In the early spring of 1961, Creed Taylor faced a dilemma. Just
months after launching Impulse Records, the legendary producer received a phone call that forced him to make a hard decision. Tilting back in his chair, Creed looked out his office window in New York's Paramount Building and weighed his options. He could continue running Impulse with complete freedom and control. Or he could accept the job he was just offered—producing jazz records for Verve. [Photo by Chuck Stewart]
In 1961, Verve was an established label newly acquired by MGM. Dozens of great jazz artists were already in place there, including tenor saxophonist Stan Getz, who had been on Creed's mind since the late 1940s. The more Creed thought about recording Getz and that incredible sound, the more his decision was already made for him. Creed went next door to his mentor, Harry Levine, to tell him the news.
In the final installment of my interview with Creed on his ABC-Paramount years and Impulse months, the legendary producer talks about what he did in the booth to ensure sonic and artistic quality, the recording of John Coltrane's Africa/Brass, and his move to Verve:
JazzWax: Up until now, we've talked about your role in album concepts, talent selection and LP packaging. For readers who aren't aware of the technical side, what were you doing exactly in the booth?
Creed Taylor: [Laughs] As a producer, I am listening. Hard. There was no book of rules. Every producer has his or her own way to record a particular artist. The key is to stay as flexible as you possibly can, so you can make changes when necessary but also remaining open to interesting solutions. Of course, my approach and level of engagement would change with the artist.
JW: How did you follow what was going on? And how did you interact with a date's leader or arranger and conductor?
CT: After the arranger turned his score over to the copyist, who writes out all the parts for the musicians, I had the copyist extract what's called a "booth part." I read music, so a booth part let me follow along and know where the musicians were at any given point. Then I was able to point to a specific place in the arrangement where an adjustment needed to be made.
JW: How did you let the session's leader or conductor know if there was a problem?
CT: Over a private line. I would pick up the phone and call the studio. He'd pick up his phone, and I'd tell him. For example, if there was a problem in third bar of a trumpet part, the conductor/arranger and I could take care of it without disturbing other artists or members of the ensemble.
JW: Did you talk just to the session leader or conductor?
CT: In the case of a string section, I would call the arranger, say, Don Sebesky, and David Nadien, the concertmaster, into the control booth to discuss it. David was Leonard Bernstein's concertmaster and kept the quality of string sections on my recording sessions very high.
JW: Weren't string sections made up of classically trained violinists who were consistent in quality?
CT: As in any part of an orchestra, there are good string players and great ones. It was generally accepted among some jazz and pop producers that string parts weren't that demanding and there was no need to choose the musicians with the same care as a reed section, for example. This was not the case with my sessions. David Nadien knew what I wanted and who to call for all of my dates. Intonation, execution and precision were the bywords. We needed superb string players even in the second row to handle the footballs.
CT: The second row typically played parts with the sustained notes. Those notes are called footballs because they're drawn out and consistent, like the spiral of a football tossed downfield. It takes a long time for the spinning ball to get down there. In my back rows, I insisted on using top guys. I can't say whether other producers did the same or had these standards.
JW: So as a producer, you had to have a reputation as someone who was big on detail and insistent on high standards throughout?
CT: Absolutely. If there was a problem in the back row of the string section, I would call it to David's attention. A great record is the sum of its parts, and details like that could be heard by all Verve fans.
JW: Speaking of Verve, in early 1961 you decided to leave Impulse, a label you had started only months earlier, to take a job at Verve. Why?
CT: Because I got a terrific offer to take over a label with an enormous list of great jazz artists. A guy named Arnold Maxim was president of MGM/Verve at the time, and the company was across the street from ABC-Paramount on 44th St. Maxim had just bought Norman Granz's label, but without Granz, who wasn't part of the deal.
JW: Why did Maxim call you?
CT: Maxim knew what I had been doing with Impulse and decided I'd be perfect with his new acquisition. I hated leaving ABC, Harry and Impulse. But when I told Harry, he said, "You gotta do what comes along. Don't forget, we're right across the street in case you ever want to come back."
JW: What was your responsibility when you arrived at Verve?
