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 labels 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 consumers 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.
“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
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.
JJM Concerning the release of Coltrane’s 1961 Live at the Village Vanguardrecording, you wrote, “Indeed, if it can be said that there was one moment when Impulse took a leap of faith and yoked its fortune to that drive for the new — sharing Coltrane’s path — it is here.” Can you talk a little about the significance of this recording?
AK We now know what the complete Vanguard tapes were like — some of the music was accessible and somewhat mainstream, and some of it was more avant-garde. Within days of making this recording, Thiele had already agreed to the idea that one whole side of this album would be “Chasin’ the Trane,” which is a very loose blues structure with no melody — it was just pure improvisation. To many people like Archie Shepp, “Chasin’ the Trane” is the line in the sand, it is where the growth of the sixties avant-garde begins. It was not totally separate from what the likes of Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor or Charles Mingus did in the fifties, but a new approach to the avant-garde began with “Chasin’ the Trane.”
At this point, even though he was an old swing cat, Thiele agreed to put that piece out on one entire side of the album — and the album started to sell. I believe that the whole idea of Impulse being a home for this type of music, as a home for the “new” and a home for the modern sounds, really began there. Take a listen to the way Impulse albums by even the more traditional artists like PeeWee Russell, Earl Hines, Coleman Hawkins, and Ben Webster sound today — they still have a timelessly modern quality to them. They are still “on the edge,” which is something they share with the best Impulse recordings by people like Coltrane, Alice Coltrane, Keith Jarrett, and Sonny Rollins. This shared modernity really is the Impulse signature.
JJM You talk about how Impulse was able to bring jazzmen of yore into the modern era. Was an Impulse recording for Louis Armstrong ever considered?
AK Yes, but as I point out in the book, very few vocalists were recorded on Impulse. If they eventually did get on Impulse, they began by singing for ABC-Paramount. This is pretty typical of how the old school record guys from the fifties thought — that if it contains a vocal, there is a chance the song could be a pop hit — so when vocalists recorded for ABC corporate, it was released on ABC, not on Impulse. Bob Thiele was still producing it in the same studio and the same people were marketing it, it just wasn’t released as an Impulse album because Impulse was seen as more instrumental. This was a very old school way of defining jazz, but look at how jazz vocalists are marketed today.
JJM Not everyone at Impulse was happy with their experience there, and you cite a few examples, among them Curtis Fuller and Sonny Rollins. Why did Rollins view his Impulse experience negatively?
AK He pretty much admits he was a babe in the woods at the time, and that he felt as if he was taken advantage of. When he was dealing with Impulse, it was during a time when artists frequently didn’t even have any representation. Coltrane and Miles were sort of harbingers of the days to come because they had an attorney — Harold Levett — who represented both of them. So, the whole idea of a musician actually getting a team together that represented them and their business was just beginning to come together. Obviously, if an artist signs a contract without really understanding the terms, they are leaving themselves open for being taken advantage of. Any record company story is going to have examples of producers or executives behaving badly. It is an inevitable part of business.
JJM I’m sure those kinds of things are all part of the distant past, right?
AK Please — this still happens today, but I wonder if the music business is that different from any other industry that relies on the talents of creative individuals — the industry establishes rules that favor itself, while individuals have to be wary of being taken advantage of at every turn. The music business is rampant with stories like this, and it deserves its reputation for being an “evil empire.” ASomehow in our society there is a feeling that art and commerce should live under a different set of rules. No matter what kind of business you are in, you need representation to assist with contracts, and Sonny Rollins felt he should have been smarter and had someone represent him because he was not prepared to deal with the kind of business complexities a major label presented. The lesson is that every artist needs representation.
JJM It seems as if much of Impulse’s success is due to its marketing — from the creation of an elegant line look to the type of ensembles and music they recorded
AK Yes, and if the music on the inside didn’t reflect the elegance of the packaging on the outside, it wouldn’t have meant anything. They were able to create a package that looked better than everyone else’s, and it even went beyond what people were used to seeing from pop music packaging. It wasn’t until the late sixties before pop music got up to the level of elegance, sophistication and “hipness” that Impulse had five to ten years before. Impulse predicted where album packaging was going in general, and understood that the album listening experience was more than just putting vinyl on the turntable — it also included sitting down with the cover to read the liner notes and look at the photographs.
JJM They created an experience beyond just listening to the music.
AK Exactly. One of the first photographs in the book is of David Crosby of the Byrds and his brother Ethan sitting on the couch in photographer Jim Marshall’s apartment in San Francisco in 1965 — just as the underground rock scene is beginning — and the two of them are pictured listening to the music while Coltrane’s Ballads album is open on his lap. That photo says one thousand words — it expresses what our listening experience with Impulse was.
JJM Of Coltrane’s Ascension, you wrote, “Coltrane had been reluctant in 1964 to accept a leading role in any musical movement, but Ascension roared like a cacophonous acceptance speech.” What was the significance of this recording and how did the executives at ABC respond to it?
