Thursday, July 18, 2019

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

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

"Once again, Ashley Kahn brings his passion, precision, and graceful writing style to an important jazz subject. The exciting inside story of Impulse Records echoes the incredible music produced by this historic label.”
- Ravi Coltrane

"In the 1960s, Impulse Records was the impossible dream come true: a major label devoted to the adventure and future of jazz. Ashley Kahn brings to life the historic records, courageous musicians, and visionary producers behind that black-and-orange logo with the passion and detail of an epic Coltrane solo."
- David Fricke, Rolling Stone Magazine

"A jazz-lover's delight. "
- Ray Olson, Booklist

"Kahn mingles engaging stories of corporate politics with insider accounts of music-making and anecdotal takes on particular albums. His history of Impulse! is also the story of the genesis of an American art form and the evolution of the record industry through the tumultuous 1960s and will compel readers to seek out this labels masterful albums."

"A particularly worthy addition to any jazz library. "
- Jay Trachtenberg, Austin Chronicle

"[The House That Trane Built] is something of a triumph for its readability, the clear exposition of its story, and the depth of its research. "
- Chris Parker, The Vortex Jazz Club

"Kahn balances high art and pop culture without breaking rhythm." 
- Larry Blumenfeld, Entertainment

"Kahn’s clean writing and deft synthesis of facts, anecdotes, and quotes make the book an enjoyable, informative read. The smart design and scores of photos and graphics make it look good as well." 
- Zan Stewart, San Diego Union-Tribune

Tom Burns, the owner-operator of Capri Records once remarked that he made records that he liked to listen to and I guess a similar motivation holds true for author Ashley Kahn as far as writing books about Jazz is concerned.

Ashley is the author of Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece, A Love Supreme: The Story of John Coltrane's Signature Album, and most recently The House That Trane Built: The Story of Impulse Records.

The House That Trane Built: The Story of Impulse Records was awarded Best Book about Jazz by the Jazz Journalists Association and Best Research in Record Labels by the Association for Recorded Sound Collections (ARSC)

From my perspective during the 1960s, I wasn’t aware of the trend-setting significance of the label.

I collected its recordings selectively - Gil Evans’ Out of the Cool, Oliver Nelson’s Blues and the Abstract Truth, McCoy Tyner’s Reaching Forth, the Johnny Hartman - John Coltrane collaboration - primarily because few of Impulse’s avant garde artist appealed to me. Many of them still don’t. I just didn’t care for how they played Jazz.

But how Impulse Records! came into existence, was maintained and modified by a series of key executives and what the label came to represent makes for a fascinating story, one that Ashley Kahn tells very well.

He explains his approach and why Impulse Records is uniquely significant in the following introductory chapter to the book


The music of a well-ordered age is calm and cheerful, and so is its government. The music of a restive age is excited and fierce, and its government is perverted___
—The Annals of Lu Buwei, quoted in Herman Hesse's Magister Ludi

“Orange and black. Fire and ebony. Fury and pride.

From 1961 through 1976, Impulse Records wore its signature colors proudly and raised its exclamation point high, producing albums with hinged, brightly hued covers that opened wide, attracting generations of listeners into an exciting and far-ranging world of improvised music. The sound in its grooves bristled with the spirit of the sixties, swinging with the musical experimentation and political outrage of the day. To many who made it through the era, the label was an inherent part of the velocity, keeping pace with—and at times predicting—the sound and politics that lay ahead.

"That's where it's at right now," explained Bob Thiele, the veteran record producer who headed Impulse through most of that period, in 1966. "Jazz music has always reflected the times. Today, there are violent social transitions taking place, and these changes that are sometimes confusing come out in musical expression."

But Impulse did so much more than reflect a revolutionary time. It fit perfectly into the golden age of jazz, that brief window from the late fifties to the seventies when more jazz players than ever before (or since) were alive and active, representing every era of the tradition. Think Armstrong to Ayler, swing to the "New Thing." No, Impulse didn't record them all. But it certainly tried harder than any other label, and managed to unify all these styles and approaches into a uniformly modern sensibility that has yet to fade.

Modern enough to still be a leading go-to record label for today's top mixers and hip-hop producers. The proof can be found in the orange-and-black spines peeping out of deejay record crates, and in the Impulse samples popping up in the freshest dance-floor grooves.

Invoke the label to anyone today who is music-aware, not only the jazz-savvy. The typical response mentions the music, the sixties-seventies overlap, and, just as often, fold-out covers and something about orange.

"In school, I could tell how much someone knew his music by the orange I saw on the shelf," states Daniel Richard, a record executive who, among other duties, is responsible for marketing Impulse recordings in France. "There was a certain mystery about those records," says jazz journalist and critic Gary Giddins. "When I was in high school, the question with Impulse was, did you alphabetize them with all the other albums or did you keep them together so you could have the big orange stripe on your wall?"

