I went up to Rockefeller Plaza a few weeks ago to visit Creed Taylor, president of CTI Records and one of the legendary jazz producers. His reputation, though, has tarnished among jazz watchdogs, many of whom see Taylor and CTI as chief villains in the great Crossover Saga. But CTI's catalog has featured the best of funky jazz since the label's inception - its first stars included George Benson, Stanley Turrentine, and Freddie Hubbard (all of whom have since left CTI) - and it now boasts some of the best performers in rhythm and blues today - Esther Phillips, Grover Washington, Hubert Laws. Taylor's music has claims to make despite the polemics of its detractors.
Taylor is an unlikely candidate for the controversial role he plays in jazz history. He is a genteel Virginian in his mid forties, lean and decorous with gray curls about his temples and the confident and controlled air of a Princetonian adman or banker. There is a springy, athletic tension to his frame, too, and it makes his manner warm and casual, but also guarded and circumspect. His eyes carry the weary cool of a man who has survived the incongruous and equally grueling pressures of the jazz scene and big business all at once. He works long, hard days - most of the time he's producing out at Rudy Van Gelder's studio in Englewood - and he eschews the expected rhythms of nighttime recording and clubhopping in favor of family life, horticulture, and a set of HO trains.
Taylor came to New York around 1952 and started gigging as best he could as a trumpet player mostly the slush circuit and an occasional jam with some of the heavies (52nd Street had just closed down when he arrived), but he was barely scraping by. At that point along came an old friend from Duke who was starting a record company but didn't know the first thing about music. Enter Creed, and his career as a producer began. When Bethlehem Records started, Creed had never even seen the inside of a recording studio. But the first wax he ever cut there with Chris Conner singing (Tom Dowd was the engineer for those early sessions) turned into a hit. After a couple of years at Bethlehem, he moved to ABC, where he founded Impulse Records in 1961, with an opening series of dates by Gil Evans, Ray Charles, Kai Winding, and J.J. Johnson.
From Impulse he moved to Verve, where he produced a Grammy-winning LP with Bill Evans, and from there he went to A&M, where he developed what later became the CTI sound. CTI is music with few illusions. Even when arrangements are classic Memphis/Muscle Shoals pumpers - like David Matthews's arrangement of "Baia" on drummer Idris Muhammad's "House of the Rising Sun" - the production is taut and lean: not luxuriant like Muscle Shoals or feet square on the ground like Willie Mitchell's Memphis, but scrubbed to a hard edge and gazing at the world with diffidence, reserve, and a sure knowledge of what swinging means even in a rhythm and blues setting.
Taylor is relentless and exacting when it comes to recording. He chooses his session musicians not only project by project, but tune by tune as well. If someone isn't working out on a given session, Taylor goes off and finds someone else to replace him. And if the personnel aren't cooking the way he wants them to, he'll abbreviate the date and reschedule it a day, a week, a month later. If a featured artist wants touring band members or old associates to play on a record when Taylor thinks they can't cut it as well as somebody a phone call away, he'll say so. He meets the usual protests with a heavy rap. This is a recording, he'll say, this is the stuff people will hear 10, 20, 30 years from now. Posterity, after all, is listening. Capitulation, of course, is inevitable.
But if Taylor sounds tyrannical, that's only because most of us are naive as hell on the subject of record production. Musical producers, after all, occupy the slot of director in the cinematic analogue, and an auterism in pop recording is just as defensible - and just as illuminating - as it is in film. The way Taylor handles musicians resembles the way Hitchcock, for example, handles actors, both kinds of personnel functioning like day journeymen in the service of an auteur's personal vision. Of course, this kind of musical auteurism holds good only outside the domain of the great jazz soloist. Taylor's Grover Washington, for example, hardly matches the preeminence of a Trane, Dolphy, or West Montgomery, and stands in need (despite an astonishing technical fluency and even a momentous understanding of soulful grooving) of an overarching auteur to set his sound within the larger context of a studio production, like Junior Walker at Motown or King Curtis at Atlantic. There is, after all, a kind of bogusness to Grover's absurd facility. The funk runs so smooth and effortless off his tenor - a far cry from the bleeding restraint of a King Curtis or an Illinois Jacquet - that one suspects a gratuitous rave-up, another theatrical rock energy bash.
Most of us have only a passing sense of the difficulties involved in pop recording, and few realize just how high an achievement the art of production really is. It's a painful task to get instruments to sound normal on records, much less to sound intentionally different from the way they do in a club or concert hall. To be sure, producing got a bad name back in the rock '60s when its first real public notice was occasioned by the conventional wisdom that producers could make bands sound far better in the studio than they sounded in person. Hence the producer as villain, whether he's Jimmy Page covering up his own mistakes or George Martin supposedly fabricating the Beatles' success.
