Ashley Kahn, author of The House That Trane Built: The Story of Impulse Records

July 29th, 2006

Following the path of its star musician John Coltrane, Impulse Records cut a creative swath through the 1960s and 1970s with the politically charged avant-garde jazz that defined the label’s musical and spiritual identity. Ashley Kahn’s The House That Trane Built tells the story of the label, balancing tales of individual passion, artistic vision, and commercial motivation.

 Weaving together research, dynamic album covers, session photographs, and nearly one hundred interviews with executives, journalists, producers, and musicians — from Ray Charles and Alice Coltrane to Quincy Jones, Pharoah Sanders, McCoy Tyner, and others — this is the riveting tale of an era-shaping jazz label in the age of rock. The thirty-eight Album Profiles — a veritable book within a book — offer a consumer’s guide to the best and most timeless titles on Impulse.#

Kahn, whose previous work includes Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece and A Love Supreme: The Story of John Coltrane’s Signature Album, discusses Impulse Records with Jerry Jazz Musician publisher Joe Maita in a July, 2006 interview.

 

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“In its day, Impulse welcomed the rethinking of old formulas, prioritized new sounds and technologies, and treated all of its musicians as innovators, revolutionaries even. Perhaps that’s the label’s true calling card, the real reason behind the continued reverence. From the most traditional jazz to the most innovative and challenging, Impulse made it all sound equally, lastingly modern.”

– Ashley Kahn

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Chasin’ The Trane, by John Coltrane

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JJM  I enjoyed your book quite a bit, Ashley. For one thing, it allowed me to revisit my hippie days in Berkeley, which is when I first discovered John Coltrane, Albert Ayler and many of the great Impulse artists you write about.

AK  Basically, my intent for doing these books — before this books on Kind of Blue and A Love Supreme — is to either get people back to the music they already appreciate, or to introduce it to the uninitiated. The books are not replacements for the musical experience, but it is hoped that they enhance that experience — to deepen the reader’s appreciation and enjoyment of it, and to get people back to it. So, when I hear a comment like yours, that makes me feel good.

JJM What do you remember about the first Impulse record you purchased?

AK  I was first aware of Impulse as a label in 1976 or 1977, when I came across the Mingus Mingus Mingus album at a used record store in Cincinnati. It is strange because, at the time, I was totally into punk rock; I was buying Elvis Costello, the Clash, the Sex Pistols — those guys were my heroes, yet here I was in a used record store, holding this Mingus album in my hands. I knew about Mingus from my general music interest and through college radio in Cincinnati, and I was drawn to this high quality album cover.

As other people have told me while I was researching this book, this high quality comes through when you are holding an Impulse record — the thick vinyl itself, the orange and black spine, and the full bleed glossy cover stood out from all the others at the time. I was struck by the quality, but if the music within the grooves doesn’t match that elegance of the packaging, then forget about it. But, as I found out, the quality of the music not only matched the quality of the packaging, it totally transcended it. I remember when I came home with that record that day, a friend of my parents’ was visiting who normally hated my music — usually referring to it as “that rock ‘n roll stuff” — but when she heard “Mood Indigo” on the Mingus album, she started singing the words to it. I had no idea what “Mood Indigo” was — not that it was a Duke Ellington classic, or that it even had a lyric. When she started singing the words I thought this music was a way to connect with the older generation.

JJM  Was Impulse your introduction to jazz?

AK  No, I wouldn’t give Impulse sole credit for my interest in jazz, but as I got more interested in it, I remember a store clerk practically shoving A Love Supreme into my shopping bag at another used record store in Cincinnati, which was about the time I was leaving for college. I couldn’t listen to it more than once because I didn’t understand it. But by my sophomore year of college, it was glued to my turntable.

JJM  Little did you know at that time this music and this label would be a major focus of your life…

AK  Exactly. Be careful what you do when you’re a teenager, because it may follow you like a rabid dog!

JJM  The press release for your book states that “the most exciting jazz of the 1960s and ’70s wore orange and black, the colors made famous by Impulse Records.” How was the music that Impulse produced more exciting than that of other jazz labels of that era?

AK  A major difference between Impulse and some of the other jazz labels we sort of “get down on our knees to” and get reverential about — Blue Note, Riverside, Prestige, etcetera — is that those labels started out as independents, while Impulse was part of ABC-Paramount and thus had major label backing. Those other labels were basically run by music-lover hobbyists who either ran a record store or were somehow teaching themselves the business as they went along. That is the independent story everyone knows and reveres. Impulse, on the other hand, was born in the “belly of the beast,” in the middle of the “evil empire” — the music corporation called ABC-Paramount. So, some of the profits generated by the likes of Eydie Gourmet, Frankie Avalon, and Paul Anka were used by this very enterprising young ABC staff producer named Creed Taylor to begin a label dedicated to jazz.

