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The Impulse Records Story: The House That Trane Built

An in-depth look at the genesis and development of the influential jazz record label

Creed Taylor and Freddie Hubbard
Impulse founder Creed Taylor talks to Freddie Hubbard in the late '60s (photo: Chuck Stewart)
Impulse's Bob Thiele talks to John Coltrane at the 1963 recording of John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman
John Coltrane and Bob Thiele take a break from recording in Rudy Van Gelder's studio in the early 1960s
Bob Thiele signs Archie Shepp to an Impulse contract in 1964
Bob Thiele and Yusef Lateef

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 DownBeat 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.'” Originally Published

Ashley Kahn

Ashley Kahn is a Grammy-winning American music historian, journalist, producer, and professor. He teaches at New York University’s Clive Davis Institute for Recorded Music, and has written books on two legendary recordings—Kind of Blue by Miles Davis and A Love Supreme by John Coltrane—as well as one book on a legendary record label: The House That Trane Built: The Story of Impulse Records. He also co-authored the Carlos Santana autobiography The Universal Tone, and edited Rolling Stone: The Seventies, a 70-essay overview of that pivotal decade.