No one seemed to realize, though, that rhythm and blues had been a producer's game virtually from the start: Ray Charles and the Erteguns, Leiber & Stoller, and the Coasters, Berry Gordy and Smokey in Detroit, Wexler and Dowd with Aretha at Muscle Shoals, Willie Mitchell and Al Green in Memphis - the list goes on and on. In fact, producers can often make the whole difference. Without Wexler, Aretha might still be sagging, while even in rock someone like Todd Rundgren was able once to make Grand Funk Railroad sound downright respectable. Of course, the cinematic analogue persists here, too. Jack Nicholson, for example, gave the best performance of his career in "Chinatown" because director Roman Polanski bridled and controlled his talents. Even an actor as legendary as John Wayne plays at his best only under the tutelage of pantheon directors like John Ford or Howard Hawks.
Taylor himself now ranks with the greats of rhythm and blues production because he shares the consistent, needful, and representative obsession with the sound of the snare drum that you can always hear in the best of pop recording. Taylor was explicit about the snare when I asked, and extended the creative obsession to include bass and bass drum too - the anchors of the sound. But this isn't your average AM-radio producer's "crank up the bottom" kind of attitude. It's a little more spiritual - no, intellectual - than that. It has to do with the notion of a ground to sound, a tough enough idea anyway since music alone among the arts is without material substance, literally groundless when compared to the dependence, say, of literature painting, sculpture, film, on physically present elements like words, colors, shapes, images, and so on.
So a record producer is faced with the problem of overcoming the paradox latent in the nature of the medium - to give the illusion of space, depth, and time to recorded sound. Most producers give you flatness instead, the way a lot of film directors and writers give you their own versions of a dimensionless mise-en-scene. The dead production of Billy Swan's recent LP, for example, stands in inverse proportion to the rocking quality of the music itself, and ends up diminishing an otherwise sizzling sound. Even a veteran jazz producer like Orrin Keepnews allows the mean funk of Stanley Turrentine's brand-new "Everybody Come On Out" (on Fantasy) to spread all over the place - because he refuses the tyrannical role of an r&b auteur.
In fact, Taylor distinguishes himself from Keepnews by suggesting to me that Keepnews lets musicians do what they want in the studio while Taylor himself disciplines his sessionmen with the overriding certitude of a commercial visionary. He preferred, for example, to his controversial handling of Wes Montgomery as an attempt to get Wes "organized," intimating by his even-toned assurance some unspoken reservations about the personal togetherness of musicians in general.
Taylor's commercial preoccupations, though, have not prevented him from assembling a CTI/Kudu/Salvation catalog that includes wide-open, hard-swinging dates by world-historical players like Ron Carter and Jim Hall (now signed to Horizon) as well as the better-selling r&b that has come to dominate CTI's line. CTI's Carter/Hall style of jazz is largely devoid of formula squeeze (Carter's recent disco lp, "Anything Goes," is a major exception), full of long and expressive solo sequences even on mild discs like Carter's "Spanish Blue" or Hall's "Concierto."
But, of course, it's Taylor's r&b sound that needs to be vindicated. Not just to valorize his exertions over the last six years (though this second phase of his career needs appreciation), but also to suggest some resolutions about the Great Crossover Debate in general. The pejoratives may weaken as the synonyms unfold (Selling Out, Crossover, Fusion, Jazzrock), but the assumption of rigid distinctions between things persists in them all: rock and jazz, jazz and soul, soul and rock . . . . Currents of taste still say that it's somehow okay to like the Bar-Kays and "Shaft" but not Hubert Laws and "The Chicago Theme." Of course, I can't say that Hubert ranks all that high on my list, but I can say that this double standard in taste smacks of condescension toward rhythm and blues. It's an old story, of course, and one that most musicians laugh at, too, because they generally know better than to put down the bugaloo (I didn't say rock and roll). Doubtless it is obvious that even some of the greatest of rhythm and blues musicians - Steve Cropper, Roger Hawkins, Cornell Dupree - are far from being technical wizards. But there is nonetheless a wisdom to the logic of rhythm-and-blues phrasing that informs all swinging or rocking musical forms in our culture, and it is one that r&b as a medium makes the very focus of its sound.
As for the touted Muzak quality of much disco and contemporary rhythm and blues, there's a good musical reason for it. Commercial Latin settings - Miami mambo and chachacha as well as the watery tango of potted palms from those Depression radio broadcasts - are really the plainest generic or formal ground accessible to all grooves in music at their formal peripheries. It is here alone that they may meet each other with the full strength of their respective resources, and this is the reason that so much genuine crossover music now sounds like slush to so many people. We're talking, after all, about the historical gestation of a new and inevitable form of music. The determinations of history - and they are as inexorable in aesthetics as they are in less superstructural realms like economics - are not to be coaxed into categories of enjoyment, fun, and so on, when it is clear that long-range destinies are being worked out in contemporary gigging and recording alike.
