, distributors running out of stock. There was nothing else out there like that. Ray Charles’ Genius + Soul = Jazz sold 150,000 LPs within a couple of months.” Others active in 1960 agree. Billboard’s West Coast bureau chief Eliot Tiegel states, “[Impulse] knocked me out. They took it one step beyond what Blue Note and smaller independents had done.”
George Avakian, Columbia Records’ former album sales and jazz chief, recalls how the fledgling label fit into the jazz hierarchy of the day. “Impulse was not major competition to Columbia, which remained the leader in jazz recording for years after I left [in 1958]. Atlantic was definitely number two. After that it was a mixed bag including very different companies such as Impulse and the Norman Granz labels [like Verve]. Right behind were Pacific Jazz and Blue Note.”
By mid-’61, Impulse had issued a total of six albums, the last titled Africa/Brass, the label debut by John Coltrane, who had caught Taylor’s ear at the Village Vanguard at the end of 1960. In a move not too dissimilar from ABC’s seducing of Ray Charles, executives bowed to Taylor's wishes, loosened the purse-strings and offered Coltrane a sweetheart deal that trumped his Atlantic Records contract and lured him away from the mostly R&B label. In mid-’61, the saxophonist became Impulse’s first (for awhile, only) exclusive artist, meriting a $10,000 advance for the first year, with two-year options doubling the advance.
Beyond any other artist, production value or graphic style, signing Coltrane was undoubtedly Taylor’s greatest coup for the growing label. But as Impulse drew attention, so did its creator. Before the summer was over, film studio Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer had recruited Taylor to take over Verve Records, purchased from jazz impresario Norman Granz the previous December. Taylor completed his final Impulse duties, including editing Africa/Brass, in MGM’s New York offices. He left behind a label with an artfully honed identity and promising future.
“At first there was this ‘Who-in-the-heck-is-an-Oliver-Nelson and what-is-Blues-and-the-Abstract-Truth?’ kind of thing,” Taylor says. “Soon enough there was a thread of ‘What do you mean? It’s on Impulse. It’s good-looking, great-sounding stuff.’”
The Education Of Bob Thiele
“A New York street guy—a Broadway cowboy.”
“An ingenious A&R man—a wheeler-dealer.”
“Smart enough to let me have the freedom.”
“A strange duck but very loyal to Coltrane.”
“One of the most underrated people in the history of music.”
“A journeyman music executive without a clue as to what John Coltrane and Impulse would ever become.”
Depending on who’s doing the talking, Bob Thiele was inventive or manipulative, sincere or self-aggrandizing, endearing or exasperating, a connoisseur or a dilettante. But on one thing all agree: he had a knack for maximizing the circumstances of a long-running, up-and-down career. If Creed Taylor possessed the foresight to bring Impulse to seed, Bob Thiele had the good fortune to cultivate it through its most fruitful years. During Thiele’s tenure from 1961 to 1969, ABC-Paramount’s premier jazz label prospered and—as its evolving motto implied—rose with the times: from “The New Wave of Jazz” to “New Black Music/Avant Garde.”
“He had what a lot of us call seichl—good, common sense. Horse sense,” says Dan Morgenstern, who helped Thiele launch Jazz magazine in 1961, before taking over the helm at Down Beat. He offers a thumbnail sketch of the man who would personally oversee—and be swept along by—Coltrane’s rocketlike path during the ’60s.
“He was a veteran record producer, an old hand at dealing with the vagaries of the business. From the start, he was a rich man’s son, had a little money to play with, had a few of his own labels but they never achieved any kind of commercial stability—they always went down the drain. But he was a good talent spotter. Creed Taylor brought Coltrane to Impulse, but Thiele was able to see that there was something there, and he established a rapport with Coltrane.”
Born in 1922 to a well-off family, raised in Long Island, N.Y., educated in private schools, Thiele grew up under the sign of Swing. He took up clarinet, formed a high school dance group, deejayed on a series of local radio stations and assiduously followed big bands led by heroes Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman. Before reaching 18, the precocious teenager had added to his list of accomplishments a magazine called Jazz (a precursor to his 1961 creation) and a record label called Signature.
In the years prior to and during World War II, a host of New York-based jazz greats, drawn by Thiele’s fresh-faced enthusiasm, recorded for Signature, including clarinetist Pee Wee Russell, guitarist Eddie Condon and pianists Art Hodes, James P. Johnson and Erroll Garner. But it was Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins—the two most responsible for first defining how jazz should be played on the tenor saxophone—who helped raise the young label and its founder to national prominence.
Young’s recordings of “I Got Rhythm,” “Linger Awhile” and “I’m Fer It, Too,” and Hawkins’ “Get Happy,” “Crazy Rhythm” and “The Man I Love” have all grown to be considered rarefied, small-group classics that prefigured the solo-focused magic of the bebop era. The last tune—and extended version of the tune that was released in 1943 on the unusual 12-inch, (as opposed to 10-inch) 78 format—is especially noteworthy: it provided Signature its first financial flush, and Thiele one of his earliest in-studio anecdotes:
“The reason this ‘The Man I Love’ turned out as one of the few 12-inch 78s in commercial release was simply because Coleman Hawkins wouldn’t quit. He’d take extra choruses. We were recording at radio station WOR on Broadway in the middle of the night, and right during the middle of that record a cleaning woman walked in with a mop, intent on cleaning the studio. I literally walked out into the studio, put my finger to my lips to be quiet, then held her arms. They played, and I’m holding a struggling cleaning woman while one of the most immortal solos in jazz history was being recorded.”
