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Creed Taylor

Creed Taylor is best known for his CTI label of the 1970s, but he has been important in the jazz recording industry for quite some time.

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The Bethlehem Years

Creed Taylor is best known for his CTI label of the 1970s, but he has been important in the jazz recording industry for quite some time. He played trumpet early on before becoming the head of A&R at Bethlehem Records in 1954. Taylor was at Bethlehem during its two most significant years, recording such artists as Chris Connor, Oscar Pettiford, Ruby Braff, Carmen McRae, Charles Mingus, Herbie Mann and the J.J. Johnson-Kai Winding Quintet. In 1956, Taylor switched to ABC-Paramount, and in 1960 founded its Impulse subsidiary. ~ Excerpt courtesy of Scott Yanow

The Impulse Years

Impulse Records was formed in 1960 by Creed Taylor, then a producer at ABC-Paramount Records. Fired by the idea of a label dedicated to tasteful, current jazz, Taylor twisted arms until the management at ABC-Paramount gave in. The result was the label Taylor dubbed “The New Wave in Jazz.”

The label gained immediate credibility when Taylor released gate-fold albums by Ray Charles, Gil Evans, Kai Winding and J.J. Johnson and Oliver Nelson. This group of albums was so successful that it blurred the lines between jazz and popular music even in the minds of record distributors, which was then, as now, no mean feat. Taylor's biggest coup at Impulse was the signing of John Coltrane over from Atlantic. Trane recorded over 20 albums with Impulse before his death in 1967. The presence of Coltrane and the label's superb productions values became the hallmarks of Impulse records.

Taylor knew that people would judge an album by its cover, and Impulse covers were designed as works of art to be worthy of the music that they contained. Many featured covers by photographer Pete Turner, and others the more style-driven work of photographer Arnold Newman.

The Verve Years

Although he signed John Coltrane for Impulse in 1960, Taylor soon left to accept a job with Verve. Among his successes as a producer during the next five years were with the Stan Getz bossa nova records, sets by Jimmy Smith, and work with Wes Montgomery. At A&M from 1967-69, Taylor's productions were often quite commercial, with the frequent use of strings and pop tunes, including Wes Montgomery's final three albums and some early efforts by George Benson; it was as if Taylor was searching for the formula he was later to perfect. ~ Scott Yanow

The CTI Years

In 1970, he founded CTI (Creed Taylor Inc.), and for much of the decade, Taylor had great success in balancing the artistic with the commercial. Among the artists who recorded some of their finest work for Taylor during this period were Freddie Hubbard, Stanley Turrentine, George Benson and Hubert Laws; the Kudu subsidiary had funkier but no less successful projects by Grover Washington Jr. and Hank Crawford among others. ~ Scott Yanow

CTI Jazz

You know us•especially if you've been following our weekly Z Train columns. We're total gung-ho about Jazz Radio championing as much new music on the air as possible. Still, it was a pleasant surprise to listen to and reexamine the eight latest CTI reissues: George Benson's Body Talk; Johnny Hammond's Breakout on the soul jazz label, Kudu; Antonio Carlos Jobim's Stone Flower; Hubert Laws' jazz classical romp, Rites of Spring; Power of Soul by Idris Muhammad; Milt Jackson's collaboration with Hubert Laws entitled Goodbye; and Joe Farrell's fusionary Moon Germs. And to sum it all up, there's The Master Collection, a masterful two-CD anthology compiled by London BBC radio deejay Peter Young, which catapulted us back nostalgically to the CTI glory days with tunes ranging from Eumir Deodato's rousing smash-hit crossover “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” to Esther Phillips' chilling version of Gil Scott Heron's junkie confessional, “Home Is Where the Hatred Is.”

These remastered sides document CTI producer/label entrepreneur Creed Taylor's tremendous creative output throughout the 1970s. Sentimentally, many Jazz veterans (ourselves included) have fond memories of the CTI era. It was a golden era for Jazz as well. Groups like Weather Report, Return To Forever and Manhattan Transfer played large concert halls and toured on best-selling gold records that rivaled the finest rock bands of their time.

Outside the vinyl grooves were those trademark high-gloss, thick cardboard gate-fold covers sporting classy photographic art and a chic uniform graphic layout. Inside the grooves was a kicking house band, which featured top players like Ron Carter, Billy Cobham, Cedar Walton and Herbie Hancock. They dared to record covers of ultra-contemporary tunes like Jimi Hendrix's “Power of Soul” or the Mamas and the Papas' “California Dreamin'.” George Benson developed his musical vision on CTI prior to striking multi-platinum with the 1976 breakthrough Warner Bros. recording, Breezin'.

