Today, May 13th, marks the celebration of producer Creed Taylor’s birth, Creed would have been 95 years old.

Creed Taylor was a notoriously reserved and observant producer, his raison d’être was to let his artists music, his productions, speak for him.

Even in the 2022 documentary about Taylor, by the Snapshots Foundation, “The Music Came First” – Creed doesn’t say a lot. Here for the first time online is a 1979 interview Creed gave to UK Magazine Jazz Journal International. At the time of the interview Creed would have been either 50-years old, or approaching his 50th birthday.

For context for the attached interview, Creed and CTI had filed for Chapter-11 bankruptcy protection on December 9th, 1978. The bankruptcy had been bought about by CBS/Columbia foreclosing on a loan that had been secured with the majority of the recording master tapes owned by CTI. There were also a number of other legal battles going-on, think vultures and road-kill. Taylor had, by that time, produced the last of the CTI vinyl albums, including the Nina Simone – “Baltimore”, Art Farmer – “Something You Got”, Urbie Green – “Senor Blues” and while he would go on to record more albums and six benchmark digital jazz films, released on laserdiscs, the future recordings would be made under the banner of 2001 Records and the Greene Street label.

This rare 1979 interview was published in November 1979 in Jazz Journal International. Now simply “Jazz Journal,” having dropped the “International” from its masthead, it is a UK print and digital magazine. It recently led with a review of the new Ray Gallon album “Grand Company,” which features (Sir) Ron Carter and Lewis Nash [1]

The interviewer for the 1979 article was Mike Hennessey. Hennessy was a longtime European editor for Billboard Magazine, as well as a contributor to a number of jazz and music magazines. Mike died in 2017. The interview included a number of stock photos of artists which are not included, it also included a copy of a greyscale image of Creed which is also omitted. Spellings remain UK English.

It all began, really, back in 1965 when Creed Taylor gave Wes Montgomery a copy of Going Out Of My Head by Little Anthony and the Imperials and suggested that Wes might like to include the tune on his next album. Montgomery looked at Taylor with an expression which clearly said, “You’ve certainly gone out of yours.” But he was ultimately persuaded to record the song and it completely transformed his career.

The album, Goin’ Out Of My Head, was a million seller which won a Grammy award as the best instrumental jazz performance of 1966. It also opened the way for Montgomery to spend the last two or three years of his tragically short life enjoying the financial security to which his musical genius more than entitled him.

And that’s when the cries of “sell-out” and “pandering to commercial considerations” began. Those who had been astonished and totally captivated by Montgomery’s brilliant, spontaneously creative work on the Riverside label between 1959 and 1964, were dismayed to see him move into more commercial territory. Others, including not a few of his fellow musicians, took a realistic view of the harsh economics of being a jazz musician and argued that five-star reviews wouldn’t feed Wes’s wife and six children.

In his notes to the Milestone double album, “Pretty Blue”, J. R. Taylor observes: “… we must regret that Montgomery’s gifts were turned so completely toward the radio industry’s idea of what a good record was and adds: “Nearly all of what will eventually answer for Montgomery’s creative reputation was recorded for Riverside.”

Elsewhere in the notes, however, there are significant allusions: “Montgomery worked not only regularly but to the point of exhaustion. For years, his daily routine included a full-time non-musical day job; a five-hour performance at the Turf Bar; and a couple of after-hours sets at the Missile Room.”

And, of his post-Riverside recordings: “Several of his albums were among the best-selling jazz records made before the 1970s.”

The argument about the extent to which commerciality undermines integrity and about the right of jazz musicians sometimes to put their financial security before artistic puritanism has raged ever since and has come into sharp focus with the massive advent of fusion or crossover music. And the producer who is identified more than any other with the crossover movement is Creed Taylor.

Since he founded the CTI label in 1970, Taylor has been a regular target for jazz purists on the grounds that he sullies the pure gold of jazz with the dross of disco, the shoddy gilt of string sections. A rarely- interviewed man — I can recall only a Max Jones piece in Music Maker, the now- defunct sister monthly of Melody Maker, in March 1967 — Taylor himself has kept himself isolated from the controversy by spending most of his time in the studios and in the fight to stave off the economic perils which have threatened CTI in recent years.