Discharged from a tour of duty with the Coast Guard that had kept him safely in the New York area, Thiele entered adulthood already in a tight community of seasoned, self-made record men. They were fueled by passions for jazz and rhythm and blues, for artists overlooked by the pop-driven major labels of the day. They fought the good fight to get their records onto the airwaves, into stores and to get paid. Thiele experienced the same financing problems, distribution headaches and late-night drinking sessions with other collectors-turned-producers of the day, including Atlantic Records’ Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun (the latter who would record John Coltrane a decade-and-a-half hence).
But while labels like Atlantic slowly built themselves up, Thiele’s lack of sound financial practices, plus a predilection for the good times, prevented Signature from ever taking hold. It’s almost impossible to run a business while on spontaneous, party-filled road trips to New Orleans or Hollywood, but Thiele tried. Little surprise then that the enterprising label head eventually became an itinerant record producer, seeking a home for his talents and his catalogue of jazz recordings.
Decca was the first major company to take in the young producer, placing him in charge of their secondary label. Home to more established hit-makers like Bing Crosby, Mills Brothers, Guy Lombardo and others, Decca had formed Coral to compete for a slice of the independent market Thiele had come from. “I suppose I was the logical ‘antiestablishment’ sort for the damage my job mandate required,” is how Thiele remembered it.
In short order, Decca’s confidence in Thiele was confirmed. Pushing a more jazz and roots-oriented approach with pop stars like the McGuire Sisters, Pearl Bailey, former Signature artist Alan Dale and future wife Teresa Brewer, Thiele created hit after hit. In 1957, as the pop charts began to give way to a new sound called rock ’n’ roll, a music publisher delivered him a recording by a guitarist/singer from Clovis, N.M. Thiele jumped when he heard Buddy Holly’s “That’ll Be the Day” and immediately signed him.
Thiele proved prescient in grabbing the young songwriter, and wily in dealing with the in-house resistance to this “hillbilly garbage.” Decca didn’t mind taking a chance on Holly, but grew nervous that his R&B sound might taint the mainstream image Coral had developed, adversely affecting the label’s other hit-makers of ’57: Debbie Reynolds and Lawrence Welk. Ever the discophile, Thiele “remembered the corporation owned an obscure record label” and came up with a solution:
“Brunswick [Records had been] devoted to ‘race music’—a prior euphemism for rhythm and blues—so I went back in and said, ‘We have to release this record [”That’ll Be the Day”], and if all of you are so concerned about the image of Coral, put it out on the Brunswick label.’”
A string of influential rock ’n’ roll classics ensued—alternatively on Brunswick (as the Crickets) and Coral (as Buddy Holly). The reactivated Brunswick label soon became home to another best-selling singer, Jackie Wilson, and Thiele’s golden-boy reputation was unassailable; his position at Decca seemed secure. Nonetheless, after nine years of producing hits beyond expectations, Thiele felt less-than-compensated by his higher-ups and departed Decca in March of 1958, leading to three years of label hopping. His creative impulses still put him at odds with those above him, while his trajectory seemed bent on returning the pop producer to jazz, his first love.
A few months after joining Dot Records (home to the whitewashed sound of teen crooner Pat Boone) and producing albums with Louis Armstrong, composer Manny Albam and trumpeter Red Nichols, Thiele recorded Beat writer Jack Kerouac reading poetry while TV host Steve Allen (a former Coral artist) played jazz piano. The resulting album drew critical praise and the ire of Dot’s morally outraged president: “It’s almost pornographic” was his reported reaction. Thiele stood his ground and was summarily fired; the producer joined forces with Allen, resurrecting his old label and releasing Poetry for the Beat Generation on the new Hanover-Signature imprint.
A less contentious stint at Roulette Records, run by music impresario Morris Levy, afforded Thiele the chance to pull off a once-in-a-lifetime jazz coup in April of 1961: recording Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington together. Alternatively titled Together for the First Time and The Great Reunion, the album featured Ellington as the guest pianist in Armstrong’s All-Star band of the time, performing all Ellington material, and reestablished Thiele’s stature on the jazz scene. It also created a “jazz summit” formula Thiele would return to soon with John Coltrane, and provided him access to two important jazz legends that would later yield spectacular results.
Hot again, Thiele was approached toward the end of summer, 1961, by an expanding ABC-Paramount; he accepted the company’s offer to join as an in-house producer. Creed Taylor reports that he was most certainly tapped for his pop pedigree: “[ABC Records head] Sam Clark knew Thiele from his days as a Boston distributor—he would have been more impressed by Teresa Brewer’s music than any jazz Thiele had done.”
Thiele himself admitted that his years in the more commercial end of the music business did not prepare him for the modern jazz he would soon encounter.
“I must confess—there was a period, when I was working at Decca, Dot and Hanover-Signature, when I was really not keeping up with the new jazz players and the new music. I think I heard one of the Ornette [Coleman] records on Atlantic, and I didn’t hear [Eric] Dolphy until I worked with him at Impulse. Basically I was a pop producer, the old-time type of pop producer, making a living and taking care of a family. I’d always try and do some jazz recordings, but the jazz thing was always really for pleasure, and I never could make too many records wherever I worked.”