AK He was on his way by then — it wasn’t a question any more, it was a fact. There is a story about when the white-labeled test pressing of this album was being distributed to everyone at the company, an ABC executive named Alan Bergman walked into Thiele’s office and had this amazed look on his face that required no words. Bob told him that, yes, they were going to release it, and yes, it would sell. Sure enough, it did. That’s the other thing about Impulse that is surprising even for me, that they sold the avant-garde to mainstream America, and they made a profit.
JJM That’s right. Not so easy to do
AK That alone is enough reason for a book on the label. Selling the avant-garde to mainstream America is so different from the way we think. Other labels like ESP tried to, but Impulse did it, and I think the real lesson is that quality music, when combined with proper distribution and promotion, will sell. It may not get you the profit margins that bean counters look for, and it does not sell on the same level as the Beatles or the Stones, but does all music have to sell on that level?
JJM Impulse was popular during an era of protest and dissension, and consumers felt connected to many of the artists on its roster due to the political nature of the packaging and recordings. It created a pretty intense appeal for the label. However, on more than one occasion I bought an Impulse album because of “politics” only to discover the music was pretty much unlistenable, leaving me to ask myself why in the world I would spend three bucks on such an album.
AK Yes. In no way am I saying that everything Impulse did was worthy. There were definitely releases which were less than advisable. If you look at the entire Impulse catalog though, you’ll find that about every fourth or fifth album is really very strong, and if you continue to look, you’ll find that one out of every ten or so is an absolute five-star classic.
JJM Why was Impulse so intensely drawn into recording the avant-garde following Coltrane’s death?
AK Part of it was because Thiele and the executives who followed him had this sense that the label had been blessed with the most visionary of musicians, whose music he championed was the spirit of the future. He developed momentum for this music within his own band in the persons of Pharoah Sanders, Jimmy Garrison, Elvin Jones and McCoy Tyner, and within his own family after that in the person of Alice Coltrane. This momentum was unstoppable, and this avant-garde, angry-sounding music was being put out until the mid-to-late seventies. Dewey Redman, Marion Brown, Sam Rivers — their’s was really the sound and spirit of Coltrane that was pushing the future of jazz. That sort of spirit was the guiding force at Impulse until around 1975. Then, when Esmond Edwards took over, the label takes on a more rhythm and blues, CTI-like feel, and it starts to go off in a different direction.
JJM How did the ABC executives react to Impulse’s political bent?
AK For the most part, Bob Thiele did a great job of buffering that, and nothing got through to the executives. Until a song had a lyric, the political nature of a song wasn’t something they were aware of. It wasn’t on their radar. But by the time “Song for Che'” was recorded by Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra, the politics were pretty confrontational, and the executives began getting a little worried.
JJM Was Impulse a cash cow for ABC by this time?
AK ABC was a multi-tiered, multi-genre entertainment conglomerate — it had a television division, a film division, and a music division. The template for a record company during the fifties, sixties and seventies was to cater to all tastes — pop, comedy, rhythm and blues, classical and jazz. Impulse was its jazz division — as I mentioned earlier, it was not an independent label.
Was it a cash cow? I have no idea how much money it brought in, but I know it made a profit. Ed Michel, the man who replaced Thiele at Impulse, tells a story about how ABC Records head Jay Lasker once came up to him, put his arms around him, and called him his little money machine, his little magician. This was during the mid-seventies, when ABC was releasing hits by Steppenwolf, Jim Croce and Steely Dan, and Impulse was recording guys like Albert Ayler, Keith Jarrett, and Dewey Redman, and even they were turning profits for them. I think that’s as much a statement on ABC’s distribution reach and what they were able to push through as much as it was a statement about the music. This was music that got major label support. They didn’t look at it and say it was too far out or crazy, or that they had to figure out the demographics before releasing it — no, they just put it out there. Eighty thousand copies of Gato Barbieri’s Chapter 1, and one hundred thousand copies of Karma by Pharoah Sanders were sold.
JJM Well, that’s how many albums got shipped.
AK Yes, that’s right. But if you ship eighty grand, and only sell thirty to forty thousand, that’s already four times as much as what’s considered a “jazz hit.” The point is that ABC was willing — for a few years anyway — to treat jazz with the same marketing numbers as rock. Of course, this did lead to a lot of cut-outs floating around!
JJM Did the success CTI was having inspire some of the non-jazz people to get involved in Impulse?
AK Any business looks at their competitor’s success, and when it’s discovered the competition is doing something that results in higher sales and profits, naturally the businessmen doing the analyzing will want to make adjustments to keep up. That’s the nature of business. However, this is art, and where the line is drawn for many is when the commercial side of the business tries to control the creative side. Steve Backer was running Impulse at the time, and he was starting to have meetings with Jay Lasker, who was telling him they needed to start getting more CTI-type numbers out of their recordings, and that maybe they should start recording CTI-type music. This was around 1973 — Backer knew the writing was on the wall and it was time to get out.
