One of the unsung heroes of jazz history is the jazz record producer. From the birth of the LP in the early 1950s (first the 10-inch disc and then the 12-inch record), producers were responsible for championing jazz artists, signing them to labels, creating the vision for record dates, shaping the album's song selection, setting the order, choosing and assembling the sidemen, and ensuring that what audiences heard sounded great. Then their necks were on the line to promote, market and sell the result. [photo of Quincy Jones and producer Creed Taylor]
Of all the great record producers of the LP era, one of the most successful was Creed Taylor. Since the early 1950s, Creed pioneered new ways of recording and packaging artists at Bethlehem Records (1954-56), brought jazz into the mainstream at ABC Paramount (1956-60), launched Impulse Records (1960), created blockbuster albums at Verve (1960-67), merged jazz and pop at A&M Records (1967-69), and sustained jazz at CTI Records (1970-78) when jazz seemed destined for the scrap heap. Through the decades, Creed helped artists such as Stan Getz, John Coltrane, Jack Teagarden and Wes Montgomery successfully re-invent themselves. And with the help of photographer Pete Turner, he set new standards for album cover design and packaging in the 1960s and 1970s. [photo of Creed and Wes Montgomery above by Chuck Stewart]
In Part 1 of my four-part interview with Creed on his early years at Bethlehem, we talked first about his life growing up in rural Virginia, his service in the Marines, and the radio personality who convinced him to abandon graduate studies in psychology and pursue his dream of becoming a New York City jazz record producer:
JazzWax: Where did you grow up?
Creed Taylor: My family lived in Bedford, Virginia [pictured], a rural town in the middle of the state, about 50 miles from Lynchburg. My grandfather was editor and publisher of The Bedford Democrat, a newspaper he founded. My father started a flourmill in southwestern Virginia, so we moved back and forth between Bedford and a hamlet west of Roanoke called White Gate.
JW: Did you play an instrument in school?
CT: I played trumpet in high school. I chose the trumpet because of Harry James. I loved his records on the radio. But over time I found I wasn’t crazy about his vibrato so I moved on to Dizzy Gillespie. That is, until I ordered a couple of transcribed Dizzy Gillespie solos. Once I had a look at those, I figured I was better off sticking with Harry as a role model. [pictured: Creed Taylor, right]
JW: Were you good?
CT: Yeah, I was.
JW: Did playing the trumpet come naturally to you?
CT: It did. The music I heard growing up was blue grass and Country music. I’d hear it all the time when we were living in White Gate. Our homestead was two mountains away from where the Carter Family lived. I used to go up to the local high school and listen to Bill Monroe, the Carter Family and all of those guys. There were fantastic fiddle players there—hoedown sort of stuff. [pictured: Carter Family homestead]
JW: What do you mean by “two mountains away?”
CT: You drove or walked up one mountain and down the other side and then over another one. There were no towns. The area was rural. The Carter Family recorded in Bristol, on the border of Tennessee and Virginia, just to the west White Gate. So I heard this music all the time, both live and on the family radio. [pictured: A.P. Carter's cabin]
JW: Did you like blue grass and Country music?
CT: It drove me nuts. However, a few years ago I started listening to Country music again. My maturity has given me a new perspective on this genre. [pictured: The Carter Family]
JW: What music did you listen to in rural Virginia?
CT: I loved the big bands and jazz, which was a lot more fun to listen to. It was cooler music. It made you feel hip, not corny.
JW: How did you ever hear jazz and big band music in the far reaches of Virginia?
CT: I had a small radio in my bed that I listened to very late at night. When everyone was asleep, that radio could pick up the frequency from WJZ in New York coming over the mountains. I’d hear Symphony Sid’s [pictured] broadcasts directly from Birdland. He’d paint amazing pictures on the air. He said he sat in a glass booth overlooking the club, and between sets he'd observe what was going on. He’d say things like, “Well look over there, it’s Kai Winding talking to Diz at the bar. And, Count Basie just walked in to catch a set.” Stuff like that.
JW: Why did Symphony Sid's banter have such a hold on you?
CT: Everything he talked about was so cool and clear in my head, not just about the music but also the social surroundings of the jazz players. All I could think of was, “Wow, this music is something else.” I couldn’t wait to get up to New York and start meeting the people Symphony Sid was talking about.
JW: Before you came to New York, you studied psychology at Duke University. Was your father unhappy about that?
CT: Funny you should ask. He was. He wanted me to become a doctor. So I took two years of premed to get it out of my system and get my father off my back. I started majoring in psychology when I was a junior.
JW: What did you do after college?
CT: I went to graduate school at Duke to study psychology. But my studies were interrupted by the draft. I spent two years in the Marine Corps, starting in September 1951. I didn’t choose the Marines. They chose me. It was not a picnic. I spent the first year at Parris Island, which was grueling. I taught illiterate Marine recruits how to read and write. There were so many recruits pouring into the service then because of the Korean War and the threat of China’s invasion.
JW: Were you sent to Korea?
CT: Yes. They shipped me over to Korea in 1952. But before I left, I was stationed for a few weeks at Camp Pendleton, about a half hour north of San Diego. On leave, every weekend I used to go up to The Lighthouse at Hermosa Beach. I heard the original Gerry Mulligan-Chet Baker Quartet, Art Pepper, Red Norvo, Tal Farlow, Charles Mingus and many others. [photo: Ray Avery Archive]
JW: Did you talk to these guys while you were there?
CT: Oh sure. I became good friends with Shorty Rogers, who showed me chord structures and how he wrote his arrangements. Shorty [pictured, standing] was such a nice guy. He was so modest and helpful. The Red Norvo Trio knocked me out. I spoke to Red and Tal, but Mingus was kind of distant. I bought a 10-inch LP of the Mulligan-Baker group and took it with me to Korea along with a battery-operated record player. I listened to that group in my bunker, on the front line in Korea. I still have that record someplace.
JW: Did you see action in Korea?
CT: I spent a year in combat. For a time I was a forward observer. I worked with a map that had quadrants of the terrain out front. When I saw lights on a convoy traveling through no-man’s land, my job was to call them back to the 105mm Artillery, which opened up on the lights. We were under the auspices of the UN. I was there until the truce was announced in September 1953, exactly two years after I was drafted.
JW: Were you a different person when you were discharged?
CT: Not really. I think I blended right back in.
JW: Did you return to Virginia?
CT: Yes. But as soon as I got back, I decided right away to move to New York. I told my family that I was going to New York to play in bands. They weren’t too happy about that. But what I really wanted to do was produce records.
Tomorrow, in Part 2, Creed talks about arriving in New York, how he landed a job at Bethlehem Records, his first record produced for Chris Connor called Lullaby of Birdland, and what he did to make the 10-inch LP a jazz hit.
JazzWax tracks: It's hard now to fully appreciate the Svengali-like hold radio disc jockeys held over young ears in the 1940s. As after-midnight live radio remotes from nightclubs became increasingly popular in the late 1940s, disc jockeys were given greater leeway to fill time on air between songs and sets. As a result, they became jazz personalities in their own right. In New York, the best announcers were masters at vividly capturing what they saw and heard using heavily romantic, Runyonesque language.
Few disc jockeys of the period were as prominent as Symphony Sid [pictured], who got his name originally selling records at the Symphony Record Store. Starting in the mid-1940s, Symphony Sid worked for a series of radio stations.