Taylor had already departed Impulse for Verve when Thiele arrived at ABC-Paramount. More impromptu than planned, the decision was made by ABC to replace Taylor with its newly arrived “resident ‘jazz freak’ record executive,” as Thiele put it. “Once I was at Impulse, I made up for lost time. I think that I was exposed to, and digested, about eight years of music.”
The crash course began almost immediately.
“I don’t think I was at Impulse more than a week when we decided to record Coltrane live at the Village Vanguard. That first night at the Vanguard, as I recall, I was pretty shook up; I was confused. But by staying involved, the music began to make sense to me.”
To Thiele, being handed a successful jazz label to run amounted to more than just an invitation to be involved: it must have felt like waking up to all his Christmases at once. He refocused his energy and schedule, throwing himself into jazz-oriented projects with enthusiasm that had been held in check. Within a year, he produced a wide-ranging list of stellar albums, including Count Basie & the Kansas City 7, The Artistry of Freddie Hubbard, Roy Haynes’ Out of the Afternoon (featuring young reedmaster Roland Kirk), Max Roach’s It’s Time and Charles Mingus’ The Black Saint & the Sinner Lady. “I don’t know how I made so many albums, but I did,” Thiele commented in 1995. “I even slept in the studio. I’d record maybe Freddie Hubbard in the afternoon, Shirley Scott in the evening, go to sleep on a couch and then record Roland Kirk. It seemed endless.”
Thiele’s working schedule was pushed to the limit in mid-1962 as he plowed forward while reaching back into his past. He revived Jazz magazine, and produced two studio projects that again joined Duke Ellington with other jazz notables, first with Thiele’s first recording star, Coleman Hawkins, and later, with Coltrane. Such pairings made sense in Thiele’s view. Rather than rethinking Creed Taylor’s initial vision of a high-quality jazz label, Thiele added a commercial element to the Impulse plan, exploiting jazz’s more familiar past to help build its future.
“What I tried to do at Impulse was to record new, young players, put them under contract, such as [guitarist] Gabor Szabo. But then, I was trying to make the label a successful jazz label, so, quite frankly, I would try and record name musicians, such as Sonny Rollins, Dizzy [Gillespie], on a one-shot basis, make the one album—so there was a design to it.”
Coltrane’s young pianist was one early beneficiary of Thiele’s strategy.
“For example, when we started recording McCoy Tyner for Impulse, I think the first album [1962’s Inception] sold eight hundred. But we stayed with him for four years, and at the end his initial orders were 7,500 [to] 10,000 albums.
But taking chances on younger artists meant the gamble on the higher-priced established artists could not fail. “Under such circumstances,” contends reissue producer Michael Cuscuna, “a quality assurance system fell into place.” Since Impulse only had one, at most two, chances with major name artists, Thiele knew each album had to be special, and the conceptual thought and care that went into these albums was evident to all. The opulent, gorgeous packaging was an incredible draw in the competitive jazz industry of the ’60s, but the music usually lived up to what the packaging promised.
Thiele had wisely maintained the attention and budgets devoted to Impulse’s distinctive gatefold covers; even the label’s signature colors were faithfully preserved to lasting effect. “I remember a scene in the late ’60s ABC movie For the Love of Ivy with Sidney Poitier and Abbey Lincoln in which a record collection was in the frame,” notes Cuscuna. “And those orange and black spines just jumped out at you. Talk about subliminal advertising.”
No product placement could match the simple and straightforward effect of the label’s leading light. Just by being on Impulse, Coltrane helped sell the label to musicians old and new, and to listeners of jazz and nonjazz. As his stature and sales prowess increased, Coltrane began to act in an A&R capacity, hipping Thiele to many of the artists who ended up on Impulse. “It was certainly through Coltrane that I became aware of Archie Shepp and many of the younger players, Thiele admitted. “I think that if we signed everyone that John recommended we’d have four hundred musicians on the label.”
Shepp’s take on how he came to Impulse provides a revealing look at the consideration Coltrane put into each of his recommendations.
“My family and I were on welfare at the time, and I used to take a dollar from my welfare check and I would spend 10 dimes a day to call Bob Thiele. Every time I called, his secretary Lydia, would say, ‘Bob isn’t here,’ ‘He just went to lunch’ or ‘He won’t be back for the rest of the day.’ Those were the three answers that I got for months. Finally, on the suggestion of [trumpeter] Bill Dixon, he said, ‘Well, you know, it’s rather silly: if Coltrane is such a friend of yours, why don’t you ask him to get you a record date?’ I was very, very humble about that; it seemed rather strange exploiting a friendship. But, in a desperate moment, when the money was low, and I had had a very bad scene with Miles Davis [that] involved [me] sitting in with the band [though] he had told me in no uncertain terms, ‘No.’ We had, not a real confrontation, but he walked off the stand. So I went down to the Half Note on Spring Street where John was performing, and I said, ‘OK, maybe I will ask him.’ When he came off the bandstand, I said, ‘John, I want to ask you a favor.’ And so he looked at me very hard, first time he had looked at me hard [laughs]. And he said, ‘Yeah, what is it, Shepp?’ and I said, ‘Well, could you help me get a record date?’ And then he looked at me even harder. Then he said, ‘You know, a lot of people take advantage of me, because they think I’m easy.’ I had no answer for that, because I knew I had always had a profound respect for the man, and what I was asking of him, in my own humble way, I might deserve. And then he says—which was his way of saying things—‘Well, I’ll see what I can do.’ And that was the beginning of my recording date with Impulse Records, which was almost totally engineered by John Coltrane.”
