Creed Taylor, Producer Who Shaped Jazz for Decades, Dies at 93
He made scores of albums with artists who were well known and others who soon would be. He also founded two important record labels.
By Neil Genzlinger
Aug. 25, 2022, 6:06 p.m. ET
Creed Taylor, one of the most influential and prolific jazz producers of the second half of the last century, best known for the distinctive work he did for his CTI label in the 1970s, died on Monday in Nuremberg, Germany. He was 93.
Donna Taylor, his daughter-in-law, said he had been visiting family there when he had a stroke on Aug. 2. He never recovered, she said.
Mr. Taylor began his career as a jazz producer in the 1950s, and in 1960 he founded the Impulse! label, which would become the home of John Coltrane and other stars. He did not stay there long, though, and most of the label’s best-known records were produced later.
He moved to another jazz label, Verve. He made a lasting mark there by producing recordings by the saxophonist Stan Getz that popularized bossa nova, including “Getz/Gilberto,” the celebrated 1964 album by Getz and the guitarist João Gilberto that included “The Girl From Ipanema,” with Mr. Gilberto’s wife, Astrud. Both the album and the single, a crossover hit, won Grammy Awards.
In 1967, Mr. Taylor was at A&M, where he founded another label, Creed Taylor Inc., better known as CTI. Three years later it became an independent label, which over the next decade became known for stylish albums by George Benson, Stanley Turrentine, Grover Washington Jr. and others — and for a degree of commercial success that was unusual for jazz.
“In many ways the sound of the 1970s was defined by CTI,” the musician and producer Leo Sidran said in introducing a 2015 podcast featuring an interview with Mr. Taylor.
The records Mr. Taylor released on the label often emphasized rhythm and favored accessibility over esoteric exploration. As J.D. Considine wrote in The New York Times in 2002 when some of these recordings were rereleased, Mr. Taylor “believed that jazz, having started out as popular music, ought to maintain a connection to a broader audience.”
Some purists might have scowled at the time, but the effect was undeniable.
“The true measure of his impact was that at the height of the 1970s when so many musical styles were jostling for attention, more people were listening to jazz than ever before,” Ashley Kahn, a music historian, said by email. “For most, CTI wasn’t thought of as a jazz label; it was a sound, a musical identity like Motown. When you bought a CTI album you knew it was going to be top-quality on all levels, with at least two or three tracks you’d be grooving to for a long time to come.”
Impulse!, still a force in jazz, memorialized Mr. Taylor on Twitter.
“He was a genius when it came to finding new and special music that would stay with listeners forever,” the company’s post said.
Creed Bane Taylor V was born on May 13, 1929, in Lynchburg, Va. His father was, as Donna Taylor described him, a “gentleman farmer,” and his mother, Nina (Harrison) Taylor, was a personnel director.
Mr. Taylor grew up in Bedford, Va., and in a bucolic area known as White Gate, west of Roanoke, where his family had owned land for generations. He played trumpet in high school, inspired by Harry James. He was surrounded by bluegrass and country music, he said in a 2008 interview with JazzWax, but much preferred jazz.
“It was cooler music,” he said. “It made you feel hip, not corny.”
He enrolled at Duke University, where he studied psychology until the Korean War interrupted his schooling. After finishing his service with the Marines, he completed his psychology degree in 1954 but quickly made his way to New York to pursue his real interest, music. An earlier one-week visit to the city, he said on Mr. Sidran’s podcast, had whetted his appetite.
“Fifty-second Street was on fire,” he said. “You could walk into any little club at the base of any brownstone in that whole section and at no charge you could hear Basie, Ellington, Getz, you name it. I could hardly wait to get back again.”
He was inspired, in a manner of speaking, to go into producing by “Jazz at the Philharmonic,” the long-running series of concerts and recordings organized by Norman Granz, whom he would later succeed at Verve: He didn’t like it.
“The long bass solos, the tenor solos, you name it,” he said on the podcast. “Drum solos, and the crowd, and all the excitement — what happens to the music in all that? ‘Jazz at the Philharmonic’ was, for me, a circus.”
In 1954 he landed a job at Bethlehem Records, where he produced albums for the vocalist Chris Connor and others. It was an era when producers did everything for a record, from lining up musicians to trying to get radio stations to play it. Mr. Taylor enjoyed being Mr. Do-It-All.
“I was fascinated by the record business,” he told JazzWax, “from how to put a record’s cover and liner notes together to getting the records into stores and selling them.”
And sometimes, it meant discovering the artist. He told JazzWax that in late 1954 he moved to an apartment in Greenwich Village and became intrigued by a flute player he could hear practicing as he sat in his backyard garden.
“He’d play scales and then launch into amazing jazz lines,” Mr. Taylor recalled. “I decided I had to find out who the devil was playing.”
He followed the sound and knocked on the musician’s door. It was Herbie Mann, then still largely unknown; Mr. Mann recorded some of his first albums for Bethlehem.
In 1956 Mr. Taylor moved to ABC-Paramount, where he produced all sorts of albums (one was a collection of speeches and other highlights from the career of Dwight D. Eisenhower) but concentrated on jazz, making records with the trumpeter Kenny Dorham, the singer Bobby Scott and countless others before forming Impulse! as a subsidiary label.
There and at his later stops, he encouraged his artists to try new things, and not to shy away from other genres. One of his George Benson albums, for instance, was “The Other Side of Abbey Road” (1970), featuring Mr. Benson’s guitar interpretations of songs from that Beatles album.
At CTI in the early 1970s, he also packaged artists together in star-studded stage shows. “A real jazz festival has finally come to Atlanta,” The Atlanta Voice wrote in 1973 when the CTI tour played that city with a lineup that included the vibraphonist Milt Jackson, the guitarist Eric Gale and the singer Esther Phillips.
Whatever the project, Mr. Taylor’s stamp was distinctive.
“The through line to the labels Creed worked for or started — including Impulse, Verve and CTI — was an auteur-like, 360-degree approach to creating high-quality recorded product,” Mr. Kahn, the music historian, said, “recruiting A-list jazz players and being open to familiar pop melodies — like bossa nova, soul and R&B tunes, even the Beatles. He used top studios — Rudy Van Gelder’s most often — arrangers like Don Sebesky, and placed museum-quality photography on the album covers. “He thought and acted like a one-man record company, and then became one: CTI. Think Phil Spector, but with a deep feeling for jazz and soul, and without the guns.”
Mr. Taylor’s first marriage, to Marian Wendes in 1956, ended in divorce in 1984. In 1988 he married Harriet Schmidt. She survives him, along with three sons from his first marriage, Creed Bane Taylor VI, Blakelock Harrison Taylor and John Wendes Taylor; a daughter from his second marriage, Courtney Taylor Prince; and five grandchildren.
The CTI label, though successful early, ran into financial trouble — Mr. Taylor said he made some ill-advised decisions on distribution matters — and filed for bankruptcy in 1978.
He also got into a protracted legal dispute with Warner Bros. over the rights to Mr. Benson’s music. After a jury found in Mr. Taylor’s favor in 1988 and awarded him more than $3 million, he was able to revive the label for a time. By then, 1970s CTI records had begun to be reissued by CBS Records, which had acquired the catalog. Rappers were sampling his records, and, with the revival of vinyl in recent years, collectors were valuing them.
In 2012 Mr. Taylor spoke to a jazz studies class at North Carolina Central University, recounting stories of how he got the guitarist Wes Montgomery to try new things, how he talked Nina Simone through the recording of her album “Baltimore,” and more. He encouraged any would-be producers among the class to remain ever curious.
“You have to keep your eyes and your ears open the whole time,” he said.