But in New York recently I talked to Creed Taylor and invited him to put the case for crossover — an idiom which has had more than its fair share of critical hammering in the pages of JJI, not least by myself.

Before discussing the crossover issue, it would be as well to outline the career of Taylor because there is a distinct danger of allowing his signal achievements as a jazz record producer to be overshadowed by what some consider to be his crossover excesses.

Creed Taylor was born in Lynchburg, Virginia on May 13th, 1929. He obtained a bachelor’s degree in psychology at Duke University where he also played trumpet in the marching band and in the University dance orchestra. In 1954 he became head of Bethlehem Records and two years later joined ABC Paramount and started the illustrious Impulse label. In 1962, after Norman Granz had sold Verve to MGM, Taylor became a producer for the label. He moved to A&M in 1967 and left after three years to start his own record operation. In the decade and a half that preceded the start of CTI, Creed Taylor was responsible for the production of some truly significant jazz albums, approaching his craft with care and commitment, opting for the concept album rather than the informal blowing session, and following the creative process through from musical inspiration to effective promotion and marketing.

With Bethlehem he produced the Kai & J.J. album (1954) and an early impressive achievement with ABC Paramount was the production of the Lambert, Hendricks & Ross album Sing A Song Of Basie using 4- inch monaural tape and as many as 30 overdubbings. “We finished up,” Taylor reflects, “with a tremendously interesting album musically — and a tremendous amount of hiss.”

Taylor’s main claim to fame during his six years with ABC-Paramount was the creation of the Impulse label — one of the most illustrious in jazz — and his production of such classic albums as “Out Of The Cool”0 and “Into The Hot” by Gil Evans; “Blues And The Abstract Truth” by Oliver Nelson; “Genius + Soul = Jazz” by Ray Charles. His track record during five years with Verve was even more impressive. He had a particularly fruitful association with Stan Getz and also with Bill Evans. The list of well-conceived and largely successful albums includes “Getz’s Focus” (recorded in 1961), “Jazz Samba”, with Charlie Byrd (1962 — one of the biggest- selling jazz albums in history), “Getz- Gilberto” (1964 — a million-seller and Grammy Award winner) and the excellent “Sweet Rain” (1967).

The Bill Evans list includes “Conversations With Myself” (a 1963 Grammy Award winner), Bill Evans With Symphony Orchestra and “Trio 65” (1965) and “Intermodulation” (1966) with Jim Hall. Then, of course, there were the Wes Montgomery sessions and a particularly notable album, “Stride Right” with Johnny Hodges and Earl Hines (1966), which is one of Taylor’s favourites. With the move to A&M in 1967, Taylor maintained his association with Montgomery and also produced albums by Jobim and Astrud Gilberto. For some time now he had seemed to be moving away from “hard core” jazz and the creation of his own label in 1970 gave him total freedom to pursue his new direction. He used Eumir Deodato, Bob James and, later, Don Sebesky as arrangers, hand-picked excellent, compatible musicians and planned every new album with a meticulous thoroughness. And he undoubtedly launched Hubert Laws, George Benson, Stanley Turrentine, Grover Washington Jr. and Esther Phillips into musical orbits which were far more auriferous than had been the case prior to their association with Taylor. Today CTI and Kudu have a combined catalogue of almost 150 albums and I suppose it is safe to say that to the average JJI reader, the vast majority of these are anathema.

When Wes Montgomery began earning real money through his Verve and A&M recordings, he answered accusations of betraying the jazz cause by saying, “People are not listening as well as they think they are, in all cases.” I thought the Wes Montgomery issue would be a good starting point for my conversation with Creed Taylor — and duly broached the subject.

Creed Taylor is a cultivated, calm, soft- spoken and extremely articulate man and his response to my questions was considered and thoughtful, never glib or superficial.

“Once I got over the hump of giving Wes that Anthony and the Imperials record, he was a joy to work with. Oliver Nelson helped persuade Wes to record the number. From that point on things went very smoothly. I worked with the arranger, he would put a piano sketch on tape and send it to Wes wherever he happened to be on the road. He’d rehearse between jobs and then come into the studio to record. He didn’t read at all and was very self-conscious about it — but he was a natural musician. “I think his recordings for Riverside had been, to say the least, loosely produced. The producer would call the artist, the artist would put a rhythm section together and then they would play for a while. But there comes a point with those jamming albums, with interminable solos, when you have to acknowledge that they are not reaching many people, and they would never get the artist played on radio stations — which is mandatory for record sales in the United States.

