The artistic and commercial vicissitudes of a seminal jazz label, reconsidered.
Journalist Kahn, who has written about Miles Davis (Kind of Blue) and John Coltrane (A Love Supreme), now examines the history of Impulse Records, that singular jazz incubator of the ’60s and ’70s. Initiated as an imprint of ABC-Paramount, the corporation encompassing the eponymous TV network and movie studio, Impulse blossomed quickly under the aegis of producer-executive Creed Taylor. It was Taylor who formulated the sleek look, striking logo and unique style of the label, which spawned early hits by Ray Charles (in a funky instrumental mode) and the exploratory saxophonist Coltrane, who (per Kahn’s title) became the company’s greatest star. The book’s true hero is Bob Thiele, who helmed the label from 1961–69, a period of explosive musical creativity amid violent social change. The firm’s “new wave of jazz” brought forth not only Coltrane’s daring avant-garde explorations, but also probing new works by jazz forefathers Pee Wee Russell and Earl Hines, swing era masters like Duke Ellington and Benny Carter, and Trane acolytes such as Archie Shepp, Albert Ayler and Pharoah Sanders. Those classy, stylistically diverse productions, Kahn notes, were also popular successes, despite debate about the value of jazz’s confrontational “new thing.” The book loses narrative steam after Thiele’s exit following a corporate clash in ’69, two years after Coltrane’s premature death. But the writer still tells some compelling tales about Impulse’s ’70s sojourn in Los Angeles; there, the label flourished for a time under Ed Michel, who issued classic records by such talents as saxophonist Gato Barbieri and pianist Keith Jarrett before its sale to MCA in 1977. Kahn covers all the aesthetic, business, social and historical bases with crisp economy. The book’s only shortcoming is one of design: Two- and three-page pieces interspersed through the text about significant or unusual Impulse releases, though informative, make for herky-jerky reading. Otherwise, this is a brisk account.
Generally speaking, a swinging read.