In my previous series of conversations with Creed Taylor (Parts 1-14), the legendary jazz record producer spoke candidly about his work in the 1950s and 1960s at Bethlehem, ABC Paramount, Impulse, Verve and A&M. At each label, Creed transformed jazz and jazz LP packaging. He also made contemporary stars of jazz artists ranging from Stan Getz to Wes Montgomery. But despite his many award-winning accomplishments at these labels, Creed's most ambitious years were yet to come. [Photo by Chuck Stewart]
In 1969, three years after joining A&M Records, Creed worked out a deal with the label that freed him from his contract and allowed him to start his own company with his already established CTI label. Over the next nine years, Creed would blaze a completely new jazz trail and set new standards for album production and packaging.
But this CTI revolution was not without controversy. Some jazz fans questioned whether Creed had gone too far, producing great-looking LP jackets that held bland jazz versions of pop and soul hits. Others staunchly loved the jazz sound Creed created using a working studio band of top musicians and higher standards of fidelity.
Eventually, CTI imploded, a victim of overexpansion, flawed distribution decisions and an economic downturn that forced the company into bankruptcy. But between 1969 and 1978, Creed paved the way for what's now known as jazz-soul, revolutionized LP packaging with photographer Pete Turner, and created a more sophisticated and upscale image for jazz and jazz artists. Creed also produced significant jazz albums for new and established artists using massive orchestras at a time when jazz budgets were being slashed at major labels.
In Part 1 of my five-part interview series with Creed on his CTI years, the producer reflects on his last days at A&M Records, his vision for a stand-alone CTI label, and the factors that led to his break with A&M:
JazzWax: Before we talk about your CTI years, I hear you've assembled a CTI band for an eight-week concert tour this summer, yes?
Creed Taylor: Yes, I'm producing a series of performances by the CTI All Stars. We're going to play about eight European and Asian jazz festivals. The group is made up of Randy Brecker, Hubert Laws, [saxophonist] Bill Evans, Russell Malone, Niels Lan Doky, Mark Egan, Jeff Tain Watts, Airto, Flora Purim and Jamie Cullum. Our first concert is at the Montreux Jazz Festival on July 7th.
JW: Are you excited?
CT: Oh sure. CTI did a lot of festivals back in the 1970s, at the Hollywood Bowl and other places. Everyone in those concert bands was a CTI recording artist, and whoever had the next album coming out was the primary soloist.
JW: Are the CTI All Stars going to perform in the U.S.?
CT: If we make enough noise in Europe, Japan and Korea, we probably will. We went abroad because there are more significant jazz festivals there. The festival culture and audiences are different. It's very exciting. All of my creative juices are flowing.
JW: In 1967, two years before you left A&M Records, you produced Wave with Antonio Carlos Jobim, which foreshadowed the CTI look and sound.
CT: Yes, Wave actually was one of my first CTI recordings when CTI was a subsidiary of A&M. I had heard parts of the song a year earlier, in Rio de Janeiro.
JW: Did Jobim play it for you there?
CT: Yes. I had been invited down to Rio by the government. I was to be the guest of honor at a luncheon. Brazil grew a lot of coffee but it didn't start exporting it until after the Verve bossa nova records I produced with Stan Getz took off. Actually, Brazil had invited down a large number of American stars in different cultural and business areas. On the plane down was Natalie Wood, Robert Wagner, Quincy Jones, Sammy Cahn, and Kim Hunter, one of my favorite Hitchcock actresses—blond, really quiet and pretty. I had a long talk with her on the flight. Everyone was going to the same event. [Photo of Quincy Jones and Creed Taylor by Chuck Stewart]
JW: Sounds like there was more than coffee at stake.
CT: There was. With the bossa nova craze in full throttle, Brazil saw a commercial and cultural opportunity to overcome its Carmen Miranda image. MGM back in the 1940s and early 1950s had put bananas on Miranda's hat, and rather than focus on music as a vital part of Brazilian culture, Miranda's image and Brazil by extension became a punch line.
JW: So there was a music component to the trip, too, yes?
CT: Yes. After The Girl from Ipanema hit, Brazil wanted to remind everyone that the samba and bossa nova were from Brazil, not any other Latin American country. I think the government hoped that those who came down would carry that message back.
JW: You already knew Jobim, of course, from your earlier recordings.
CT: Yes, sure. We first met in New York in the very early 1960s. When I went by to see him in Rio in 1966, he played an incomplete version of Wave for me on the piano. I loved it. I liked Jobim very much. He was full of enthusiasm, and an early proponent of the whole green thing we see today. Our culture should have been more receptive to Jobim’s feelings about the forest and flowers and the ocean. When I heard the song and its name, I thought to myself, "There he goes again, like a kid, a composer, animated like a wave." We agreed when the song was finished that we'd record it together.
JW: When you joined A&M in 1966, setting up CTI was part of your original deal, yes?
CT: That's right.
JW: When did you decide to leave?
CT: In late 1968. Herb Alpert was a really nice guy. He was a stylistic trumpet player, and his Tijuana Brass made A&M a huge success. But he also liked jazz a little too much, perhaps. He made suggestions to me about arrangements. It was a subtle thing, and I saw conflict in artistic direction looming.
JW: How so?
CT: If you get too connected with another person in your own area of artistic achievement, you risk falling for that person's suggestions. One day I woke up and it hit me. I realized that I had to leave A&M. I thought I should be listening carefully to other aesthetics.
JW: Herb loved jazz?