Before Impulse, jazz on major labels like Columbia or RCA was simply put on the same label as the pop, classical or country stars. For example, all of the Miles Davis albums that came out of the fifties and sixties had the same imprint as artists like Johnny Mathis and Doris Day. ABC-Paramount, on the other hand, decided to create a label dedicated to jazz, which was left in the hands of Taylor until Coltrane’s Africa/Brass album came out, which is when Bob Thiele came in. Thiele was incredibly dedicated to all kinds of jazz — to the old time swing stuff as well as to the “New Thing,” as it was called — so that when he came in, he tried anything and everything. So that’s the long answer to your short question. Impulse was different from other labels in the sixties and seventies because, during this golden age of jazz, when everything from Louis Armstrong to Albert Ayler was alive and vibrant, they worked harder than anyone else at embracing all styles.

JJM  What was Creed Taylor’s original vision for Impulse?

AK  Creating quality productions inside quality packaging. He always points to the Jazz at the Philharmonic recordings — the unrehearsed jam sessions, the head arrangements made up in studio — as examples of the antithesis of what he was about. He preferred a well-rehearsed and well-arranged production with an “A” player, presented to the world in a top-tier package.

JJM Creed Taylor’s vision for Impulse was that it could be a label where someone with the creativity of a John Coltrane could pursue his art unencumbered…

AK  Yes. By the time Coltrane came to the label, they were thinking of him as a contracted artist who would grow within the Impulse home, which could act like a greenhouse for creative individuals like him. I recently met some guys who worked in the legal department of ABC/Paramount at the time, and they said that Thiele served as a buffer between the ABC/Paramount top brass who wanted nothing but pop hits, and the jazz people who wanted to sell records, but that was not their primary goal.

JJM  What did he do prior to working at Impulse?

AK  He was an in-house producer at ABC-Paramount recording pop as well as jazz. In his words, he “snuck jazz in when I could.” Before ABC, he worked as independent producer at Bethlehem, recording people like Oscar Pettiford and the singer Chris Connor, who he had a big hit with.

JJM  You wrote, “The trust Taylor earned in-house at ABC-Paramount reached the jazz community as well.” How did he gain the musician’s trust?

AK  He was a musician himself — he played trumpet. Also, he had been around awhile as a producer, and created nice recordings of Art Farmer, Quincy Jones, and others. The other thing about him is that he has this quiet, southern demeanor that communicates respect when he talks to you, which runs sort of counter to the usual “in your face” style of other music business executives. So, he was a refreshing change from the typical streetwise approach, and to this day he is very respectful. Now, underneath that he was a corporate survivalist — he knew how to maneuver through the corporate machine to get what he needed. He could find his allies and work them.

JJM Taylor went off to become head of Verve Records, which opened the door for Bob Thiele.

AK  Bob had been a journeyman producer of sorts in the world of jazz — he was born under the sign of swing, but went into the world of pop music. By the fifties he was having hits with the McGuire Sisters and Theresa Brewer — whom he later married — and even with Mickey Mantle. He also had some mainstream projects that made him a little bit of money, one of them with some crazy rock ‘n roll kid from Clovis, Texas named Buddy Holly. He was actually Holly’s first producer, and he also ended up producing Jackie Wilson. By the end of the fifties, he was hopping from one label to another before he got to ABC-Paramount.

When Creed Taylor left in 1961 and ABC needed to find someone to run their jazz label, there was really only one guy who had any jazz experience or sensibility, and that was Thiele. But by that time he had been away from jazz for quite some time, and within one week of his start at Impulse, his very first project was Coltrane’s Live at the Village Vanguard. Can you imagine starting at Impulse, and the last time you checked in with jazz you were digging Pee Wee Russell, and the next thing you are hearing is “Chasin’ The Trane“?  Thiele had his head turned around by this.

JJM  You wrote, “The working relationship between Coltrane and Thiele is the primary thread of the Impulse saga, telling the unlikely tale of a musician who led and a producer who trusted instinct and learned to follow.” What was their relationship like?

AK  It was something that developed over time. Since Thiele was willing to ask questions and listen, that must have impressed Coltrane because it was different than most of his previous musical or business experiences. Within the first two years of their working together, it had already become a very cooperative venture. Bob noticed that Coltrane was selling records despite the critical storm they created — a storm that began right around the time of the release of Live at the Village Vanguard. At one point, in a very famous article, Downbeat allowed Coltrane and Eric Dolphy to answer their critics, in which Coltrane basically said he is not angry, that he thinks the music he is creating is beautiful, and that he planned to push forward with it.

But Thiele still wanted Coltrane to record music for what he perceived to be the mainstream audience, so he suggested he do a ballads album, which he did, and he suggested he do an album with a singer, and Coltrane came up with the idea of the Johnny Hartman pairing. Thiele also suggested he do an album with Duke Ellington — and what jazz guy would turn that opportunity down? The mutual confidence and mutual respect that developed between them is on a different level than the normal “business as usual” of the music business, which is one of the things that caught my editorial eye. Thiele was willing to set aside all of the assumptions concerning what is mainstream music and what should be done in the studio, and allow Coltrane to lead the way. Their relationship is a big part of the story of Impulse.

 

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