Jazz historian Fernando Ortiz de Urbina writes in tribute to master producer Creed Taylor.
With few exceptions, producers of jazz recordings wrestle with the question of how to take it to the masses, how to make it more palatable. Given the fickleness of audiences, this may seem futile or even counterproductive. As an American art-form, jazz is typically subject to the tension between art and commerce, a tightrope few have trodden as ably as Creed Taylor, who passed away on 22 August. He was 93.
Even though he would make his name in New York City, Taylor came from the unlikely background of farm life in the middle of Virginia, bluegrass territory in terms of music, from which he was lured away to jazz through radio. He learned to play the trumpet and read music, and after two years in the Army during the Korean War, he enrolled at Duke University to study medicine and ended with a degree in psychology—not inconvenient for his future career—and the determination to make it as a producer, a job he knew nothing about.
Taylor’s knack for jazz, business savvy, networking ability and conviction made him a success almost from the beginning. As he arrived in New York in 1953, he persuaded the owner of struggling label Bethlehem Records to abandon the 78 RPM record for the 10-inch LP and let him record singer Chris Connor as a duet with pianist Ellis Larkins. It worked, and Taylor never looked back.
For the following twenty-odd years, at Bethlehem, ABC-Paramount, Impulse!, Verve, A&M, and finally his own CTI and Kudu, Taylor was a commercial success. His productions, although musically diverse, showed common traits: exquisite sound, attention to graphic design, from Burt Goldblatt’s covers for Bethlehem, to the black/orange spines of Impulse! gatefolds and the lush colours of CTI sleeves, his knack for naming every single musician present, including string sections, and closing album credits with a stamp of his signature.
Those credits, as well as the leading names on the album covers, show Taylor’s long-standing affinity with, and staunch loyalty to, certain musicians and sound engineers. Both Kai Winding and Urbie Green, great trombonists but hardly household names today, led albums on three or more labels with Taylor at the helm. Pianists Bill Evans and Wynton Kelly were regulars too, be it as leaders or as sidemen. Wes Montgomery greatly benefited from his association with the producer, ended only by his untimely death, as did the notoriously difficult Stan Getz. In both cases, Taylor produced not only big-selling crossover albums—jazzed-up pop songs with strings for Montgomery, bossa nova for Getz—, but also artistic milestones like Montgomery’s Smokin’ at the Half Note, a stepping stone for all jazz guitar players this side of 1965, or Focus, a carte blanche exercise of sax and strings much closer to Bartók than to Mantovani.
The overwhelming success of The Girl of Ipanema may have stirred Taylor towards more ambitious commercial goals. His productions for Herb Alpert’s A&M label – for whom he was working when he started his own imprint CTI, later to become an independent label – maintain all that care for execution, sound and visuals, but certainly veer explicitly towards popular appeal, something that may have bothered some fans, but hardly any of the artists making a living from those records.
His work at A&M, then at CTI and Kudu, regularly receives a lot of attention, and justly so, given its popularity at the time, be it Deodato’s reading of Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra or Grover Washington’s Mr. Magic, but those commercial hits, unlikely in the years of disco and jazz-fusion, shouldn’t obscure the artistic magnitude of Taylor’s work and his ear for talent in straight-ahead jazz.
Take This Is How I Feel About Jazz, Quincy Jones’s debut as a leader in 1956, at age 23, a Taylor production at ABC-Paramount: it is a half-forgotten jewel from a particularly dense period of jazz in terms of excellence. Also from 1956 and produced by Taylor at the label were records not to be overlooked by bassist Oscar Pettiford—another close friend— as leader or sideman, including two volumes of Lucky Thompson featuring Oscar Pettiford (reissued on CD as Tricotism) with its astounding sax-guitar-bass trios.
It was at ABC where Taylor earned enough clout to start a jazz imprint, Impulse!, where he only produced the first six LPs before he went to Verve (just sold by Norman Granz to MGM). Those include Oliver Nelson’s masterpiece The Blues and the Abstract Truth, Out of the Cool by Gil Evans—who would return to Taylor on Verve with his own The Individualism of Gil Evans and his arrangements for Kenny Burrell’s Guitar Forms—, and John Coltrane’s Africa/Brass. Having seen Coltrane perform at the Village Vanguard several times, Taylor had signed him for the new label and produced his debut there, which set the course for the rest of Coltrane’s musical life and a run of seminal albums.
Fernando Ortiz de Urbina (@fer_urbina on Twitter) is a jazz historian and commentator, and contributes regularly to Spanish-language podcast Club de Jazz.
Creed Bane Taylor V. Born Lynchburg, Virginia, US, 13 May 1929,. Died Winkelhaid, Bavaria, Germany 22 August 2022
UPDATE: Fernando has continued to think about Creed Taylor with a thread / playlist on Twitter.
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