In 1964 and ’65, jazz mingled in successfully with the popular music scene to land a generous slice of the album—as opposed to the singles—market. Sadly, no industry-wide sales figures are available, but per Billboard’s pop and R&B LP charts, jazz appeared in solid, commercial health. Among titles by the Beatles, Beach Boys and Andy Williams, Verve had bossa nova bestsellers courtesy of Stan Getz and João Gilberto, Columbia maintained its “modern jazz” superiority via efforts by Miles Davis and Dave Brubeck, while Blue Note rode the soul-jazz trend with albums by Lee Morgan and Horace Silver. Impulse was holding its own with the likes of organist Shirley Scott, drummer Chico Hamilton and—as a full label advertisement promised in late ’64—“Coltrane leads the way….”
In fact, Coltrane and Impulse held enough sway within the ABC hierarchy to be the only separate label to be lauded in ABC-Paramount’s two-page Billboard spread in February 1965. The impending A Love Supreme was given equal graphic weight to new releases by Ray Charles (Live), the Impressions (People Get Ready) and Frank Fontaine (I’m Counting on You).
But what Impulse gained in importance, it lost in independence. As 1965 began, the label—and Thiele—came under closer scrutiny. Sam Clark, the man who recruited the producer to the ABC fold, moved up the corporate ladder to head ABC-Paramount’s theater division, replaced by head of sales Larry Newton. If Clark was free from jazz leanings, Newton was more so. And if ever Thiele’s self-proclaimed “antiestablishment” stance would be tested, if ever the sovereignty of Impulse would be challenged, it would happen during Newton’s reign.
The Thiele-Newton tug of wills would last over four years, but its ramifications can be boiled down to one incident. To some it was an inevitable explosion that had been threatening to erupt for years. To Thiele it was a defining moment of his career, forcefully retold at the opening of his autobiography, What a Wonderful World: A Lifetime of Recordings.
On the heels of Louis Armstrong’s 1964 hit “Hello, Dolly” for Kapp Records—which had unseated the Beatles at the top of the pop charts—Thiele had successfully arranged a record producer’s daily double: not only securing the trumpeter to release his next performance on ABC, but having him record a song on which Thiele’s name was listed as songwriter: “What a Wonderful World.” A handsome payday for both the label and producer was almost certain.
Newton’s appearance at the studio that day was ostensibly to meet Armstrong and shoot some publicity photos. But when the label head heard a ballad was to be recorded—rather than a more upbeat, Dixieland number as he would have chosen—a screaming match ensued. The session was completed while Newton, physically barred from the studio, continued to bang on the door. “What a Wonderful World” was eventually released, but with minimal support from ABC’s sales force.
“The unanimous reaction was, ‘The lousiest Armstrong record ever made!’” Thiele remembered. “Naturally then, it didn’t sell in the States but sold a million and a half copies overseas.” The song never realized its full potential until 1988, when it became the Top 40 hit off the Good Morning, Vietnam soundtrack.
Despite the unfortunate studio standoff, Impulse persevered, though it exacerbated an already difficult situation for Thiele.
“[In 1966] I wanted to record Pharoah Sanders for ABC. It took me two months to get approval to record him and no one wanted to spend any money. The first album was made for [union] scale. I think he got $300 or $400 to make the record [Tauhid]. And until the record came out, everyone said, ‘What kind of crap is this? This isn’t going to sell.’”
Thiele recalled Newton approaching him after the record’s impressive release, saying, “‘Hey did we sign that Pharoah Sanders? Oh, sign him up now. Let’s get him.’”
Thiele and Newton’s continual head-butting was emblematic of a larger, society-wide storm that was gathering force in the mid-’60s, blowing through cities, campuses and into the ABC-Paramount boardroom. The old way of doing things—of record heads telling producers to tell artists what to do—was meeting resistance. In the realm of jazz, it was a defiance that carried racial overtones, coming at a point when black America found a louder, more defiant voice than ever before. Impulse reflected this development, as many of its artists—and the music they made—became associated with a new black-power movement. The label’s earlier fist-raisers like Max Roach, whose Percussion Bitter Sweet and It’s Time contained strong political import, paved the way for the more direct messages contained in Archie Shepp’s Fire Music.
Thiele found himself swept along by the spirit of the day. “A lot of musicians at that time were militant. There was that period, and I was into it myself. I thought I was helping the cause by getting involved with some of those people.” The period lasted through the last four years of Thiele’s tenure at Impulse and carried on well after he left. “[Charlie] Haden’s group [1970’s Liberation Music Orchestra] was definitely inspired by this—a militant musical organization.”
But militancy was not the only musical stance in the air in the late ’60s. As jazz often looked to other styles for ideas and influence, so Impulse reflected the explorations of its artists. A burgeoning spiritual rebirth looked to Eastern religions for inspiration; the label released Albert Ayler’s Love Cry in ’67, Alice Coltrane’s Monastic Trio in ’68, and Pharoah Sanders’ Karma in ’69. Psychedelic music blossomed, mixing old musical elements with new electronic effects. Thiele even dusted off his clarinet and recorded himself with old pal Steve Allen and “his New Happy Times Orchestra featuring the Sunflower Singers” for an LP ultimately released as Do the Love. (Though the LP was released—and quickly disappeared—on ABC, Thiele was not above trend-chasing; as Michael Cuscuna wrote, “along the way, there were also many forgettable commercial jazz albums [released on Impulse] that were artistically abysmal…and temporal lapses of taste became beneficially forgotten.”)