“I decided that if people were going to hear Wes Montgomery, I would have to record him in a culturally acceptable context. Now I wasn’t particularly enamoured of the idea of surrounding Wes with strings, but if that was a way of getting him known to more people, then that was the way it had to be. If he were recording today, of course, the strings would be absolutely taboo. We’d simply gel a good rhythm section together and make a hot jazz record — and people would accept it.

“The record-buying audience of today is much more educated and sophisticated in terms of its jazz tastes. But the original purpose of crossover was to infuse elements into a jazz recording that would enable it to reach a larger audience. I don’t think that is necessary any more because the taste of record buyers has now become so eclectic that the same young person of college or post-college age would buy Steely Dan, Weather Report and the good Freddie Hubbards (staying away from the abortive crossover attempts). The problem now is that the non-professionals have gotten into the crossover act and tried to force so many jazz players into an unnatural environment. If Weather Report and Chick Corea are to be assessed as crossover artists, then, obviously I regard theirs as credible music which does literally cross over. But on the other hand an awful lot of music that CBS, for example, is producing in the crossover area is very distasteful, abortive and unnatural.”

In using commercial elements to make jazz acceptable to a wider public. Creed Taylor has naturally exposed himself to criticism that instead of succeeding in making “real” jazz more popular, he is helping to obliterate it by a vast flood of elaborately produced jazz-tinged soul and disco music. Taylor refutes this by claiming that there are sure signs that the audience for true, unadulterated jazz has increased substantially in the States.

“I am planning to make more straight jazz records now because I believe the audience is out there and ready for good, credible improvised music. I have vowed to stay out of the disco arena — I’ll leave that to Ford and General Motors. I think that whole area is very distasteful — even though I dig drag Esther Phillips into it with “What A Difference A Day Makes”. (And, incidentally, dragged her into a much more comfortable income bracket).

“I definitely believe that the process of making the music more accessible has turned more people on to jazz — but that isn’t to say I haven’t made crossover mistakes myself. After the Esther Phillips hit I spent too much time — about a year, I guess — producing records for discos, because discos are a new promotional outlet and my primary responsibility to CTI is to produce records that sell. This is where Creed Taylor, the company owner, can be pulling in a different direction from Creed Taylor the producer. It’s a trap, quite frankly.”

“I asked Taylor about the critical response to his CTI productions, pointing out that quiet a number of JJI contributors who have been invited to review the albums have declined, complaining indignantly that they have nothing to do with jazz.

“I think,” he said, “that a great many critics miss the point — just as much as a certain New York film critic misses the point in his movie reviews. I go to a great many films because he gives them a bad review. Now, Chris Albertson is a very intelligent and well-informed reviewer, but he tends to view producers with a jaundiced eye — so lately I can read the review even before he’s written it. Then there is Nat Hentoff who tends to dismiss everything that is not Charlie Mingus or of that totally pure jazz ilk. As a matter of fact, Nat and I really don’t see eye to eye.

“But I maintain that jazz has always been my primary area of operation and I’m happy to say that I see the whole cycle coming back to where it was in 1970 because of the tremendous flood of crossover records — not in spite of it — and there is a widespread awakening to the good players who have been around a long time, players like Stan Getz, Jim Hall and Dexter Gordon. When I first came into the record business, 5,000 was an extraordinary sales figure for a jazz album. Now sales of 50,000 are quite common — that’s quite a change. In the past there was not the remotest chance of a million-seller jazz album — but now we have George Benson with a double platinum album.”

Taylor is not impressed by suggestions that George Benson has succeeded so spectacularly because he has deserted jazz to become a pop artist — ‘‘It’s the same George Benson but a different record market”; he does, however, admit that because jazz seems suddenly to have become big business in the United States, there have been some crass attempts to exploit its potential.