"The branding was terrific," offers Don Heckman, another veteran jazz critic. "I seem to recall that we were annoyed by the gatefolds initially because it took up more space on the shelves, but then you valued having that additional space for the liner notes and photographs and so forth."

It was branding that reached far beyond the jazz sphere, helped attract a whole new generation to jazz, and burned itself into the public consciousness. The rhythms and freedoms that resounded when Impulse LPs spun on turntables in the sixties and seventies resound as strongly today. In its day, the Impulse logo promised forward-looking music in a design that was unforgettable—and functional.

"Those gatefolds were a wonderful development because they served as a deluxe rolling tray to manicure your marijuana," sixties political gadfly and jazz booster John Sinclair recalls. "The best Impulses had the most seeds stuck in the middle."

At the midpoint of the sixties most jazz record labels were identifiable by a consistent character and style. Columbia, the Tiffany of the lot, was really a general pop music label that boasted an upper tier of post-bebop jazz: Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, and Dave Brubeck. Atlantic balanced modernists like the Modern Jazz Quartet and Rahsaan Roland Kirk with the soul- and blues-tinged sounds of David "Fathead" Newman and Hank Crawford. Verve specialized in vocals and well-crafted productions, finding commercial gold first in the bossa nova craze with Stan Getz and others, then with pop-friendly titles by the likes of Wes Montgomery. Prestige and Blue Note had come to rely primarily on the overlap of hard bop and soul-jazz stars like Gene Ammons, Jimmy Smith, and Lee Morgan. Finally, there was a new crop of experimentalists: Eric Dolphy and Sam Rivers on Blue Note; Albert Ayler and Pharoah Sanders on the tiny ESP label. From the early sixties on, they led a cadre of avant-gardistas (to borrow a term coined by Archie Shepp) who were building a more aggressive stratum atop the innovations laid down in the fifties by Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, Charles Mingus, and John Coltrane.

Impulse stood out from the crowd in a number of significant ways.

Impulse was born fully mature, Athena-like, to the ABC-Paramount Record Corporation, unlike the many celebrated jazz independents like Blue Note and Riverside that struggled to distinction. Impulse rocked to life with a Top Ten pop hit, "One Mint Julep," courtesy of Ray Charles, and never felt dire financial pressures until well into the seventies. Those gatefold covers with glossy photographs did not come cheap — nor did the creative, large-budget recording projects for which the label became known. For Impulse — thinking like an independent and spending like a major — the support of a corporate parent was instrumental and distinctive.

While most groundbreaking labels stay sharp and modern for maybe four or five years, Impulse delivered a cutting edge for an impressive fifteen-year run, absorbing progressively new sounds and innovations, a restless rara avis in an industry where locking into formula is the rule and happens all too quickly. Much of Impulse's later output is still fanatically praised by a portion of fans and musicians, while remaining as divisively controversial today as it was when first released.

Impulse initially stood out from other labels of the day by covering a vast and variegated overview of the music, from swing to the extreme experimental edge of sixties jazz. Eventually, the label fine-tuned its focus almost exclusively on the avant-garde, and distinguished itself further by marketing that music successfully.

How the label was first perceived — and how that perception evolved — is one of the threads binding the Impulse story. At the outset, it was a glossy, well-packaged, and well-produced phenomenon generally hailed in the industry. By the mid-sixties, critics were praising its catholic taste and commercial triumphs, its ability, as one writer said, to "profitably encompass" the range of jazz talent. By the seventies, "it seemed as though Impulse became the label characterized by the angry black tenor man," says producer Ed Michel, who led the label into the rock era. "They weren't all angry, they weren't all black, and they weren't all tenor men, but that was kind of what it appeared to be."

The label's devotion to the mostly African-American, mostly avant-garde players collectively responsible for the last significant leap forward in modern jazz — the point where most jazz histories and timelines tend to end — stands today as one of its most important accomplishments.

"Impulse will always go down in history for having stuck its neck out," says vibraphonist Gary Burton, who saw Impulse recordings serve as primers for students when he was executive vice president of the Berklee College of Music. "It will be remembered for having made a commitment to artists like the Coltranes [John and Alice] and Pharoah Sanders and Archie Shepp and giving them a fair shot at establishing their music before a national audience — which is no small thing."

The label's commitment to music of apparently minimal commercial potential can be traced to the influence of one singular musician, a jazz player who could steer a major commercial enterprise like Impulse Records into its mission and musical identity. It is the most compelling aspect of the Impulse story. It is also the primary motivation for this book.

The name of the musician who proved to be Impulse's best-selling artist and remains its most enduring point of recognition: John Coltrane.

