Creed Taylor, a groundbreaking jazz record producer and executive who founded two of the most highly influential record labels in the music, died August 22 in Winkelhaid, Germany. He was 93.
His death was announced in a social media statement by Impulse! Records, one of the two companies Taylor created (in 1960). His son John W. Taylor told the Associated Press that the cause of death was heart failure related to a stroke.
After Impulse!—which, with John Coltrane as its flagship artist, became the primary exponent of jazz’s 1960s “New Thing” and a champion of progressive musicians—Taylor founded CTI Records in 1967, which became equally iconic as an outlet for jazz fusion in the 1970s (and paved the way for the development of smooth jazz).
In between the two ventures, Taylor served as a staff producer for Verve Records, where he was the conduit for introducing bossa nova to the United States by working with guitarist Charlie Byrd, saxophonist Stan Getz, and songwriter Antônio Carlos Jobim. He also worked at Bethlehem, ABC-Paramount, and A&M Records.
Journalist Marc Myers called Taylor “[o]ne of the unsung heroes of jazz history.”
“For over 60 years, Creed Taylor expanded the horizons of jazz,” Impulse! said in its August 23 statement. “He was a genius when it came to finding new and special music that would stay with listeners forever, and his signature was his personal stamp of approval.”
Creed Bane Taylor, Jr. was born May 13, 1929 in Campbell, Virginia, and grew up shuttling back and forth between nearby Bedford and White Gate, 120 miles to the west. His father, Creed Sr., owned a flour mill in Giles County, Virginia, and his mother, Nina, was a housewife.
Despite growing up in the mountains of Virginia, Taylor from childhood held country and bluegrass music in disdain. He preferred the big bands he heard on the radio, then the bebop that he heard emanating from Symphony Sid’s broadcasts on WJZ in New York. He played trumpet in his high-school band, then went on to study psychology at Duke University. In 1951, Taylor was drafted into the Marine Corps, and while stationed at San Diego’s Camp Pendleton would drive up each weekend to the famous Lighthouse jazz club in Hermosa Beach, California.
After seeing combat in the last year of the Korean War, Taylor was discharged and moved to New York City in 1954. He had the notion of becoming a jazz record producer, despite not even knowing what the work entailed. “I was just convinced I could do it,” he told Myers. “I had this drive. It was a mix of naiveté and positive thinking.” In New York, he went to the struggling Bethlehem label and convinced them to belatedly make the transition to the new long-playing album format. His first production for the label was vocalist Chris Connor’s Lullabye of Birdland, whose success helped to revive Bethlehem’s finances and elevated Taylor to the label’s A&R head.
After two years, however, he moved to ABC-Paramount Records, then just starting up. Taylor produced a wide variety of records, including albums of World War I songs and drinking songs, along with jazz albums by Kenny Dorham and Quincy Jones. He gradually came to specialize in jazz, and in 1960 convinced company vice-president Harry Levine to let him spin off a dedicated jazz label. Initially his hope for Impulse! was just to escape ABC-Paramount’s packaging strictures (via his stark orange-and-black color scheme and gatefold covers), but the label quickly gained cache for its progressive musical choices. Taylor remained at Impulse! long enough for six releases, three of which—Gil Evans’ Out of the Cool, Oliver Nelson’s The Blues and the Abstract Truth, and John Coltrane’s Africa/Brass—were among the most forward-thinking of the era.
Just after finishing the Coltrane album, Taylor jumped ship again, this time to Verve. The next year, he produced Stan Getz and Charlie Byrd’s Jazz Samba, followed by Getz/Gilberto in 1964, as well as albums by Jimmy Smith, Wes Montgomery, and Bill Evans. He took Montgomery with him to A&M Records in 1967.
Shortly after starting work with A&M, Taylor created another label under its aegis, Creed Taylor Inc. (CTI) Records, which he soon spun off into independence. CTI quickly established a signature sound of its own, with electrified jazz meeting the lush arrangements of Don Sebesky; the label released key albums by Ron Carter, Freddie Hubbard, George Benson, and Grover Washington Jr., among many others.
The label went bankrupt in 1978; Columbia bought it out, and Taylor temporarily retired from production throughout the 1980s. He returned in the ’90s, signing talents such as Charles Fambrough and Larry Coryell to CTI. More recent years, however, were spent supervising the reissues of classic CTI recordings, as well as a few tours with ensembles called the CTI All Stars.
Taylor is survived by his second wife, Harriet Schmidt; his son John, along with two other sons from his first marriage, Creed Taylor VI and Blakelock Taylor; a daughter from his second marriage, Courtney Taylor Prince; and five grandchildren.