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Creed Taylor: Jazz Record Producer (Part One)

by John Cobley

Friday Mar 29th, 2024



 Since the career of record-producer Creed Taylor has been well documented, especially in interviews by Marc Myers and Devin Leonard (jazzwax.com and Wax Poetics #34), this first of two articles will focus on how Taylor worked with four major jazz musicians during the period before he ran his own company. The second article will focus on his work when he was running his own company, CTI Records.


But first a brief survey of Creed Taylor’s career.


After a degree in Psychology and a two-year military stint in Korea, Creed Taylor, a professional jazz trumpet player, found his way into record producing. It was 1954, a time when the LP was blossoming. After making a reputation with Bethlehem Records, he was hired by ABC-Paramount in 1956. At first he was producing mainly non-jazz records; then ABC-Paramount gave him the chance to start a jazz label: Impulse. After recording Africa Brass with John Coltrane, he was quickly recruited by Verve Records in 1961. Taylor was with Verve for three successful years. In 1964 Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss hired him for A&M Records and thence to his own label—CTI Records—in 1966. With CTI, Taylor rode the wave of success for a decade, producing jazz blended with soul and funk and often supported by string orchestras. However, despite continuing sales successes, Taylor made a serious business mistake in setting up an ambitious distribution network. Suddenly, in 1978, he was bankrupt. Despite several new ventures in the following years, he was never able to return to successful record production.




This article focuses on the first twelve years of Taylor’s record-producing career, when he worked as an employee. To some extent his hands were tied during these years. Nevertheless, under these constraints he worked successfully with some of the biggest names in jazz. This success was mainly due to his ability to accommodate these musicians while still keeping his employers happy. 





There is no doubt that Taylor was totally smitten by Bill Evans’ playing. He had heard the pianist many times on the New York club scene, and he had worked with him as a sideman on three albums under the names of Nelson, Johnson & Winding, and Knepper. So as soon as Taylor joined Verve, he openly tried to recruit Evans. “He was available,” he recalled. “I don’t know why he wasn’t signed for Riverside.” (Marc Meyers interview, (JazzWax)

Once Evans was signed, Taylor went to work with the goal of making him more popular or as he put it “widening his base.” Achieving this goal would require all of Taylor’s skills. Not only was Evans a heroin addict but he was also very particular over what music was issued. As well, Taylor knew he was going to need to record Evans in contexts different from the accustomed trio format. Years later, when interviewed for The Complete Bill Evans on Verve booklet, Taylor made light of the problems he had faced: “[Evans] was totally pragmatic inside the shell of the artist that he was…. He was right on top of what was going on, and so he had no hesitation whatsoever about doing something that might widen his base—as long as we came back to the kind of music that he felt so deeply about.” Taylor went on to repeat that proviso: “Can we make the kind of record that [will] widen his audience and maintain musical integrity?” 

Clearly Taylor spent a lot of time talking to his pianist: “We got along, we were great friends. We would have lunch together, and we’d talk a lot.” (Verve booklet) These regular discussions did bear fruit: the commercially successful Conversations With Myself. “Bill came up with the idea for three pianos,” Creed recalls. (JazzWax) Taylor’s efforts to accommodate Evans are evident in his comments on the piano setup: “We didn’t use gobos [baffles] on this date. There was a thick velvet drape on a runner up at the top near the ceiling, allowing you to move it around to adjust the reverberation…. We ran the drape around a few feet from the open side of the grand piano to minimize audio leakage.” (Verve booklet)

Conversations was a huge commercial success and Earned Evans a Grammy. On the whole Evans appears to have been happy musically with this innovative recording, although he did later say that only four of the tracks of Conversations should have been issued. 

However, Taylor’s other attempt at “widening the base” was not so successful. Bill Evans Trio with Symphony Orchestra, although pleasing Bill himself, did not sell well.

Then there was The VIPs album, a blatantly commercial recording that Evans was clearly tricked into making. He had agreed in principle to do a recording where he was to play “with a larger group.” But when he arrived for the session, he found out that the music was to be totally different from what he had been led to believe: “I didn’t know until I got to the studio that it was going to be this kind of an album…. It turned out…there was no room for me. So I just read the part, and it was really very pretty.” (Downbeat Blindfold Test) At first Evans didn’t want to have his name on the recording, but he finally relented and resignedly told critic Leonard Feather in a blindfold test, “As long as I know…that it’s commercial, I’m okay.” He admitted elsewhere that the record business is “ a hard, cold business.” (Verve booklet)