As the ’60s drew to a close, a new form of youth music—dubbed underground or simply rock—was growing faster than ever. To his eternal regret, Thiele looked back in 1971, admitting, “I had a difficult time convincing the company of the validity of the new rock. I wanted the company to sign Big Brother, Quicksilver, Steve Miller and Blue Cheer. They turned these artists down, but permitted me to record the Free Spirits with Larry Coryell and a San Francisco group, Salvation. They OK’d these two because they were less expensive to record.”
Had Thiele signed and produced Janis Joplin, Big Brother’s legendary lead singer, rock history—and the fortunes of ABC and Impulse—might have been vastly different. But there’s little doubt that Newton, and many other label executives, simply laughed when they read of Columbia Records’ folly in offering Big Brother & the Holding Company a then unheard-of $250,000 advance. Little did they realize that the age of checkbook A&R was only beginning.
In 1967, the same year Joplin & Co. cashed their quarter-million-dollar check, John Coltrane was still signed to a generous-for-jazz contract, doing relatively well with an annual advance of more than $20,000 and royalties from a series of consistently selling albums. Ultimately, that contract proved the label’s most valuable commodity. He was the only artist to have been with Impulse almost since its inception, and his titles outsold all others on the label. Among jazz and nonjazz fans, he was more popular than ever. As he transcended categories he rose above the various battles that raged around him, as Thiele describes: “Coltrane was not one of these ‘haters’—anti-establishment guys. Coltrane was playing music and that was it. I never heard him say two words about social problems or economic problems. He gained freedom from all of that through his music.”
Coltrane’s presence proved a unifying factor at ABC. Newton still lauds the saxophonist as “a tremendous piece of talent. He was our leading jazz artist, far and away. We had some good players, we had Max Roach, but no one like Trane.”
To Thiele, Coltrane was his banner artist and ultimately a personal guide. It was their unlikely, Zenlike, student/master union that shaped Impulse into a musical force and an enduringly valuable catalog. “Even to this day I thank Coltrane for being,” he said toward the end of his life. “Because he carried me on into jazz music. I think I would have just faded away—I was a swing cat, you know.”
The Persistence Of Impulse
ABC . . . MCA . . . GRP . . . UMG . . . VMG . . . the ticker of initials represents a continuing series of record companies that serve to chart the up-and-down fortunes of the Impulse imprint. While the recorded legacies of, say, Miles Davis and Dave Brubeck enjoy the benefits that a long-standing label like Columbia Records can offer, the Impulse catalog—especially the music produced while Coltrane was alive—bounced from one corporate parent to another from the ’70s on. “An orphan child,” as producer Esmond Edwards puts it.
Yet, under one label name or another, that part of the Impulse legacy has never left the retail racks. Says producer Ed Michel of his late-’60s stint with the company: “Impulse had a fairly sizable catalogue with over a hundred records and it was clear that sales pretty much broke down 50-50 between new releases and reissues. Something new might do OK, but Trane always did well. His records were the backbone of the catalogue. Impulse was absolutely ‘The House That Trane Built.’ ”
After Coltrane’s passing in 1967, changes swept Impulse. In ’68, the entire company—redubbed ABC-Dunhill after merging with a hit-heavy pop label—moved to Los Angeles, where Dunhill co-founder Jay Lasker took the helm from Larry Newton. The following year, Thiele—having launched Bluesway, a blues-focused imprint for ABC, but still knocking heads with his higher-ups—left the company and struck off on his own. Impulse’s course was left largely in the hands of Michel, who regularly flew to New York to oversee sessions by the label’s remaining stars: Pharoah Sanders, Archie Shepp, Alice Coltrane and Albert Ayler.
Michel describes the scene:
“Dunhill was so thoroughly dominating sales of the ABC labels—between Steppenwolf, Three Dog Night and the Mamas and the Papas—they became the tail that was wagging the dog. Jay was clearly the best record man they had and Howard Stark was the vice-president in charge of many things, and Impulse was one of his babies. ABC had had enough of Thiele, so he was out. We had an office in Beverly Hills, on South Beverly Drive and that was the big revolution: suddenly this was not a New York-based label anymore.”
In 1971, a rock-promotion specialist with a penchant for jazz joined Michel. “Steve Backer is one of the great promotion men. He came out of being one of the top guys for Elektra,” Michel says. Fresh from a more youthful environment promoting the Doors, Paul Butterfield Blues Band and Carly Simon, Backer was unprepared for the boardroom dichotomy he encountered at ABC.
“Jay Lasker was an old-school tough guy, a Damon Runyon-esque individual, and he set the tone,” Backer says. “At the conference room table there would be sharkskin suiters with pinky rings on one side, and the guys with long hair and beads on the other. Of course, it’s been the same tightrope walk between art and commerce for the last 40 years; only the hairstyles and dress codes have changed. But that was ABC then.”
Backer entered the picture at a time when rock music was big business and getting bigger, yet still open to creative influences like jazz. Coltrane’s campus appeal, inferred by Thiele in the mid-’60s, had spread to an entire generation by the onset of the ’70s. To promote wider label recognition, Backer created a number of Impulse samplers—in the label’s standard gatefold covers—featuring trippy cover art and era-appropriate titles such as Irrepressible Impulses, Impulsively! and Energy Essentials.
