One of the challenges I increasingly face, just as any historian who teaches faces, is how best to describe greatness to progressively younger students who weren’t there when it happened. One thing I explain is that true and lasting musical significance is much more than the number of hits or awards. It can be more accurately felt in a before-and-after fashion: first the world is listening to music in one fashion, then someone comes along with a sound and approach and suddenly there’s an entirely new way of listening.
Creed Taylor’s impact is of this category, by virtue of the music he produced, the labels he ran, the LPs (CDs at the close of his career) that he brought to market—all actions that effectively elevated jazz into the mainstream. Some of those albums stand among the most significant of the 20th Century: Oliver Nelson’s The Blues and The Abstract Truth, Freddie Hubbard’s Red Clay, John Coltrane’s Africa/Brass, Antonio Carlos Jobim’s Wave, Lambert, Hendricks and Ross’s Sing a Song of Basie, Ray Charles’s Genius + Soul = Jazz. At least two singles can in fact be gauged by pop-chart numbers, each being huge retail and radio hits: Stan Getz’s “Girl from Ipanema,” from his Getz/Gilberto album for Verve in 1964; and Eumir Deodato’s “Also Sprach Zarathrustra (2001)” from Prelude for CTI in 1973.
Creed Bane Taylor hailed from Lynchburg, Virginia, grew to play trumpet and loved big-band arrangements—Claude Thornhill was an early favorite—and fell under the spell of bebop, eventually making his way to New York City in 1954, determined to succeed as a producer in the music world. He was quiet, culturally attuned to the latest sounds (Cool vocalist Chris Connor was an early success) and became adept at navigating between the studio and record company offices, negotiating art and commerce. He had a knack for catchy album titles and for creating memorable, frame-worthy covers. As soft-spoken as he was in person—true to his country roots—he wanted his productions to boldly reach as expansive an audience as possible, without compromising the music.
Back then, when you bought an album with Creed’s signature on it you knew it was going to be top-quality on all levels, with at least two or three tracks you’d be grooving to for a long time to come. Today, try pulling out a copy of—or streaming—Stanley Turrentine’s Sugar, Jim Hall’s Concierto, or Freddie Hubbard’s First Light. It all sounds as fresh and sharp and invigorating as freshly pressed coffee. The CTI sound prevails, Taylor’s impact still with us.
Taylor was not an easy interview even when the subject was his own history. He was not one to look back, even in his semi-retirement. He was more interested in speaking about recent things, young musicians or technological innovations. Back in 2011, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Impulse Records, Taylor spoke of the jazz imprint he had started at ABC Records; his statement serves as a summation of the philosophy that helped guide a career and yield so much enduring music.
“I believe [Impulse] came along at a very special, fertile period, when it was easier for jazz to be considered popular music. Not ‘pop’ music but carefully crafted recorded material, for people who were open to discovering new music…it went beyond jazz. I remember when we were in the studio recording Out Of The Cool, Gil Evans told me, “People bug me all the time asking me how did I become a jazz arranger. I tell them, I don’t play jazz. I play popular music. Music of our time.”