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Creed Taylor (born May 13, 1929) is an American record producer, best known for his work with CTI Records, which he founded in 1968. His career also included work at Bethlehem Records, ABC-Paramount, Verve, and A&M Records. He is widely acknowledged for bringing major bossa nova talent from Brazil (Antonio Carlos Jobim, João and Astrud Gilberto, among others) to record in the U.S. in the 1960s.
Taylor was born and spent his childhood in Bedford, Virginia, where he played trumpet in the high school marching band and symphony orchestra. Although he grew up surrounded by country music and bluegrass, he gravitated more toward the sounds of jazz, citing Dizzy Gillespie as a source of inspiration during his high school years. Taylor recalls spending many evenings beside a small radio, listening to Symphony Sid's live broadcasts from Birdland in New York City.
After high school, Taylor completed an undergraduate degree in psychology from Duke University in 1951 while actively performing with the student jazz ensembles the Duke Ambassadors and the Five Dukes. Taylor credits Duke’s strong tradition of student-led jazz ensembles, and Les Brown's association with Duke in particular, as initially drawing him to the university. As he recalls, "The reason I went to Duke was from hearing Les Brown and all the history of the bands who went through Duke. This was really a great jazz band, . . . and the book was handed down from one class to the next, you had to audition and all the best players who came to Duke got in the band. . . . I had a ball when I was there." After graduating from Duke, Taylor spent two years in the Marines before returning to Duke for a year of graduate study.
The Bethlehem years
Shortly thereafter, Taylor relocated to New York City in order to pursue his dream of becoming a record producer. Although he had no formal training at the time in record production, he recalls his "mix of naivete and positive thinking" that convinced him that he could succeed. After arriving in NYC, Taylor approached another Duke University alum who was running Bethlehem Records. Taylor convinced Bethlehem Records to allow him to record the vocalist Chris Connor with the Ellis Larkins Trio. Due in part to the album's success, Taylor went on to become head of artists and repertory for Bethlehem Records. He was at Bethlehem during its two most significant years, recording such artists as Oscar Pettiford, Ruby Braff, Carmen McRae, Charles Mingus, Herbie Mann, Charlie Shavers, and the J.J. Johnson-Kai Winding Quintet.
The ABC-Paramount years
In 1956 Taylor left Bethlehem to join ABC-Paramount, where four years later he founded the subsidiary label Impulse!. Motivated by the idea of a label dedicated to tasteful, current jazz, Taylor worked with ABC-Paramount executive Harry Levine to advocate for the label, which he dubbed “The New Wave in Jazz.” He is best known for recruiting John Coltrane to record on Impulse!, who went on to create over twenty albums with the label before his passing in 1967. Taylor’s accomplishments during this period also included gaining immediate credibility for the label by releasing successful gate-fold albums by Ray Charles, Gil Evans, Kai Winding and J.J. Johnson and Oliver Nelson. Taylor was sensitive to the importance of album cover design for visually drawing people to the music, and he regularly hired photographers Pete Turner and Arnold Newman to create cover images. Taylor’s successful Impulse! albums regularly blurred the genre-based lines between jazz and popular music, and his superb production values became the hallmark of the label.
Although he signed John Coltrane for Impulse in 1960, Taylor left the following year to accept a job with Verve Records. There he prominently introduced bossa nova to the US through recordings such as “The Girl from Ipanema” with Antonio Carlos Jobim and Stan Getz. Jobim, a prolific writer on both piano and guitar, had come up with numerous melodies based on the rhythm of the bossa nova. One such piece, "Desafinado", found its way into the repertoire of bebop trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie (who intuitively recognized the connection to his genre) and caught the ear of jazz guitarist Charlie Byrd while he was on tour in Brazil.
When Byrd returned to the States in 1961 armed with "Desafinado" and a cache of new Brazilian songs, the first person he rang up was jazz producer Creed Taylor. As Taylor recalls, “I went down to Brazil a few times and spent some time at Jobim’s house and met all the players down there. Then of course after “Desafinado” became a hit, Jobim wanted to come up and see what New York was like, so he came in to see me right off the bat. That started a long friendship and series of albums.”
As Gene Lees puts it, “Creed Taylor was treating [bossa nova] with respect and dignity. Were it not for Creed Taylor, I am convinced, bossa nova and Brazilian music generally would have retreated in to itself, gone back to Brazil... and become a quaint parochial phenomenon interesting to tourists, instead of the worldwide music and the tremendous influence on jazz itself that it in fact became.”
The A&M Years
Taylor began working at A&M Records in 1967 and formed his own label, CTI (Creed Taylor Inc.), the following year. A&M distributed CTI releases until 1969, when Taylor left A&M to establish CTI as an independent record company. Wes Montgomery joined Taylor at A&M, where he recorded his final three albums.
The CTI years
Taylor soon established CTI among the most popular and successful jazz record companies of the 1970s, achieving fame for his unrivalled ability to balance the artistic with the commercial. Musicians including Freddie Hubbard, Stanley Turrentine, George Benson, Chet Baker, Gerry Mulligan, Nina Simone, Paul Desmond, Art Farmer, Herbie Hancock, and Ron Carter are just a few of the many successful jazz artists who recorded on CTI during the 1970s. Taylor also formed other labels within CTI, including the Kudu label, which focused on soul-jazz recordings by Hank Crawford, Grover Washington, Jr., Esther Phillips and others
Bert Gambini, a radio programmer in Buffalo, summarizes, “In evaluating CTI, I'm going to borrow the wisdom of Witold Rybczynski, the architectural historian. He felt there was no such thing as a timeless building. Certain structures were admired because they are specifically of their time. I think this too is the case with CTI jazz. This music screams of its era and that's the reason why it's so enjoyable. It's that temporal stamp that I interpret as an asset, not as a liability. Instead of Creed Taylor, think Glenn Miller for a moment. If you want to aurally represent an era like the early 1940s Swing era, is there any better representation than 'In the Mood' or 'String of Pearls'? The same thing applies to Creed Taylor's CTI's brand of Jazz from 1970 to 1980".
In 1974, Taylor faced financial problems caused by setting up his own network to distribute CTI labels and made a new distribution deal with Motown. This, however, ended in litigation in 1977 with Taylor having to lose Grover Washington and the artist's Kudu recordings as part of the settlement to quit Motown. He also lost the rights to Bob James's solo recordings for CTI in separate litigation. CTI went into Chapter XI bankruptcy in late 1978 before Taylor reached a distribution deal with Columbia Records the following year, in return for the rights to the remaining master recordings.
Columbia oversaw various reissue programs of CTI’s catalog material, including on CD for the first time. Taylor attempted to buy back the rights to the tapes in 1989, but the recordings remain with Columbia/Sony BMG with sporadic re-releases. Taylor returned to record production in 1990 with a few new album releases on CTI through Polygram but without the success of the 1970s.
Taylor has won numerous Grammy Awards for his decades of production work. These include awards for: Focus (Stan Getz, 1961), “Desafinado” (Stan Getz/Charlie Byrd, 1962), Conversations with Myself (Bill Evans, 1963), “The Girl from Ipanema” (Stan Getz/Joao Gilberto, 1964), “Willow Weep for Me” (Wes Montgomery, 1969), and “First Light” (Freddie Hubbard, 1972).
- A Few Words About a Living Legend, Creed Taylor
- Biographical profile at dougpayne.com
- 19-part JazzWax interview with Creed Taylor