“We’d try to use Trane wherever possible like on the various artist samplers that we did,” Backer says. “I’m really proud of the sequencing I did on the fourth side [of Essentials], which starts with ‘Acknowledgement’ from A Love Supreme, goes into Pharaoh’s ‘The Creator Has a Master Plan’ and then a cut by Michael White called ‘John Coltrane Was Here.’ ”
Backer also produced a wildly popular national tour of rock and campus venues, placing Impulse’s veterans (Sanders, Ayler, Alice Coltrane) and label newcomers (bassist Charlie Haden, keyboardist Keith Jarrett, saxophonist Gato Barbieri) in front of open-eared, youthful audiences.
“The tickets were a dollar or something, and it was in the middle of January and it was freezing and still it was a mob scene,” Backer says. “I got WBCN—the biggest rock station in New England, where the general manager was a huge fan of Trane—to get the word out. It was just magnificent players: Pharaoh Sanders, Alice Coltrane with an entire band—Ben Riley and Charlie Haden. Keith Jarrett played with Paul Motian and Dewey Redman. Gato Barbieri played with Argentineans, who we brought in.”
Though other jazz artists—Miles Davis, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Cannonball Adderley—had been the first to break into the rock arena when they played the Fillmore auditoriums in New York and San Francisco, nothing as ambitious or directed as the Impulse tour had ever been ventured. Its unexpected success helped sell Impulse albums, and earned Backer a promotion to general manager of the label. With signing power, as he says, “I built up the label successfully. The press was very much behind my signings—Gato Barbieri, Keith Jarrett, Dewey Redman, Marion Brown, Sam Rivers, John Klemmer.”
In style and avant-garde spirit, the artists on Impulse during the early ’70s pursued a direction first described by Coltrane a decade before. It was a conscious decision, Backer admits: “My thinking process was motivated by John Coltrane, and I was trying to bring this record label into his image, artist-wise. But I really wasn’t looking for the next John Coltrane; I was looking for artists that were affected and impacted in certain ways by him, but who also stood on their own as individuals.”
Sadly, the second golden age of Impulse occupied a narrow window of time. “It was quite a successful period, and it lasted two or three years,” Backer notes, but a paucity of best-sellers from the pop side of the company—Steely Dan was ABC’s sole hit act during that period—meant “you feel it in the jazz end.” Backer read the writing on the wall when Lasker began pestering him about the success of another jazz label, run by the same man who had founded Impulse—Creed Taylor.
“By 1974, the pressure to equal the success of Creed Taylor at [his record label] CTI—and the lack of success ABC was having on a pop level—all put a different spin on being able to move forward at the pace that I wanted,” Backer says. “I loved CTI’s records—Freddie Hubbard’s Red Clay, Grover Washington Jr.’s stuff—it was highly produced and highly glossed. The packaging was the Impulse idea taken to the extreme, but the artistry and the production work was different than everybody else in jazz at that point. CTI was the beginning of the entire fusion situation.”
Taylor’s formula had been to hire a tight cadre of jazz veterans (Milt Jackson, Stanley Turrentine, Hank Crawford, Hubert Laws, Ron Carter) with an updated repertoire of “standards” (well-known rock and pop melodies, funk-driven originals) and add a polished veneer of string arrangements and pop sensibility. CTI’s unabashed commerciality met critical reproach, solid sales and caught Lasker’s attention: “I remember one meeting specifically, because Jay had a way of mispronouncing artists’ names, and so he started by saying, ‘You know what Steve? Creed Taylor is really doing well—I should have listened to you, we should have signed that Chuck Corea and Stanley Turpentine” [laughs]. I said, ‘Yeah, I guess we should’ve, Jay.’”
By 1974, Backer left Impulse to pursue a leading jazz role at the newly formed Arista Records; a year later, ABC hired Esmond Edwards—a 20-year industry veteran who happened to have helped produce Coltrane’s very first album for Prestige—to take over. But the palpable spirit of Coltrane—and general support of jazz—had all but disappeared. Remembers Edwards: “People weren’t running around with banners saying, ‘Let’s do something with John!’ and I certainly didn’t devote a lot of time to delving into the Coltrane catalog. I always felt that John had a really nice approach to the ballad; that’s why we did that one album, The Gentle Side of John Coltrane.”
Besides overseeing continuing efforts by Keith Jarrett, Sam Rivers and others, Edwards managed to land one more popular hit for Impulse. “I brought [saxophonist] John Handy to the label, and we did ‘Hard Work,’ which was a pretty big R&B/pop single.” But as ABC was locked in a downward financial spiral, trying to save money while looking for another major rock act, “jazz was something that they did like going to church on the weekend,” Edwards says. “I only went there with a two-year deal, and when my contract was about to expire—when the label was about to expire—that’s when ABC was sold to MCA [in 1979].”
Once the dust of the takeover had settled, MCA, a massive rock-oriented company, called in Michael Cuscuna, a former deejay and noted jazz producer, to help them figure out what they had acquired. Cuscuna, the teenage enthusiast whose passion had steered his career from late-night FM jock to record producer to independent reissue expert, had already taken a peek.
“When I first went into the Impulse vaults in 1978, they had been very mistreated,” Cuscuna says. “The tapes had been moved from New York to L.A., so as early as 1969 or ’70 there was already stuff missing. I was able to find a lot of good Coltrane that was unissued and of course I tore the place apart trying to find what I thought was an entire alternate version of A Love Supreme suite, with Archie Shepp and Art Davis, but found nothing.