Taylor himself wasn’t too happy either: “I wasn’t crazy about doing The V.I.Ps album, but MGM wanted to get the songs out to promote the movies. My hands were somewhat tied. I said to Bill, ‘Let’s do this album. I don’t think you or I are that gung-ho on having you do movie music, but…it’ll be an endless benefit to both of us from a marketing and promotional point of view with MGM’s people.’” (Verve booklet) Creed also claimed that the VIPS was “the only blatant business thing Bill and I got into.” Finally he said, “Bill understood it. He had no artistic temperament about it.” (JazzWax)

Of course Taylor did record some trio albums for Evans. Early on he arranged an album with West Coast drummer Shelly Manne, and then he did Trio ’64 and Trio 1965. There is only one piece of evidence that Taylor ever tried to influence these recordings. This was with Trio ’64 where Taylor got into an argument with bassist Gary Peacock. It started with a comment to Peacock after the sound check: “I don’t really hear you playing the time. I want you to play more time.” Peacock said later that he thought Taylor was joking, but when he went on making further demands, Peacock told him he was going to do what her wanted and told him to go away. (Verve booklet, 126)

This incident suggests the possibility that Taylor “interfered” more often than has been documented. But Taylor looked up to Evans and probably didn’t feel he could impose his own ideas. Anyway, Evans never really complained publicly about Taylor. His close relationship with Taylor and his understanding of commercial pressures were clearly part of the reason for this.


Taylor had long dreamed of recording Verve’s Stan Getz. He had heard the tenor player way back in 1950, and since then had often thought about “how much I wanted to record him.” (JazzWax)  Taylor was unable to do so when he was at Bethlehem and ABC-Paramount, but once he joined Verve he had direct access to Getz. In fact, he told Marc Meyers that the main reason he moved to Verve was Stan Getz.

When Taylor arrived at Verve, Getz was working on an innovative project with arranger Eddie Sauter. The Verve head office was not keen on this change of direction by Getz, who had been selling well with standards albums. What was to become Focus was not considered to have sales potential. Taylor thought otherwise: “I didn’t want somebody to think that I marched into Verve and took this great talent and put him in some commercial grouping, to expose him to a larger audience. I knew that Focus was the right move.” (Verve Booklet) He also realised that supporting Getz on his Sauter project would pay dividends on a personal level: “ I knew if I did this album for Stan, he’d be on my side for whatever I wanted to do with him going forward.” (JazzWax)

But despite this support, Creed made sure that the project was carried out economically—even though this put a lot of stress on Getz. He didn’t allow any rehearsals beforehand and booked only two studio days for the recording. Unfortunately Getz missed the first session (his mother’s funeral) and the orchestra had to record without him. Maggin has described the pressure this put on Getz: “He was forced to record all seven parts of the 38-minute suite in one day, and he had to play through the first four selections alone wearing earphones to hear the tracks…previously laid down.” (Donald L Maggin, Stan Getz: A Life in Jazz, 201)

A consummate musician, Getz came through. Taylor quipped later, “The album won a Grammy, so I guess it turned out all right.” (JazzWax)

Accounts vary on how Taylor discovered bossa nova. The most likely version has Charlie Byrd, after a trip to Brazil, phoning Taylor. Byrd had tapes from his trip that he thought had potential, and Taylor listened to them over the phone. Taylor then called Getz and got him to listen too. A trial recording with Getz and the Byrd band was quickly set up, but it was a bust, mainly because of the different Brazilian rhythms. Creed didn’t give up and gave Byrd and his group time to work on the bossa rhythm. When Byrd was ready, Taylor and Getz flew down to Washington, DC for a second recording attempt. Taylor was “overjoyed” with the result: “The only thing that bothered me a little was the rhythm section. They were playing more on the beat rather than laid-back Brazilian. But all the songs on the date sounded wow.” (JazzWax)

Back in New York Taylor listened to the tape: “I knew instantly that something new was happening there. I called Stan and told him I was going to call the album Jazz Samba. He said, ‘Great, OK.’" (JazzWax)  The album was a huge commercial success: a single of “Desafinado” reached #15 on the pop charts, and the album became #1 on the Billboard 200 chart. 

Taylor went onto record another five bossa nova albums with Getz, the most successful being Getz/Gilberto with Astrud Gilberto, Joao’s wife. Creed took a risk with her, trusting Getz’s positive opinion of her as a singer: “I didn’t even know who she was until Jobim introduced me to her at the session. I think at the time, [Carlos] Jobim and Joao may have been against her singing. She was viewed simply as Joao's wife and not a trained singer. I think they were afraid she was going to bring the session down or something. But Stan pushed…. “ (JazzWax)

Many years later, Marc Meyers asked Taylor about his role in this session: “It was a very loose date. I just talked to everybody when necessary to get them to take a different position at the mike and so on. There were no musical arrangements, you know. A&R Recording was a great place to record, but the best thing technically about the session was engineer Phil Ramone. He was and is very personable and good at putting the artist at ease. He's also superb at placing mikes in just the right position. He had been doing a lot of dates for me up to that point.” (JazzWax)

In summary, it is clear that Taylor was able to work with Getz’s mercurial personality. “Stan could be very arrogant and didn’t hesitate to put people down,” he recalled. “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.” (JazzWax) Taylor also had to deal with Getz’s drinking. Getz had a habit of bringing hard liquor into his recordings sessions. In the very first recording session with him, Creed forbade any liquor in the studio, but afterwards he realised that liquor was needed for Getz to perform well and subsequently allowed him to bring a bottle into the studio.