There's a darker and more generative side to the impulse toward rhythm and blues in contemporary jazz, too. Like Charlie Parker, John Coltrane left future musicians little but profound guilt, a sense of unworthiness, and nothing left to play. In fact, Coltrane's role in jazz has no more illuminating parallel in the history of the arts than Milton's in the tradition of the epic poem. Like his counterpart in jazz, Milton had fulfilled the tradition of poetry in English so completely and with such overriding power that challengers at the bar of fame habitually swooned and fainted - like Keats's persona in the second "Hyperion" - at the prospect of poetic duels akin to the blaze of cutting in jazz.
It's by way of a theory of poetry that we can perhaps replace the troublesome high art/pop art distinction in music. I suggest borrowing from literary theorist Harold Bloom the notion of the "strong poet" different from all his colleagues over the history of the medium and similar only to a handful of rivals acknowledged to be the spine of the tradition as a whole. In English poetry, these "strong poets" would include, for example, Spenser, Milton, Wordsworth, Keats, and soon, in jazz, they would include (for soloists) Bechet, Prez, Hawkins, Reinhardt, Christian, Parker, Gordon, Dolphy, Coltrane, Rollins, and so on. And if Bloom can point to a contemporary working poet like A.R. Ammons as a case of the anxiety of influence, we can point to an identical situation in contemporary jazz in the anxious relation played out often in the New York clubs between Sonny Fortune and the specter of Coltrane.
Taylor himself agrees that the dominance of the avant-garde in the jazz of the '60s produced a difficult situation in the music for a few transitional years, the ones in fact that saw the birth of CTI (1970 ff). In those days, of course, most of us felt the way Joe Farrell must have felt when (as Taylor reports) Farrell told Taylor that he couldn't record a plain old tunebecause he'd be laughed out of town. In fact, the only people I knew who were getting off on Creed Taylor then were rock and roll musicians experiencing for the first time what you might call the wonders of jazz - sterling articulation, complex solos, the works. All this, mind you, on the basis of some funk sides by a laid-back Hubbard or Turrentine.
But, you know, these rockers were cool to dig the stuff and admire it. They had already been back to the blues and to the great soul sounds of the '60s before they encountered - as the next logical moment in the progression of their own understanding - the funky jazz of a culturally suppressed segment of the jazz population. These rockers dug the Bensons before the Burrells not because they were ready to become jazz musicians themselves (though some thought they were for an unfortunate while, even if many others learned at last the pride of craftsmanship), nor because they could penetrate to the deepest of jazz wisdoms, the sublime defusions of bop. No, they dug the stuff because they saw in it the core of a pop vision - a commercial vision, if you will - that could turn pop on its ear with fulfillments and dimensions unheard of even in the classic, but minimal, work of the earlier studio masters. Meanwhile, the jazz world had begun to reach toward the common ground of rhythm and blues, too, and found as many rockers filtering in from one side of the border as there were jazzies filtering in from the other.
Strangely, though, Taylor showed little interest in rock as we sit talking about all this in his spacious midtown office. Flanked by two huge white stereo speakers in a room of white curtains, carpets, tables, and couches, he seems largely removed from concerns that are not directly pertinent. He is a trifle embattled, too, though his certainty is still disarming. I even receive with a surprising numbness his inability to remember the immortal name of that alto player on Oliver Nelson's classic LP, "The Blues and the Abstract Truth" - the syllables of Dolphy had to come from my lips, not his.
Taylor, of course, is a self-admitted businessman. His interest in management goes back to his days as an undergraduate at Duke University, where he studied psychology because of an interest in what he calls "personnel" (the term vibrates somewhere between employees and musicians).
Since then, he has produced gypsy guitar and the whiffenpoofs, and he was also the man who asked Wes Montgomery to record a version of Little Anthony's "Going Out of My Head." He appears to possess that almost transcendental American belief - understandable in a former Marine who saw service in Korea - in the metaphysical meaning of the marketplace , as though consumption were really the "dollar vote" that someone like Paul Samuelson claims it to be. But once again the assurance disarms me, and I realize that the corporate magician sitting across the table from me is a pop visionary with few peers in the Crossover Saga that he has helped write. The frustrations of jazz and rock alike stand deconstructed and expunged in the New York rhythm and blues that Taylor has recodified and sustained over the last six years. He has (to be sure) managed this overriding achievement at the cost of supplanting our accustomed mythologies of Art and personal Expression. But if the cost is perhaps too severe, the alternatives of mourning, self-indulgence, and existential bravura are perhaps even worse.
Originally published in The Village Voice, June 28, 1976