Cuscuna did find an utterly depressing consequence of ABC’s final, cost-cutting days.
“Some session reels survive: for instance, the actual outtake reels from ’65 [from the sessions for The John Coltrane Quartet Plays, Transition and others]. But other session tapes didn’t. I don’t know whether they were just thrown away to make space in a warehouse somewhere, or whether they were mislaid. I would guess that they weren’t stolen, because they would’ve surfaced in the European bootlegs if they had been.”
The saddest news?
“I’m 99% sure that the master tapes of A Love Supreme were scrapped,” Cuscuna says. “This happened to a lot of popular recordings in the ’70s, not only jazz. They would dub from the original tape, making new masters for fear that the old one was wearing out, oxide was falling off or the splices were getting old and drying up. That’s OK, but often they threw the original away because they didn’t want to double the tape inventory they had!”
Undaunted, Cuscuna persevered, using the most pristine material available, and the arc of the Impulse catalog continued. MCA’s Impulse reissues in the early ’80s were low-budget LP affairs: wafer-thin, low-grade vinyl and no gatefolds.
In 1986, as the digital era arrived, MCA’s Ricky Schultz relaunched the Impulse name, releasing new music by contemporary jazzers like saxist Michael Brecker and pianist Henry Butler, and issuing the first round of Impulse CD reissues, which were on par with their budget vinyl counterparts: LP liner notes photo-reduced to CD booklet size instead of being retypeset; less-than-stellar sound.
In 1990 MCA absorbed GRP—a jazz label founded by keyboardist David Grusin and engineer Larry Rosen—and things improved. GRP took on all of MCA’s jazz efforts, ousting Schultz, but leaving Cuscuna to continue the reissues. Mastering engineer Erick Labson—currently boasting two decades dealing with the Impulse catalog—began handling the analog-to-digital transfers.
“I found it very frustrating, since the original tapes are no longer available to us,” Labson says. “We had to work from second, sometimes third generation masters. Especially in analog format [like reel-to-reel tapes], every additional copy is another generation and it introduces some sort of distortion, minor as it may be. So you get more tape hiss, and you lose clarity and detail with each subsequent tape copy. Coming off the original master is almost always the best, if you want the most original sounding source.”
That said, Cuscuna marvels at how the music on the earliest existing tape still shines through its multigenerational condition. He finds that engineer Rudy Van Gelder—who worked on a majority of Impulse’s ’60s recordings—deserves full credit. “With anything that was recorded at Van Gelder’s [studio] there’s the great sigh of relief, even if it’s a second generation copy. With Rudy’s stuff, it’s not like you have to work to make it sound better; all you have to do is tie your hands behind your back and not fuck it up. It’s that easy.”
Tracing the present state of Impulse necessitates navigating a dizzying series of late-’90s corporate mergers that ultimately created the global media group Vivendi-Universal, which effectively joined MCA with Polygram, another jazz-rich major label. All music-oriented divisions in the conglomerate now operate under the rubric UMG—Universal Music Group—which in turn placed all jazz-related activity in the hands of VMG—the Verve Music Group.
Verve’s business is still primarily the reissue business, the majority of its efforts focused on securing unreleased material and developing new ways to package old titles from a wealth of vintage catalogs: all that was Verve, Mercury and Emarcy now share corporate residency with Decca, Commodore, Chess, GRP and, of course, Impulse. Part of the fallout of the MCA-Polygram merger in 1998 was Impulse being relegated to reissue projects only by February 1999. With the sole exception of McCoy Tyner Plays John Coltrane in 2001, a title tailor-made for the orange-and-black design, Donald Harrison’s Free to Be was the label’s last new release.
Yet even as Verve’s present-day jazz stars—singer-pianist Diana Krall, saxophonist Wayne Shorter, organist Jimmy Smith—add to Verve’s coffers, it is the catalog that still accounts for the majority of the company’s income.
“It can range from roughly 60 to 80 percent, depending on the business year,” states Michael Kauffman, Verve’s senior sales VP. “When we don’t have a big release, a Diana Krall or a George Benson, the catalog sales are going to be higher.” Accordingly, Verve makes sure their leading catalog titles—led by Impulse—are marketed with as high a profile as possible. In 2000, Kauffman reports, “We initiated what we call our top 10 ‘Desert Island’ discs. There’s Ella and Louis, Getz/ Gilberto, Count Basie’s April in Paris, Billie Holiday’s Lady Sings the Blues. But the only person on the list twice is Coltrane: John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman, and of course, A Love Supreme.
Ron Goldstein, Verve president and CEO, highlights Coltrane’s best-known recording as proof of the company’s mission of keeping the best jazz recordings in print. “In the best way possible, A Love Supreme defines our goal of representing jazz music that is both creatively brilliant and commercially successful. It is probably the most important single album under the Verve Music Group umbrella of labels.”
Yet there are still times when the best music and best intentions are simply not enough to make the reissue business an easy one. Take, for example, the recent “Deluxe Editions” of the 1962 albums Coltrane and Ballads, which include the original released material plus a wealth of unused takes and false starts. “In ’98, we put out the popular Classic Quartet box with a great booklet and eight discs,” reports Ken Druker, Verve’s head of catalog development, “and called it The Complete Impulse Studio Recordings.”
