The history of jazz generally focuses on the musicians. Rightly so, but it should also include the record producers. These often-forgotten producers ensure that the music is not lost. Eric Dolphy had forgotten them when he said, “When you hear music, after it’s over, it’s gone in the air; you can never capture it again.” Record producers have been able to capture a music that is otherwise ephemeral, leaving posterity a rich legacy of improvised jazz.
One of the most important producers was Bob Thiele (1922-1996). He started working in the recording industry as a 17-year-old and continued to the end of his life for a total of 56 years. His drive, affability and musical sensitivity enabled him to record countless great jazz musicians. We are so fortunate that we can still hear these jazz musicians today.
Born into a prosperous New York family, Bob Thiele became a jazz fan at the early age of 13 when his father gave him a record player and some 78s. The 78s included music by Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey. Soon he was also listening to Fats Waller and Frankie Trumbauer. He quickly became an avid listener: “When I would come home from school, I went right to my room and listened to records until dinner time.” (WWW, p. 11) Next he began to frequent local jazz clubs with his friend Dan Priest. At their favorite club, they saw Mugsy Spanier, Pee Wee Russell, Bud Freeman, Bobby Hackett and Wild Bill Davison: “We would arrive at Nick’s at around 9 pm (very early in those days) just about every night, get our front row seats, order our Coca-Cola, and stay listening to music until 4 am.” (WWW, p. 11)
Soon the precocious teen was visiting other New York jazz clubs and getting to know the musicians personally. He was still only 14 when he managed to land a 15-minute radio program on a foreign-language New York station. He soon graduated to a larger station, WBYN, and to a one-hour program. At the same time his record collection was growing.
Not surprisingly, he took up an instrument and began to organize concerts and jam sessions. As a Goodman fan, he learnt the clarinet and soon ran a 14-piece band that played at schools and beach clubs. For a while he organized Sunday afternoon jam sessions, paying musicians $30 each. Although these jam sessions lost money, they attracted jazz greats like Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins.
As if this schoolboy, now 17, wasn’t busy enough, he started up a magazine, Jazz, which ran for several years. As well, he set up his own jazz label, Signature Records: “All I knew was that you hire a studio and get an engineer, who then puts up a few microphones, and that was it. There was no tape then; the music went from the instruments in the microphones and onto lacquer discs.” (WWW, p. 26) His first issue featured pianist Art Hodes. Making good use of his jazz acquaintances, he soon recorded Yank Lawson, Pee Wee Russell, Eddie Condon and James P. Johnson.
By the end of the 1930s he was fully involved with the New York Jazz scene. He would see Chick Webb, Andy Kirk and Jimmie Lunceford at the Savoy Ballroom and Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Christian and Charlie Parker at Minton’s Playhouse.
This fairytale almost ended when he was 19. Following the attack on Pearl Harbour, Thiele enlisted. But Lady Luck was with him as he was posted locally to the Manhattan Beach Coast Guard. He could still visit his New York jazz clubs when off-duty. Further he was able to continue recording for his Signature Records label.
Exactly two years after the start of the war, Thiele, at the age of 21, organized his first major recordings: two Coleman Hawkins sessions and one Lester Young session. These were eventually assembled on one LP, Classic Tenors, a must-have in any jazz collection. The recordings were done in the middle of the night after the musicians had finished their club work. The most celebrated track is Hawkins’ “The Man I Love.” Not quite as celebrated as his “Body and Soul” recording, it is nevertheless regarded as a classic jazz solo.
In his autobiography Thiele has an interesting anecdote about the recording of “The Man I Love”: “Right during the middle…a cleaning lady walked in with a mop, intent on cleaning the studio. I literally walked out into the studio, put my fingers to my lips to be quiet, then held her arms. They played, and I’m holding a struggling cleaning woman while one of the most immortal solos in jazz history was being recorded.” (WWW, p.28) For these three Classic Tenors sessions, Thiele was also able to bring in such notables as Bill Coleman, Dickie Wells, Oscar Pettiford and Jo Jones. These recordings are still available 73 years later.
Thiele had an uncanny ability to recognize talent. An early example of this came two years later, in 1945, when a friend invited him to listen to a young Pittsburgh pianist. As soon as he heard Errol Garner, he set up a recording and added “four classic jazz sides” to the Signature catalogue. The two became close friends, and Thiele went on to publish Garner’s great hit “Misty.”
For a while it seemed there was no stopping Thiele. Even when his record-pressing source was no longer able to manufacture his records, he had the drive to set up his own factory. After the war he continued to expand Signature Records and moved into pop music. But it was tough for small independent labels; distribution became an insurmountable problem that finally forced Signature to fold. Thiele tried again with Steve Allen and formed Hanover-Signature, but despite some successful issues, this new company also folded.