The success of Out of the Cool was obviously due to Gil Evans’ arranging and composing skills. But the music would probably not have happened but for Creed Taylor’s patience and persistence that was based on his admiration for the arranger’s work: “You’d have to know Gil to understand. Deadlines never entered his mind. The track, “La Nevada,” for example, took forever. Gil and I drove out three different times to Rudy’s studio with the entire 15-piece band to try different arrangements, and nothing would happen.” (JazzWax) Then Evans, after playing repetitively the basic tune on the studio piano, found the answer and called on his musicians to follow his lead to record.

This recording was achieved at great expense to Impulse! Taylor explains: “Stuff like that is tough on the producer because the clock is money. But I wasn’t going to rock the boat with Gil. It wasn’t that he was fooling around. He was waiting for the right creative moment. And when it happened, man, it was worth the wait. I had no problem with patience on that. This guy had written stuff like that for Claude Thornhill. He could take his time, however long it took.” (JazzWax)

Taylor showed the same patience with Evans three years later with The Individualism of Gil Evans. According to Stephanie Stein Crease, “[Evans] was allowed to choose the number of musicians and all the recording time he needed.” (Gil Evans: Out of the Cool, 252)  No wonder Crease thought Evans has lucked out with Taylor. Evans also had the luxury of spreading out the recording for this album over almost a year. So through his faith in Gil Evans, Taylor was rewarded with another very successful album.


Just prior to recording Africa Brass, Taylor had recruited John Coltrane. After attending a late December show at the Village Vanguard, Taylor had talked to him. “I just called John and asked him if he’d like to record with Impulse.” (Ashley Kahn, The House That Trane Built, 47)  Once signed up to a generous contract, Coltrane discussed his idea for the first recording with Taylor, who quickly came up with a title for the album: Africa Brass. “I thought we should do something different,” Creed recalls. “Any minute detail that I suggested, Coltrane agreed with. I wasn’t trying to change the way he spoke through the saxophone.” (Wax Poetics) Coltrane wanted to use extra musicians to support his quartet. Taylor went along with this: “I certainly thought that the big band idea was good, because of all the colors they could put together with the subject matter.” (Kahn)


Perhaps overawed by Coltrane, Taylor gave Coltrane carte blanche for the two scheduled recording sessions. According to Ashley Kahn, JC was allowed to “expand his line-up (he employed up to 17 pieces on some tracks) and use the studio as a workshop and rehearsal space.” (Kahn, 52) McCoy Tyner, Coltrane’s pianist, confirmed this amazing freedom accorded to Coltrane: “There were no restrictions.” 


Unfortunately, Coltrane arrived at the Rudy van Gelder studios unprepared. This was partly due to arranger Oliver Nelson dropping out of the project. Coltrane appointed Eric Dolphy to replace Nelson although he had no real experience in arranging. Dolphy, arriving with no charts, worked with Tyner in the studio to prepare the charts. Tyner recalled, “I wrote the arrangement for ‘Greensleeves,’ and Eric just looked at my voicings on the piano, what I was playing under the melody of ‘Africa.’ He said, ‘Wow, what are you doing?’ So I showed him what I was doing and he orchestrated that.” (Kahn, 53)


For Taylor this situation couldn’t have been easy. He had organized expensive studio time, and while the clock was ticking, he was watching an inexperienced arranger trying to patch together the charts. Later on Taylor made light of this: “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.” (JazzWax)


So Taylor put his trust in Coltrane and just stayed in the background: “There was very little I could do to help him on his journey. His talent was so unique. There was a religious quality about him, and you either recorded John that way or you didn't. I was honored to have worked on Africa/Brass.” (JazzWax)



Creed Taylor was clearly successful in his interactions with these four great jazz musicians. Respect for them was clearly beneficial as was his sensitive musical ear. His careful discussions and consultations helped to make his musicians happy. This was at a time when most record producers felt that all they had to do was to get a compatible group of musicians together and let them play. Taylor was always more involved in the preparation and approach of his recordings. And he was able to succeed through patience and through confidence in his own opinions.


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