Meanwhile, Thiele, who passed away two years previously, had donated his collection of recordings and LPs to his New Jersey high school, which eventually passed the reel-to-reel tapes on to Rutgers University’s Institute for Jazz Studies. There, Institute head Dan Morgenstern auditioned the tapes in 2000 and, realizing that some were never-heard Coltrane session masters, returned them to Verve. Adds Druker: “So we immediately began working on them and scheduled them for release in 2002. They came out and of course the e-mails started—‘Why did we hold these back in ’98?’; ‘Do we know what the word complete means?’ [laughs]. You can’t win.”
“We’re very proud to have the entire range of jazz in our catalogs here at Verve, and Impulse holds a very crucial and unique place,” maintains Druker. “In my opinion, the spirit of the avant-garde and musical exploration of the ’60s and ’70s was best captured at that label.”
Other executives respond with similar diplomacy when asked specifically of Impulse’s relative standing within the company’s overall catalog picture; no one seems willing to grant top-dog status to any one artist, album or label. Nonetheless, a recent visit to Verve’s corporate offices in Manhattan offered a revealing discovery. Hanging in the company’s main boardroom, overlooking sleek furniture, modern stereo equipment and the like, are five portraits and one gold album. All celebrate one artist alone: John Coltrane.
Ironically, as part of a general wave of interest in the label, the titles causing the most derision sell best. In numbers and formats unforeseen decades ago, the demand continues to rise for Impulse titles by Max Roach, J. J. Johnson and Count Basie as much as they do for Alice Coltrane, Yusef Lateef and Albert Ayler. And, of course, John Coltrane. Verve’s commitment seems steady; the label has chosen to not only keep most of its vintage material in print, but even invest in licensing material outside its catalog for release, such as Coltrane’s last recorded performance in 1967 at the Olatunji Cultural Center and his only live performance of A Love Supreme. Verve often solicits support and participation of the Coltrane family in its projects. In 2001, Alice Coltrane penned the liner notes to a single CD collection of Coltrane’s inspirational numbers titled Spiritual, while Ravi Coltrane, John’s oldest surviving son, contributed his own words to the upcoming Deluxe Edition of A Love Supreme.
Near Los Angeles, on a Universal Studios backlot bordering on a handful of sun-baked movie sets, a small warehouse houses most of Verve’s expansive musical archive. There, shelved in a darkened, climate-controlled environment, the sound and soul of Impulse is stored, waiting to be pulled down for the next reissue project. “That is the best source for the music, but the object itself held no fascination for me,” admits now-retired Ed Michel. “I long ago gave up any sense of mysticism associated with it. It’s just a plastic base with metal oxide on it—it’s just a reel of tape.”
Like Michel, others who helped steer Impulse through its 40-year life—Esmond Edwards, Creed Taylor, Steve Backer—have settled into a life of semirepose.
Taylor keeps an office in Manhattan and has seen his publishing holdings blossom anew as the hip-hop world turns to the funk-driven CTI grooves for samples.
Backer is called in intermittently to lend his expertise to catalog projects at Verve, often teaming with Michael Cuscuna (the two worked side-by-side to produce The Classic Quartet box set). H e recently took on the role of executive producer for the reactivated Savoy label.
Cuscuna, who also runs his own jazz imprint, Mosaic, licensing material from a number of jazz catalogs, continues to be the man the sun sees least. The hours locked away in the archives and studios assure his pallor and his reign as the top hands-on reissue specialist, brought in by Sony, Blue Note and Verve to bring to light unheard tracks by Charlie Christian, Wayne Shorter and John Coltrane, to name but a few upcoming projects.
Until the day he died from kidney failure in 1996, Bob Thiele never stopped hustling. Through the ’70s and into the ’90s, he secured financing for a series of labels with colorful names like Flying Dutchman (best known for introducing Gil Scott-Heron’s pre-rap word-jazz fusion), Dr. Jazz and Red Baron. A year before his demise, he co-wrote his autobiography What a Wonderful World with Bob Golden, who recalled that—even at the end of a long career—the producer’s passion was undiminished. “He was one of the great hobbyists, like [jazz producer] John Hammond. From the time he was a teenager, he was always just fascinated with this world of jazz that accepted him and his formative excesses. And he never lost that enthusiasm.”
One noteworthy musician would agree. Ravi Coltrane, in the mid-’90s a young arrival on the jazz scene, was actively dodging a number of generous offers to record an album of his father's music.
"A lot of guys came after me, all with dollar signs in their eyes,” he says. “I had dinner with Bob a few times and he'd always bring it up, but with him it was different. He'd say ‘Come on—it'll be neat.’ I'm sure he was thinking of the sales too, but with him there was this sense of fun—that it’d really be an enjoyable project.”
Of the many who steered Impulse through its four decades, it is arguably the union of Thiele and Coltrane—the confluence of their respective spirits and contributions—that crystallizes what made the label so daring and enduring. Impulse may have been the “House That Trane Built,” but according to Dan Morgenstern, it was Thiele who followed his intuition and allowed it to happen.
“I mean, he didn’t try to tell Trane what to do. I don’t think he could have because basically I don’t think he had any idea of what Coltrane really was doing. But he had enough sense to let him do what he was doing, to package it and promote it. He deserves a lot of credit for that.”
Thank you to Bob Golden, Creed Taylor and Steve Backer for their input and images.
Ashley Kahn is author of the forthcoming A Love Supreme: The Story of John Coltrane’s Signature Album and Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece. He lives in New Jersey and is considering a permanent wardrobe change to orange-and-black to assure a lengthy stay on this planet.
Originally published in September 2002