Working for the Majors
When his Signature master recordings were bought by Decca Records, Thiele was hired by a Decca subsidiary, Coral. No longer answerable only to himself, Thiele now had to deal with a management whose priority was the bottom line. Nevertheless, he quickly found success in popular music: “From a pop perspective, these would be my glory days. For nearly a decade, I had hit after hit flying out there.” (WWW, p. 44) He recorded Debbie Reynolds, Alan Dale, Pearl Bailey, the McGuire Sisters and Teresa Brewer.
One day a friend brought him some recordings of an unknown New Mexico group, Buddy Holly and the Crickets. These recordings had been turned down my all the major labels; even the Coral management wasn’t enthusiastic. Thiele, however, was convinced of the group’s hit potential and eventually persuaded his bosses to sign up Buddy Holly. Holly quickly became one of the great pop stars of the 1950s. Sadly, this success was tragically cut short by a fatal plane crash. Thiele went on to more hits with Jackie Wilson and composer Henry Mancini. He stayed with Coral for nine years before he concluded that he wasn’t sufficiently appreciated.
His next employer was Dot Records, where he was again successful with creating a steady jazz catalogue. Conflicts with the owner led to his moving to Roulette Records where he found a “miasmal hoodlum atmosphere” that made it hard for him to focus on music.
Eventually Thiele became an executive at ABC Records. He was working in this capacity when Creed Taylor created Impulse Records under the ABC aegis. Taylor began with some excellent jazz recordings by Kai Winding, Ray Charles, Oliver Nelson and John Coltrane. Suddenly after nine recordings he quit. Thiele, who had a lot of experience with jazz, was asked to take over. His immediate task was to look after Coltrane, who was the label’s prime asset. With his taste still mainly in mainstream jazz, Thiele faced a difficult task. But as usual he was able to develop a positive relationship with this sensitive avant-garde musician and was soon recording a Coltrane session, Live at the Village Vanguard.
So well did he get on with Coltrane that the tenor player was soon introducing Thiele to all the avant garde musicians—Pharaoh Sanders, Archie Shepp, Albert Ayler and Charlie Haden. Thiele risked his job for Coltrane: “I think my contribution with ‘Trane was to let him record whenever he wanted—even when the corporate power structure was opposed to it. . . I was always brought on the carpet because they couldn’t understand why I was spending the money to record Coltrane.” (WWW, p. 23) Thiele was vindicated by the great success of Coltrane to the point that when a book was eventually published on Impulse Records, it was entitled The House That Trane Built. Thiele produced A Love Supreme, Ascension, Crescent, Impressions, Ballads, John Coltrane with Johnny Hartman, and Duke Ellington and John Coltrane, all of which are now seminal jazz records.
Coltrane wasn’t Thiele’s only success at Impulse. Among the great musicians Thiele recorded were Quincy Jones, Stanley Turrentine, Count Basie, McCoy Tyner, Benny Carter, Art Blakey, Lee Morgan, Wayne Shorter, Freddie Hubbard, Oliver Nelson, Charles Mingus, and Coleman Hawkins. He was also a fine marketer. Perhaps his most effective innovation was to design a unique spine for his Impulse LP albums: “Some careful thought went into the idea. We felt that…the spine for every record…should be uniform… We did the spines for two reasons: the consumers would always be able to spot [Impulse albums] in their collections, and more important the dealers would know where to look for the Impulse releases when they had them filed on their shelves.” (WWW, p. 133) To this day the spines of Impulse records, orange on the top half, black on the lower half, stand out strongly among the predominantly white spines of other albums.
Thiele was in seventh heaven at Impulse. His jazz catalogue was selling well, and he was recording the music he loved. To keep the bosses happy, he also recorded pop singers Frankie Laine, Judy Garland and Della Reese. His success enabled him to stay at Impulse throughout the 1960s, despite the usual gap between the executives’ financial priorities and his own music-based values. But the rock-driven popular music scene began to dominate through the 1960s, and it gradually became clear that his creative role in producing albums was no longer needed.
In 1968, Thiele finally resigned from ABC Records and set up his own jazz label, Flying Dutchman, and then a pop label, Amsterdam. On Flying Dutchman he recorded Leon Thomas, Gato Barbieri, Oliver Nelson and Lonnie Liston Smith. The label survived until 1984, after which Thiele set up a new label, Doctor Jazz, which later was renamed Red Baron. This label, apart from releasing jazz by Duke Ellington, Lonnie Liston Smith, Gato Barbieri, Stephane Grappelli and Teresa Brewer (Thiele’s wife), also specialized in reissues.
He continued working in the industry until his death in 1996.
Note: All the quotations and most of the material for this article came from Bob Thiele’s autobiography What a Wonderful World (1995).