With the success of Chris Connor's 10-Inch LPs for Bethlehem Records in 1954, producer Creed Taylor had the validation and confidence he needed to leverage his vision. Weary of open-ended jam sessions that dominated the early years of the 10-inch LP, Creed sought to revolutionize the format by packaging LPs as tight artistic concepts rather than random collections of extended singles. [pictured: Creed Taylor and organist Jimmy Smith]
In the last four months of 1954 alone, Creed produced Bethlehem LPs by Hank D'Amico, Carmen McRae, Charlie Shavers, Ruby Braff, Jack Teagarden, Joe Puma, Oscar Pettiford [pictured], Herbie Mann and others. In early 1955, Creed shifted into overdrive, averaging six recording sessions a month. These dates were led by Urbie Green, Don Elliott, Milt Hinton, Kai Winding, J.J. Johnson, Hal McKusick and many others. Increasingly, Creed selected the sidemen for dates and insisted on a high percentage of original material by session leaders.
In Part 3 of my conversation with Creed about his Bethlehem years, he talks about the mood created by the label's cover art, his friendship with Quincy Jones, the importance of Charlie's Tavern, how he convinced Oscar Pettiford to trim his solos, and how his one tangle with Stan Getz was resolved:
JazzWax: You enjoyed the business side of the business as much as recording the music, didn't you?
Creed Taylor: Very much so. I was fascinated by the record business, from how to put a record's cover and liner notes together to getting the records into stores and selling them.
JW: Speaking of covers, many of Bethlehem's had this dark, nocturnal look and feel. Was that deliberate?
CT: The look was developed by our art director, Burt Goldblatt. I'd tell him the subject matter and he’d create the design. My innovation was adding sheet lamination to the covers, giving them a sleek, polished look. It wasn’t until later, in the late 1960s, when the printing technology became more sophisticated that I became more heavily involved in developing a vision for covers.
JW: Like Chris Connor, Herbie Mann was another artist whose talents you recognized early and produced perfectly in the mid-1950s.
CT: When I moved from the Upper West Side to Waverly Place in Greenwich Village in late 1954, I lived in a brownstone with a garden out back. Each time I’d go outside, I’d hear a flute player practicing incessantly. He’d play scales and then launch into amazing jazz lines. I decided I had to find out who the devil was playing. So I narrowed the location and knocked on the guy’s door. The guy playing was Herbie. It turned out he had already done a bit of recording with Mat Mathews for Coral. We recorded a series of records with Herbie. There was the Chicken Little session in December 1954; Flamingo, a quartet album; a quintet album with flutist Sam Most; Songs of a Woman in Love, Herbie Mann Plays, and a bunch of others with different groups of musicians, including Kai Winding and J.J. Johnson.
JW: Was it hard to come up with just the right personnel mix for the sessions?
CT: Actually it was relatively easy. Charlie’s Tavern played a big role. The bar was right across from Bethlehem’s offices. We were on the 13th floor of 1350 Broadway. Charlie’s Tavern was at 51st St. and 7th Ave. The bar had a back entrance that led to an alley. Across the alley was Birdland. When musicians would go on a break at Birdland, they would cross the alley and go into Charlie’s Tavern for a drink. I could go down almost any time of day from my office, put together a band and go out to Rudy Van Gelder’s studio in New Jersey the next day and record.
JW: Were you ever concerned that artists might not share your vision?
CT: I never thought about it. The artists were all interesting, intelligent guys. One of my best friends in the early 1950s was Quincy Jones, who knew everyone. Quincy had just come in from Chicago, and I had just come up from Virginia. Soon after I started I signed Oscar Pettiford to Bethlehem. Quincy, Oscar and I planned the first Oscar date [Bass by Pettiford] at Charlie's Tavern.
JW: But how did you get artists to go along with your vision?
CT: I talked it over with them very quietly, usually one on one.
JW: But if you’re Oscar Pettiford, you want to solo. Who is Creed Taylor to tell him what to do?