In 1967, the year the celebrated saxophonist died at forty, at the apogee of Impulse's fifteen-year arc, the label had already been dubbed "The House That Trane Built" by a coterie of musicians and music lovers. By then, Coltrane had far transcended mere jazz popularity. His distinctively dark, searching tone and frenetic delivery were reaching a wider range of ears than any other jazz player, save for his former boss, Miles Davis. His Impulse albums had sold tens of thousands of copies — over a hundred thousand in the case of A Love Supreme — attracting a younger generation that also gloried in the sound of rock, folk, electric blues, and other breaking styles of the period.

Could a label have asked for a more timely standard-bearer? Coltrane's breathtaking album-by-album progress matched the top-gear velocity that powered the age. Despite claims to the contrary, the screams and shrieks he summoned from his horn seemed one with the righteous rage and indignation blowing through the sixties. To many, it provided Impulse a political legitimacy and spiritual aura that no marketing department could have manufactured. The timing could not have been better.

"Impulse was there in the right place, at the right time," says Ed Michel. "We were the beneficiary of a cultural deep breath. The culture was very open to the music of Coltrane and his followers."

A majority of Impulse artists who followed Coltrane were in some manner or method swayed by his pioneering approach. One could measure it in the sound Charles Lloyd brought to Chico Hamilton's group, or in Sonny Rollins's edginess on East Broadway Run Down (recorded in the company of Coltrane's own sidemen — bassist Jimmy Garrison and drummer Elvin Jones). Another gauge was the sheer number of Impulse recordings that name-dropped the saxophonist: from the mid-sixties (Yusef Lateefs "Brother John," Elvin Jones's "Dear John C.," Albert Ayler's "For Coltrane") to the late sixties and into the seventies (Alice Coltrane's "Something About John Coltrane," Tom Scott's "With Respect to Coltrane," Michael White's "John Coltrane Was Here," Pharoah Sanders's "Memories of J. W. Coltrane"). Like their predecessor, these musicians were all avant-garde informed (if not outright avant-garde), they were all spirited (if not overtly spiritual), and they all added to Impulse's artistic credibility.

Such was the momentum of Coltrane's creative drive that it propelled Impulse along an experimental path for nearly a decade after his death. Where one had been, many were signed (and re-signed)—Archie Shepp, Albert Ayler, Pharoah Sanders, Marion Brown, Dewey Redman, Gato Barbieri, John Klemmer, Sam Rivers. The label recruited a cadre of spiritually charged, free-blowing saxophonists, determined to keep his sound, and profitability, alive.

Excluding the world of artist-owned labels, there are few parallels in the jazz tradition to the Coltrane-Impulse symbiosis. Not Armstrong, Ellington, or Basie, whose careers spanned decades and multiple label deals. Not Monk, Gillespie, or Parker, whose velocity of stylistic change never matched, or established a body of work equal to, Coltrane's. Not Coltrane himself when, from 1955 to 1960, recording for Prestige, Blue Note, and Atlantic before joining Impulse.

Well, two do come close: it could be argued that a succession of amplified-jazz groups on Columbia Records in the seventies — Herbie Hancock's Head Hunters, Weather Report, the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Return to Forever — was a direct result of Miles Davis's shift to electric jazz in 1968. But that transpired almost two decades into the trumpeter's contract with Columbia, and the company's fascination with fusion did not last long. As well, Cannonball Adderley fulfilled an official artists-and-repertoire (A&R) role at Riverside, suggesting new signings, but his sound did not eventually define that of the label — not nearly as pervasively as Coltrane's did at Impulse.

A more quantifiable measure of Coltrane's stature at Impulse—how his sales figures compared to his labelmates', or to, say, Miles Davis's at Columbia—requires data that are sadly unavailable. During the golden years at Impulse, industry trackers like Cash Box and Billboard did not offer a jazz-specific chart, and any sales reports collected by the label itself are long lost. Nonetheless, through trade reports and anecdotes, musical analysis and historical context, it is possible to paint a vivid and accurate picture of what Impulse and Coltrane accomplished, and how one became the guide and the other followed.

To his fellow artists on Impulse, the man and the label are endurably linked and locked. "If there was an identity to Impulse, that identity for me was forged by Coltrane," states Archie Shepp. "John was the one from the beginning to the end there at Impulse," Alice Coltrane says of her late husband. "He would have recorded on for many more years. Once he had left it wasn't really over. It was never over."

When it comes to the business of recording music, no enterprise is immune to the lure or need of lucre. Record labels established with the purest of motivations learned fast about profit, loss, and keeping their creditors happy, or they just as rapidly disappeared. Conversely, even the most crass and commercial recording company has not been able to leave its mark without delivering music of some quality and value.

Ever since the first musician signed on the dotted line, the music business has been viewed with a wary eye. In a collective sense, the reputation has been earned. Too many tales of willful exploitation litter the history of the industry, too many examples of outright thievery still occur. The story of Impulse offers ample opportunity to commemorate and to criticize.