CT: Herb loved Paul Desmond, Wes Montgomery [pictured] and other artists that I was producing. But I could sense through his suggestions that he had a different creative vision for them. And I started to feel myself becoming obligated to incorporate his suggestions. His recommendations were taking my sensibilities in the wrong direction. I knew I had to set up a record company on my own to accomplish what I had in mind.
JW: How was the parting?
CT: Completely amicable.
JW: Did you need a new office?
CT: I already had my own office separate from A&M's offices, and I didn't change my location at Rockefeller Center. Early on, the deal was that A&M would handle the distribution and everything else. After an album package was complete, I would just send it over to them, and they took it from there. I wasn't involved in the marketing in the beginning, but I did a lot of radio promotion.
JW: Were you scared going out on your own?
JW: Why not?
CT: No one was doing what I was doing, so I didn't have any real competition to worry about. And A&M was handling all the back-end work.
JW: In the late 1960s, what did you sense was changing in the music industry and jazz marketplace? What opportunity did you see?
CT: I saw that there was room for jazz that didn't completely ignore other successful types of music of the time that had merit. I liked what Blue Note Records had been doing in this space earlier in the 1960s. Lee Morgan's Sidewinder, for example, made a lot of noise. So did Jimmy Smith's Back at the Chicken Shack. Blue Note had placed one foot in r&b and one foot in improvised contemporary jazz.
JW: Did you like what Blue Note was doing?
CT: Yes, I did. However, it wasn't the direction in which I was interested in going. I thought the label was restricting its reach by having long improvised solos on albums. I had similar ideas about mixing jazz, soul and r&b—but without the imposition of elongated passages. These would be where the bass had maybe two choruses and drums would then do a trade. It’s hard to verbalize what I knew and what I wanted to do that no one else was doing.
JW: But if you were summing it up?
CT: Look, I felt there were great music themes out there that weren't being packaged in a way that large audiences would connect with them.
JW: At CTI, you clearly were shooting for sophistication.
How did you know that the market was ready for what you had to offer?
CT: My many years in the record business had resulted in a close relationship with the independent distributors as a group. They were almost like a fraternity. As long as you didn't cross into their territory, you were part of this club. I got to know them, and we had a direct line of communication.
JW: What were they telling you about the marketplace?
CT: I sensed I could record Freddie Hubbard on Red Clay, for example, and make a really attractive package out of it. Back then, these guys were businessmen but they also were interested in music. Even though A&M was handling the distribution at first, I knew the distribution guys well and could tell them what I had planned and who was going to appear on an album. Then I would say, "By the way, I’m going into the studio with Freddie [Hubbard] or Stanley [Turrentine] and the results are going to be very interesting." These guys would give me a sense of how they thought my concepts would sell or what I had to do to improve sales.
JW: What did you learn about consumers?
CT: Through the distributors I discovered that taste levels among buyers were shifting. With the rise of FM stereo radio in the late 1960s, the album began to gain on the single 45-rpm. FM stations needed to fill more time, since they had less ads at first. As albums became more popular, LP covers became more important. Younger people began to respond more to highly artistic, engaging covers.
JW: But covers were becoming more than just a place to put an artist's picture, yes?
CT: Absolutely. By the late 1960s and early 1970s, you
held covers, you left them out, face up or standing against speakers. They were meant to be seen. They were a personal statement. My goal with [photographer] Pete Turner was to create a mood for the covers. I wanted the images to symbolize the feeling and energy of the music inside.
JW: Yet your CTI covers by Pete were never literal images of the album titles.
CT: That's right. Jazz is about giving listeners space to reach their own conclusions. CTI cover art was always strong but subliminal in its depictions.
JW: Record covers were always important. When did they start to play an even bigger role, especially with the type of photography you were using and the wet, glossy surfaces?
CT: Right after I left A&M. I knew the guy managing the
distributor that sold directly to Korvettes in New York. The flagship store was on 5th Ave. [pictured]. Today, the store's name doesn't mean much to most people, since they went out of business years ago. But back in the 1960s and 1970s, the department store had a huge record department. The stronger the covers, the stronger the sales. Pete Turner's images were so rich and beautiful that I wanted them to take up the entire cover.
JW: What was the reaction?
CT: Eventually the distributor told me that customers weren't coming in to ask what’s new in jazz but what’s new on CTI. So our covers played a big role in the popularity of the albums. Or at last getting people to buy them for the first time. Distributors helped me realize that we headed in the right direciton.
JW: But there was plenty of competition for the consumer's dollar.
CT: Yes but not that much in my jazz category. By 1970, rock had overwhelmed most other genres. Many other jazz albums from this period looked shabby and sounded slapped together. My strategy was to invest heavily on the talent, sound quality and look of the records. By 1974, Billboard named CTI the label of the year, and we were the No. 1 jazz label in the world.
Tomorrow, Creed talks about producing his first CTI albums after leaving A&M Records, including LPs by folk singer Kathy McCord, folk-rock group Flow (with Eagles guitarist Don Felder), Freddie Hubbard's Red Clay and Deodato's Prelude.
Note 1: This is technically Part 15 in a series of conversations with Creed Taylor. For the earlier parts...
- Parts 1-4 (Bethlehem Years)—go here
- Parts 5-9 (ABC Paramount/Impulse Years)—go here
- Parts 10-14 (Verve/A&M Years)—go here
Remember, to access the next part in a series, simply click on the link at the top of each page.
Note 2: For my interview series with CTI cover photographer Pete Turner, go here.