CT: [laughing] With Oscar, I might say, “Hey, Oscar, if you don’t play a shorter solo next time, I’m not going to have you down to my pad for dinner.” I used to make him pasta dinners at my place on Waverly Place. Oscar might put up a fuss initially but eventually he'd understand where I was coming from. I think it’s a matter of conviction. In my experience, if you believe strongly in what you’re saying, and if what you’re saying clearly has the artist's creative interests at heart, things seem to go pretty smoothly.
JW: So showing passion and communicating a vision were pretty key, combined with a good sense of humor.
CT: I think so. All those guys back then had the greatest sense of humor. They’d come up with outlandish stories. [photo of Dizzy Gillespie by Herb Ritts]
JW: Producing also depended on pairing the right musicians, yes?
CT: If I knew that a particular bass player liked playing with a particular drummer but that the bass player sounded better with another drummer, I’d simply say, “I have an idea and I’d really like to see what you sound like with this guy or that guy.” That was enough to make my point.
JW: Do you think your psychology training at Duke University came in handy?
CT: Maybe. Psychologists deal with the subconscious. If my training sank in and emerged when I needed it, so be it. It wasn’t a conscious effort on my part.
JW: But you had to be a pretty quick study of human nature.
CT: I suppose so. Look, at the end of the day, it’s what a great musician sounds like. And I could identify with the sound of a particular artist. For example, I could easily identify with Stan Getz, who recorded for me when I was at Verve in the early 1960s.
JW: How did you handle Stan, who was notoriously difficult?
CT: Stan could be very arrogant and didn’t hesitate to put people down. It’s hard to describe because we had an ongoing relationship. It popped through with us only once. I remember we were recording Focus when I was at Verve. We were recording at Webster Hall in July 1961. At one point, Stan got nasty. I told him that if he didn’t cool it, I would leave. When he did it again, I said I was leaving. So I shut down the session and left. Later he apologized and came back to finish the date.
JW: Stan was a pretty tough guy.
CT: I remember standing in front of Charlie’s Tavern with Phil Woods in the mid-1950s. Phil was talking about Stan. He said Stan was so mean that if he walked out into the street right in front of us and a steamroller flattened him out, he’d just get up and walk away. But if Stan knew you knew what he was up to, and I did, you didn’t have much of a problem with him. If not, he’d mess with you. Stan just had this need to be aggressive.
JW: Sometimes these creative geniuses could be like kids.
CT: Well, sure.
Tomorrow, Creed talks about his impressions of vocalist Carmen McRae, trumpeter Charlie Shavers, trombonists Jack Teagarden and Urbie Green, and saxophonist Hal McKusick. Creed also explains why he left Bethlehem in 1956 for ABC Paramount Records.
Jazzwax tracks: Creed Taylor's years producing records for Bethlehem Records between 1954 and 1956 resulted in dozens of stunning recordings. Here's a sampling of my favorites recorded just between the fall of 1954 and the spring of 1955. Some are out of print while others appear on newly released collections.
Oscar Pettiford—Nonet and Octet: 1954-1955. This CD captures several of Pettiford's recordings for Bethlehem. Go here.
Herbie Mann—Herbie Mann Plays (1955). This remastered gem is still available for only $2.99 used from independent sellers. Go here.
Hal McKusick—The Complete Barry Galbraith, Milt Hinton & Osie Johnson Recordings (1955). This two-CD set includes Hal's Bethlehem release East Coast Jazz/Vol. 8. [pictured] Go here.
Ruby Braff—The Best of Ruby Braff (1954-55). This CD combines two different Bethlehem sessions and features trumpeter Braff and a band of top studio musicians swinging the arrangements of Bob Wilber. Go here
Urbie Green—East Coast Jazz/Vol. 6 (1955). Superb playing by the smoothest trombonist around. Urbie fronted a septet here that included Danny Bank on reeds, Doug Mettome on trumpet and Oscar Pettiford on bass. Go here.
Milt Hinton—Quartet (1955). The CD Tony Scott and the Three Dicks [pictured] combines several sessions by the great bassist. Go here.
Kai Winding and J.J. Johnson—K + JJ (1955). One of the early recordings by these dueling trombone giants. Go here.