Jazz impresario Creed Taylor was one of the last of a dying breed of ‘record men’

<span>Photograph: Donaldson Collection/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Donaldson Collection/Getty Images

The “record men” were a fabled breed of almost entirely American males who, across the 20th century, became famous in their own rights due to their discovering, recording, promoting and sometimes fleecing of future legends. It’s a legacy that stretches from Ralph Peer (Mamie Smith, Jimmie Rodgers) to Suge Knight (Snoop Dogg, Dr Dre). They were made redundant by a corporatised music industry. Creed Taylor, one of the most decent of their kind, has died aged 93.

Despite working with everyone from John Coltrane and Ray Charles to Stan Getz and Astrud and João Gilberto, Taylor never achieved the kind of reverie – or infamy – achieved by Peer and Knight, nor Sam Phillips, Berry Gordy, Jerry Wexler, David Geffen or Clive Davis. Not that this mattered to him. Creed was a reticent figure who, unlike many of the aforementioned, never courted publicity. Instead, he set about ensuring that the jazz and R&B music that he had loved since childhood was recorded and promoted with great care.

Taylor grew up in rural Virginia surrounded by country and bluegrass, but he developed a passion for jazz aged 10 thanks to listening to radio broadcasts of performances from New York. Initially, Taylor hoped to succeed as a trumpeter but, after realising he could never match Dizzy Gillespie’s technique, arrived in New York in 1954, a Korean war veteran determined to work as a jazz producer. With no formal training in recording, he recalled pursuing his dream with a “mix of naivete and positive thinking”. Initially, Taylor experienced only rejection – but a university friend was running Bethlehem Records and Taylor convinced him that he could transform the then-spluttering career of jazz singer Chris Connor. Connor’s resulting album, Lullabys of Birdland, found Taylor producing, designing the cover and getting involved in promotion. It was a success and Taylor was soon working with Carmen McRae, Charles Mingus, and Herbie Mann before ABC-Paramount hired him.

Creed Taylor pictured in 2005.
Creed Taylor pictured in 2005. Photograph: Jack Vartoogian/Getty Images

Here Taylor produced Sing a Song of Basie, the debut album of Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, which involved the then-new studio technique of overdubbing the vocal trio. The album sold strongly, and came with Taylor’s signature inscribed on the back cover – which would become a feature of every album he produced. In 1960 Taylor convinced ABC-Paramount to launch Impulse! Records, a specialist jazz imprint, to whom he signed John Coltrane, Ray Charles and Oliver Nelson.

Moving to MGM to run its Verve label, Taylor’s enthusiasm for Brazilian music led to him producing 1962’s Jazz Samba by saxophonist Stan Getz and guitarist Charlie Byrd. The album’s title track reached No 15 in the US charts while the album topped them – a phenomenal achievement for jazz musicians. From 1964, the album Getz/Gilberto found Getz teamed with Brazilian singer-guitarist João Gilberto and his wife, Astrud, who lent her untrained voice to an English language version of The Girl From Ipanema that made bossa nova a global sensation.

Taylor took jazz artists into the US Top 40 more often than any other producer: Jimmy Smith’s Walk on the Wild Side, Cal Tjader’s Soul Sauce, Kai Winding’s More, Walter Wanderley and Astrud Gilberto’s Summer Samba and Wes Montgomery’s Windy were all Taylor productions. Montgomery’s instrumental recording of the Beatles’ A Day in the Life drew effusive praise from Paul McCartney who would later gift a demo of Let It Be to Taylor to be recorded with “any jazz artist”: he recorded and released it with flautist Hubert Laws on his Crying Song LP in 1969, several months before the Beatles released their version.

In 1967 Taylor founded his own label, Creed Taylor Incorporated (CTI), and initially signed established jazz musicians whom he believed could win a wider audience – Wes Montgomery, Herbie Mann, Nat Adderley and Tamiko Jones. Taylor’s interest in Brazilian music also led him to sign Antônio Carlos Jobim, Milton Nascimento and Astrud Gilberto. Brazilian pianist Eumir Deodato gave CTI its biggest hit in 1973 when Also Sprach Zarathustra (2001), a jazz-funk retooling of Richard Strauss’ music from 2001: A Space Odyssey, reached No 2 in the US. Trumpeter Freddie Hubbard’s 1970 album Red Clay became a milestone in soul-jazz, while Randy Weston’s 1972 album Blue Moses was the pianist’s most commercially successful. But it left Weston conflicted – he felt Taylor’s production had polished his music more than he wished.

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Polish was not something that George Benson was upset about. Taylor worked with him more than any other artist, producing 10 albums between 1968 and 1976. These included the 1970 opus The Other Side of Abbey Road and 1972’s White Rabbit, on which the guitarist’s instrumental workouts on songs by the Beatles, Jefferson Airplane and the Mamas & the Papas won him a rock, pop and easy listening audience. Aware that CTI was increasingly seen as a label for smooth jazz, in 1972 Taylor created a sister label, Kudu, to emphasise earthier styles. He launched saxophonist Grover Washington Jr (helping pioneer jazz funk) and ensured that veteran saxophonist Hank Crawford and vocalist Esther Phillips both worked with top-level session musicians and were given sympathetic, contemporary material: Phillips’ most visceral vocals can be found on her 1972 Kudu album From a Whisper to a Scream.

Unlike Blue Note’s Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff, who focused on letting artists pursue their modernist muse, Taylor aimed to release jazz albums that would find a wide listening public. “I thought the listener’s attention span was being stretched by interminable bass and drum solos,” he said of his approach to producing. “Any solo that went on for ever, I thought, was the wrong way to try to make people like the music I loved.”

His commercial acumen ensured that, by 1974, CTI was the world’s most successful jazz label. That year saw Bob James’ album One finding the pianist turning classical compositions by Pachelbel and Mussorgsky into a jazz-funk bestseller – and attracting brickbats from critics. Taylor shrugged off such criticism. But it was CTI’s commercial success that brought about his downfall: hubris saw Taylor set up CTI’s own North American distribution system at great expense – only for Warner to pick off their most popular artists. He then partnered with Columbia as distributor, though after albums by marquee names such as Chet Baker failed to sell they called in a $600,000 loan he couldn’t repay. Meanwhile, disco overwhelmed jazz-funk on the dancefloor.

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Struggling to stay afloat, in 1978 Taylor produced Nina Simone’s Baltimore album – doing so in Belgium, where the singer was exiled – and found it a stressful experience. (Baltimore failed to sell at the time, although it is now seen as Simone’s last great recording.) Later that year CTI was forced to file for bankruptcy – Taylor would sue Warner Brothers, who had reneged on a deal with CTI regarding Benson, eventually winning $3,000,000 in damages.

Taylor resurrected CTI in 1989 as an independent label, again specialising in jazz fusion, before closing it in 1996. By then acid jazz had reignited interest in CTI and Kudu while rap trailblazers such as NWA, A Tribe Called Quest and the Notorious BIG plundered the labels’ catalogues for samples.

If there was a constant amid Taylor’s various industry guises, it was adaptability. “As a producer, I am listening. Hard,” he once said. “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.”