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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

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 the 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 re-typeset; 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.” 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.