CT: I wasn't responsible for re-packaging Verve's existing catalog. My job was to record new albums and sign new talent to the label. I also wasn't interested in letting MGM's ad agency design the covers. I was going to do that with my art director and Pete Turner, a color photographer who I was already using for covers at ABC and Impulse.
JW: Before you left Impulse for Verve, you recorded your sixth and final album: John Coltrane's Africa/Brass.
CT: Yes. In fact, I finished editing it with John [pictured] after I arrived at Verve. We were in my office there talking about how it should sound and the things he wanted in there. Eric [Dolphy] had a different view, though. So there were two versions. One had more of the tribal sound effects on Africa. Eric thought it should be the other way around. He thought Coltrane had gone too far with the effects.
JW: Who signed Coltrane to Impulse?
CT: Larry Newton did, with Harry Levine. Larry knew Coltrane's manager, and I encouraged them to do it. I wanted Coltrane on Impulse. I needed Coltrane to give added impetus to the Impulse catalog and show retailers and the market that Impulse was a serious new jazz label.
JW: Did you know Coltrane?
CT: Sure. I had met him many times at the Village Vanguard. I told him early on that a deal with us was imminent, and he ran with it. As soon as he signed, we went over to Rudy Van Gelder's new, larger studio in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. The recording of Africa/Brass was pretty much a Coltrane show.
JW: If you had weighed in, what would you have urged Coltrane to do differently?
CT: I would have liked to have heard more of Eric Dolphy's bass-clarinet solos. But the date didn't require much of my input. What was I going to say? "John, don't play any more of those long solos." That was what he was about. There was a religious quality about him, and you either recorded John that way or you didn't.
JW: What was he like then, at the dawn of his Impulse years?
CT: He was a direct, honest person who knew exactly what he wanted to do. When I was finished editing Africa/Brass at Verve, we went out for coffee, and I told him how much I enjoyed working with him and wished him the best of luck.
JW: Did you want to steal him away from Impulse for Verve?
CT: I had just started at Verve and had my hands full. I had Stan Getz and didn't want to have Coltrane and Stan Getz there together. They were two very different artists who needed the same level of big billing. I also was going in new artistic directions. I always felt Coltrane was a towering figure and knew there was very little I could do to help him on his journey. His talent was so unique. I was honored to have worked on Africa/Brass.
JW: Wasn't Coltrane and his extended-solo format on Africa/Brass in direct contrast with your vision of tighter solo time?
CT: Coltrane had enormous energy and could play the same song for an hour and a half without stopping. That was Coltrane. Coltrane was Coltrane. This was no different from what I had to go through to get Gil Evans to get the job done on Out of the Cool. You had to be patient, provided the artist was focused on the task at hand. Look, I wasn't going to be so presumptuous as to adjust Einstein's theory. Coltrane knew what he was doing.
JW: Did you get a sense that the album would be special and the start of something big?
CT: I knew it before going in. I had gone to enough of his Village Vanguard performances to know what he was about. I knew that Coltrane was an exception to every rule.
In September, Creed and I will pick up the story of his astonishing career in 1961, with a focus on his critical years at Verve Records producing records for Stan Getz, Wes Montgomery, Bill Evans and other jazz legends.
JazzWax tracks: Most of Africa/Brass was recorded on May 23, 1961. But the composition Africa needed work. So additional tracks of the 16-minute composition were recorded on June 7. The master of Africa was spliced from the different alternate takes.
The orchestra featured Booker Little and Freddie Hubbard (trumpets), Julian Priester and Charles "Majeed" Greenlee (euphonium) Julius Watkins, Donald Corrado, Bob Northern, Jimmy Buffington and Robert Swisshelm (French horn), Bill Barber (tuba), John Coltrane (soprano and tenor saxes), Eric Dolphy (alto sax, bass clarinet and flute), Garvin Bushell (reeds, woodwinds), Pat Patrick (baritone sax), McCoy Tyner (piano), Reggie Workman and Paul Chambers (bass) and Elvin Jones (drums). Arrangements were by Cal Massey, McCoy Tyner, Coltrane and Dolphy [pictured].
The Complete Africa/Brass Sessions is available here.