JJM Did the input of the non-jazz people contribute to the demise of Impulse?
AK I don’t know if it contributed to the demise. It’s not like anybody came in and said you have to do something that led to the recording of mediocre music. I think the industry in general was hurting at the time, and there were a lot of investments in artists who were not earning money for their labels. This had more to do with the millions of dollars being invested in rock ‘n roll than it had to do with jazz. The real demise for Impulse was a shared demise — it was the demise of ABC.
JJM In the late seventies I bought a couple hundred Impulse remainders — known as “cut-outs” in the record business — for about thirty cents apiece at a Seattle record store. The stacks of albums were quite a testament to the decisions made by the label executives at that time.
AK You could say that. But I think they would just say that they were doing their job and they wanted to keep their company as healthy as possible.
JJM But this was in the days when stores had unlimited return privileges, and when labels — including ABC — were notorious for flooding the market with product to meet their sales quotas. It’s my sense that Impulse got caught in the middle of that.
AK I would agree — and the excesses of the seventies eventually led to a much more conservative approach in the eighties. The seventies were the days when there were jokes about how certain albums shipped platinum and then would be returned to the label double platinum!
JJM In addition to writing the label’s biography, you profile a number of Impulse recordings. What criteria did you use when choosing the albums to profile?
AK It was tough, and to this day I wish I could have done others, like one of Yusef Lateef’s or Chico Hamilton’s — their Impulse recordings are unbelievable. I chose to do a bunch of Coltrane’s because they deserved their own stories. I also wanted to do some surprise albums, like Antelope Freeway by Howard Roberts, which was kind of a stoner album from the late sixties. I imagine that people were playing that album about the same time they played an album by Cheech and Chong. I also wanted to profile an older musician’s album that would reveal Thiele’s love of early jazz, so I chose Benny Carter’s Further Definitions, the recording of which makes such a great story. I chose to write about Curtis Fuller because I could talk about the idea of album concepts.
JJM Fuller didn’t have a lot of success at Impulse…
AK No, he didn’t. He found out years later that he actually owed the company money for a production decision involving the use of an orchestra that he had never been asked about. He wasn’t aware that if his album didn’t recoup expenses he would be personally responsible for paying the debt. After that he found another label to record for.
JJM Between the time it must have taken you to write this book and your previous book, A Love Supreme — The Story of John Coltrane’s Signature Album, you have spent a great deal of your life on the personalities central to this label.
AK Yes, there has been a lot of personal investment in this process.
JJM Are the albums on the cover of the book from your personal collection?
AK Some are mine, and others are borrowed.
JJM They are lined up by album number rather than alphabetically
AK It is easier to get the feeling of time marching on that way.
JJM Other than A Love Supreme, what is your favorite Impulse album?
AK I’ll just put it this way; there were old favorites before I got into the project, and there are some new favorites that came out of the project. Some of my old favorites are Mingus, Mingus, Mingus, and Count Basie’s album with the Kansas City Seven is just incredible. Unfortunately, I didn’t profile that one but I wanted too. Some of my new favorites are Out of the Afternoon by Roy Haynes — which I just can’t get enough of — with “Snap Crackle” and “Long Wharf,” and the Earl Hines album Once Upon a Time. Albert Ayler’s live album is just so tame now compared to how people used to think about the avant-garde and the “New Thing” — it sounds totally accessible. Another favorite is Thembi by Pharoah Sanders, which was recorded using the rock ‘n roll studio standards of the day — things like multi-tracking, reverb, and phasing. Tunes like “Astral Traveling” and “Red, Black and Green” are early examples of how jazz and world music recordings would sound in the eighties.
JJM Impulse was definitely a line that required an open mind and, at times, a ton of patience,
AK I didn’t get A Love Supreme right away, but by the third or fourth time I allowed it to play, I got the feeling for the structure, and I never felt like I had to fight it again. Coltrane’s Ascension was a great experiment on paper, and I’m not quite sure I agree that it was success, but I hear it now and it’s all familiar territory. It doesn’t have that sort of challenge it used to, but when I put it on I don’t fall in love with it like I still do with A Love Supreme or Thembi. I look forward to the really loud and raucous moments on Thembi, but not the loud and raucous moments on Ascension. But that was a different thing, and I think what he was trying to do with that recording was cast himself and his art wide, something that Impulse was allowing him to do, which in itself was reason enough to write this book.
“Impulse will always go down in history for having stuck its neck out. 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.”
– Vibraphonist Gary Burton
The House That Trane Built:
The Story of Impulse Records
The House That Trane Built: Story of Impulse Records
Four CD Box Set
About Ashley Kahn
Ashley Kahn is an award-winning journalist and radio essayist, and is the author of A Love Supreme: The Story of John Coltranes Signature Album and Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece. He lives in Fort Lee, New Jersey.
Ashley Kahn products at Amazon.com
John Coltrane products at Amazon.com
This interview took place on July 7, 2006
# Text from publisher.