The whole record industry is ambivalent to start with, because it's dealing in a commodity on a profit level, and yet it's also dealing with art, which is not a commodity, and which is not produced for the purpose of making a profit. I don't know how it can be reconciled, short of a revolution.

Those words belong not to a musician but to a recording industry insider: Bob Thiele. They were spoken in the heady days of 1971, with vocabulary more typical of late sixties Zeitgeist than a man of Thiele's age. At the time, he was a forty-nine-year-old veteran of the business, an uncommonly open-minded A&R man and producer who had first fallen in love with jazz at the height of the swing era. He had pursued a career as a producer and developed into a hit-producing maven, guiding Hit Parade regulars like Pearl Bailey and the McGuire Sisters in the early fifties, then more rocking pioneers like Buddy Holly and Jackie Wilson by the end of the decade. But he never forgot his first love. He liked musicians and their world, and the affection was reciprocal. Most germane to the story at hand, he was the head of Impulse during most of Coltrane's glory days at the label.

The working relationship between Coltrane and Thiele is the primary thread in the Impulse saga, telling the unlikely tale of a musician who led and a producer who trusted instinct and learned to follow. In granting the star saxophonist rare license — Coltrane had the freedom to schedule his own recording sessions, while Thiele signed artists at his suggestion — Thiele crystallized the musical appeal and financial foundation that allowed Impulse to flourish.

Thiele was one of a series of determined producers who led the label between 1960 and 1977, and who are responsible for well over three hundred albums of lasting influence. Their names figure prominently in the production credits on LP or CD jackets. In the chronological order of their years at Impulse, they are Creed Taylor, Bob Thiele, Ed Michel, Steve Backer, and Esmond Edwards.

While in charge, each shaped the label in unique ways — in the roster of talent, in marketing strategies, in musical direction, in what each chose to do with the wealth of music produced by his predecessors. Most significantly, each wrote his own chapter to the Impulse story in how he took direction from, and found lasting value in, Coltrane's legacy. In a manner that prefigures the round-table approach of this book, the various Impulse heads provide their take on the legend and the label, beginning with Creed Taylor, the in-house producer at ABC who created Impulse and first signed Coltrane in 1960, only to depart a few months later:

Coltrane was the jewel in Impulse's small catalog during the sixties. In terms of mass acceptance, only time could tell that story. I can only say that it took me years to really appreciate him. Not that I wasn't amazed by what he was doing at that time, but to see how history has built this gigantic image of Coltrane... what other artist is around who is like that?

Thiele was already working for ABC in 1961, recording pop talent like Frankie Laine and Delia Reese, when Creed Taylor departed. Thiele guided Impulse for the next eight years, through the middle of 1969. Michel joined ABC after the label moved to Los Angeles, steering the production side of Impulse for the next six years. Backer, hired in 1971 for his promotional abilities, proved his value and took over Impulse for the next two years. Edwards managed the label from 1975 to 1977, during the label's most transitional period, marking the end of an era.

I spoke with each member of this Impulse lineage — save for Thiele, who had passed away in 1996 — and more than a hundred musicians, engineers, and industry professionals in researching this book. Ed Michel summed up the story best when he stated, with the inevitable pun, "Impulse was a record label that grew out of an aesthetic rather than out of a commercial impulse. It was born into a corporate environment and survived a corporate environment. It also went through phases. But everybody thought of Impulse as being John Coltrane's label... I mean, Impulse was the house that Trane built, as far as I was concerned, in the way that Atlantic was the house that Ray Charles built."

There are two things this book is not. It is not purely a discography —  though one is supplied at the end, and much discographical data is used to tell the Impulse story, including catalog numbers in brackets, the "S" designating stereo, from the days when there was a choice. Nor is it a consumer's guide — though personal enthusiasm cannot be denied.

Because Impulse is remembered for its focus on design, many of the label's most eye-catching covers appear in the pages to follow, as do thirty-six album profiles scattered throughout this book, chosen both for their renown and for the revealing or unusual stories they yield  —a studio triumph, a bold career move, a business stumble. Apologies for all the deserving titles passed over!

The fifty-year time frame of The House That Trane Built opens with the events leading to the establishment of Impulse, and ends in the present. In tracing the primary narrative — the story of the label — a strict timeline was bypassed in favor of a sectional approach, allowing full focus on major musicians and executives, and on certain subplots: Impulse's shifting stature in ABC's hierarchy. Bob Thiele's penchant for trend-chasing productions. The move west in 1969. The impact of the late-sixties rock explosion on Impulse, and the impact of the label on a new generation of listeners. The enduring popularity of John Coltrane. The enduring reputation of the label.

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.”

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