Looking back, CTI made our music a modern sexy commodity, and it became something elementary Jazz fans could wrap their arms around. Deodato's “Zarathustra” bowled over Top 40 radio in its day just as Grover Washington, Jr.'s “Mister Magic” charmed R&B fans worldwide. And many of us could not have cared less if Downbeat had awarded our favorite CTI album a measly one-and-a-half star. It was what it was: brilliant pop experiments in Jazz that reached a grander audience beyond the post-bebop continuum. Sound familiar to anyone?

Still, Creed Taylor had the last laugh on the Jazz police by headlining a roster of mainstream jazz artists like Milt Jackson, Chet Baker and Paul Desmond alongside newer artists like Joe Farrell and Airto Moreira, as well as established players at the time, like George Benson, Freddie Hubbard and Hubert Laws. On a literary side note, when we researched our first book, Rotten, chronicling the Sex Pistols and the late 1970s British punk era, we stumbled upon an interesting muso-socio phenomenon. Back in the early 1970s, before Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious stalked the King's Road in bondage gear and became Sex Pistols, John and Sid and their pre-punk friends danced in an out-of-the-way disco in Ilford called the Lacey Lady. This particular disco was also the hangout of a contingent of young English hoodlums called “Soul Boys.” The Soul Boys, who populated areas outside of London like Essex, were an underground offshoot of the Mods, and their hard-hitting style of dress predated the punks and became their early inspiration in rebellion.

What kind of music did the Soul Boys listen and dance to? Hard rock? Reggae? Nope. Our sources said that the Soul Boys listened almost exclusively to hard funk jazz by people like Hubert Laws and George Benson. Yes, it's true, and if you don't believe us, ask Jean-Paul “Bluey” Maunick of the British Acid Jazz band, Incognito. He was there when it happened.

The current crop of CTI reissues represents a delightful range of titles, like big-beat organist Johnny Hammond's Breakout. Breakout includes two soulful performances of Carole King's “It's Too Late” and features both Grover Washington, Jr. and Hank Crawford on saxophone. The liner notes on Breakout recount a time when the CTI All-Stars showed up for a gig at the Red Rock amphitheatre in Colorado, the same night as concerts by Jefferson Airplane and Jethro Tull. Presale tickets were weak, but the fans showed up. The place sold out and 13,000 kids grooved to the new Jazz sound of the day. It was a magical era when Jazz, previously upended by the rise of progressive and acid rock, fought back mightily. On the other side of this CTI release spectrum is Hubert Laws' pristine classical musings of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, which feature the crisp arrangements of Don Sebesky and a hot lineup including Bob James, Jack DeJohnette and Ron Carter. While George Benson's 1973 effort Body Talk may not be as indispensable as his 1971 CTI effort, White Rabbit, both feature the strong guitar duo of Benson and Earl Klugh.

Today, many contemporary club deejays sample CTI records as voraciously as the Hip-Hoppers sampled the early Tappan Zee classics. Plus, key Smooth Jazz players like Rick Braun, Norman Brown and Kirk Whalum have attempted to recapture the CTI magic onstage and in the studio with mixed success. Looking back, CTI Jazz was markedly different in subtle ways to today's Smooth Jazz. Its artist roster was more eclectic and broad, welcoming older players like Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker alongside contemporary artists like Deodato and Patti Austin. It borrowed as freely from breezy Samba and punchy Big Band as it did from technical Fusion. More important, the assimilation of Funk, Soul and R&B with traditional Jazz chord changes and arrangements seemed more at ease, as did CTI's reliance on mood and opulence.

WBFO-Buffalo programmer Bert Gambini, who currently plays CTI product by Milt Jackson, Paul Desmond and Johnny Hammond, looks back philosophically at the label since its inception thirty years ago. “In evaluating CTI,” says Gambini, “I'm going to borrow the wisdom of Witold Rybczynski, the architectural historian. He felt there was no such thing as a timeless building. Certain structures were admired because they are specifically of their time.

”I think this too is the case with CTI jazz,” continues Bert. “This music screams of its era and that's the reason why it's so enjoyable. It's that temporal stamp that I interpret as an asset, not as a liability. Instead of Creed Taylor, think Glenn Miller for a moment. If you want to aurally represent an era like the early 1940s Swing era, there any better representation than 'In the Mood' or 'String of Pearls?' The same thing applies to Creed Taylor's CTI's brand of Jazz from 1970 to 1980.”

Jazz radio, with its archival powers and its ability to please audiences both historically and chronologically, is in the enviable position to recapture these splendid CTI sides on the air in various configurations. Mix it with the old; mix it with the new. Young and older listeners alike can enjoy Milt Jackson's Sunflower and Antonio Carlos Jobim's Brazil.

In spite of coming from an era that was predominant in Disco glitz, amplified instruments, Jazz Fusion and a wide-open studio jam tradition, the vast majority of these eight recordings hold up marvelously. It wipes away some of the embarrassing aspects of the 1970s and sounds remarkably untarnished for pop Jazz that's over thirty years old.

~ Kent & Keith Zimmerman

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