“The major record companies have been going full steam ahead producing jazz records and some of the results have not been too impressive. What happens is that CBS sees that Freddie Hubbard achieved some good sales figures with CTI. So they sign Freddie and argue that they can get even more sales if they push him deeper into the crossover thing. I saw the result of this philosophy soon after Freddie had signed with CBS. He played a concert with a three-girl back-up group doing choreography like the Supremes — it was totally out of character with his music and most embarrassing. That’s why he initially made such invalid records — as he said himself. So long as they make records like that it muddies the water. I can certainly understand criticism of that kind of crossover music. But the way George Benson has handled it is totally right. I don’t think his musical approach has changed at all. He has acquired more confidence in playing to huge groups of people and now he takes more chances — vocals, for example. But his guitar playing is just as spectacular as it has always been. People — millions of people — know who George Benson is and what he does, and they like it. If they had known earlier, he would have been a star earlier. It is simply a question of adequate exposure. Proper exposure could do a similar job for other jazz musicians who are currently reaching only a minority audience. ”

One of the major problems in assessing the worth of crossover albums is that you have to reorientate your critical criteria — it doesn’t seem an awful lot of use to approach Bob James as you would Earl Hines. So I asked Creed Taylor how he would advise a seasoned, “pure” jazz bigot to approach CTI repertoire in order to derive the maximum stimulation from it. He took a long pause for thought and said: “Let’s start with the rhythm section.

Without a really solid rhythm section — well-recorded bass and drums — anything you put with it, no matter how strong the soloist, becomes severely impaired. I know that, as a listener, before I was a producer I always listened to the bass line and the drum line first — then I would listen to the solos. And if it all came together, I found it to be a totally satisfying record. But I would almost go as far as to say that even a Charlie Parker record without a decent rhythm section would not be all that fulfilling for me.

“It is hard to pick any one element and say ‘listen for this or that’, but buy a Steely Dan record and listen to Wayne Shorter and Steve Gadd. Steely Dan unquestionably have valid melodic and compositional elements.

“Electronics are an important element in crossover music, of course, but they are often totally misused. In the hands of Joe Zawinul they are used with supreme intelligence and taste. And George Duke uses electronics intelligently — I say that not just because he sells a lot of records but because he makes no bones about what he is doing and does not resort to gimmickry. “But to me it all begins and ends with the rhythm section — that’s why I use Steve Gadd a lot. He is one of the most versatile drummers I know; he sounds different with Jim Hall from the way he sounds with Ester Phillips, but he always sounds like Steve Gadd. He is extraordinarily sensitive, not only about music but about recording, and of all the drummers I’ve worked with he has best mastered the technique of George Benson playing to the mike without bugging the engineer. And he has impeccable time. He would certainly be in my ideal rhythm section. And on bass Will Lee and Gary King are at the top of my list. I also have a very high regard for Ron Carter and Mark Egan.’’

Where Taylor’s personal jazz tastes are concerned he confesses that his all-time favourite combination was the Norvo-Farlow-Mingus trio of 1950-51. And asked to make a “desert island” selection from his own productions, he plumps for Quincy Jones’s “That’s How I Feel About Jazz”, the Jim Hall “Concierto” album, “Genius + Jazz = Soul”, and any of the albums by Getz, Wes Montgomery, Wynton Kelly and the early Jobim. I would also take the album I recorded with Nina Simone in Brussels in 1977. That wasn’t the easiest record in the world to make — but as an artist, Nina Simone can do no wrong as far as I am concerned.”

Taylor still spends 90% of his time in the studio — often that of the meticulous Rudy van Gelder with whom he has a long association. “I approach the organising of a record from the mix of the rhythm section — and by that I mean which bass player sounds best with which drummer, and with which trumpet player or tenor player. I try to put the pieces together like a chess game and I’m very actively involved in the arrangements, the order of solos, the length of solos, the material in general and, of course, the actual recording and mixing.”

And through it all Taylor keeps firmly in mind the tendencies of the market, the programming of the radio stations, the trends reflected in the music trade papers. He’s not, he insists, compromising the integrity of jazz artists; he is, on the contrary maintaining his own integrity as a gifted and imaginative producer and, with any luck, helping to steer a few more record-buyers’ dollars in the direction of some very talented jazz musicians.

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