Creed Taylor and the Origins of Smooth Jazz

Creed Taylor (circa 1970) Courtesy Michael Ochs Archives

Creed Taylor and the Origins of Smooth Jazz

I can assure you the genre Smooth jazz falls from the sky, onto the minds of the people who create and harness it. The emerges where artists are playing jazz music; a significant progression of newer constructs of African, Latin, and European music starting in the 1920s and 1930s. No record, record label, producer, or artist created smooth jazz singularly, but is easy for anyone to discover its key pioneers who gave it life and energy. Smooth jazz and Acid jazz emerge out of Latin-tinged lounge music; experiments showcasing on Broadway and in Hollywood. You had to go to theatres and cinemas to open your ears to lounge music.

Verve Records, a jazz label at the vanguard of the experiment, became a subsidiary of MGM Studios. Norman Granz was the head producer at Verve, but Creed Taylor succeeded him in from Impulse Records. Impulse just a year old was known for influential recordings from John Coltrane et al. Creed, better than any other individual, made Bossa Nova and Mambo a lucrative and enduring influence in jazz. He continued to champion the influence of soul and funk fusion jazz by pairing with Motown to form Kudu Records. Dave Grusin, co-founder of GRP Records, himself comes out of Hollywood and a career composer of soundtracks to notable movies.

My former professor, who read at Berkeley, California, said musicians experimenting with unconventional but cool styles in late night performances and jam sessions created smooth jazz in West Coast jazz clubs. The intention was to make the clubs sexy, relaxed and attendees spend their money on more alcohol and cigarettes. Latin and soul fusion can be sexy. Movie studios may have gotten the idea here. Many commentators dispute this account on the grounds its roots are African and the Latin injection is a Johnny-come-lately. I can assure you if we go back to Chaldean, Egyptian, Sumerian, and Greek times, we will find smooth jazz or persuasive elements of it. Knowledge is full of surprises. There is ever new information.

The Latin influence became embedded with eminence in the Great American Songbook by 1940. In 1914, Irving Berlin composed a Tango-themed musical, Watch Your Step, that kick-started the first national dance craze in the USA. That same year, W. C. Handy wrote the tango influenced, St Louis Blues. Ignacio Piñeiro’s music was the inspiration for George Gershwin’s Cuban Overture in 1930. Gershwin and Piñeiro became great friends and met in Havana in 1932. Cole Porter and his contemporaries wrote several Latin-influenced hits in the 1930s. Porter released the hits, Night and Day, Gypsy in Me, and Make It Another Old-Fashioned, Please. Harold Arlen wrote the song, La Rhumba and Irving Berlin, Heat Wave.

Another important development for Smooth jazz has Afro-Cuban roots. Desi Arnaz pioneered the Cuban conga line. The conga line was the inspiration for Rogers and Hart’s 1939 Broadway musical, Too Many Girls and the 1940 film. The appeal of the conga line made it a staple music signature on silver screen from that time onward. Mario Bauza discovered, befriended, and introduced Dizzy Gillespie to Ella Fitzgerald. The immediate collaboration between Gillespie, Bauza, Chano Pozo, and other Cubans offered the beginnings of Afro-Cuban Jazz, a percussion driven genre. Who can forget Manteca?

Rock-and-roll music overran avant-Garde and cool jazz, which had become the face of jazz in the 1950s. Creed Taylor came along to Verve Records from Impulse Records in 1961. Between 1962 and 1963, he produced Stan Getz’s albums such as Jazz Samba, Big Band Bossa Nova, and Getz / Gilberto besides others, not without initial studio opposition. These albums produced the biggest ever international music craze up to that time. The most influential one before The Beatles. Bossa Nova’s achievement and inspiration nudged many leading jazz musicians into visiting Rio.

Several purists are harsh towards Creed for making jazz music commercial. Music is a lucrative business. Why should jazz be an exception? A recent post on Facebook’s Jazz Music page read, If you lose your wallet, you are poor for a week. If you learn how to play jazz music, you become poor for life. Was it a joke, a fact, or both? Tony Williams told his workshop audience questioning him about commercial jazz. His reply was, Once you cut a record and put a price tag on it, it’s commercial. Many would agree jazz musicians should not starve for their genius.

By the mid-60s, Creed Taylor had started the latest direction for Smooth jazz, but did not stop there. At Blue Note Records, saxophonist Lou Donaldson had through serendipity created a new jazz paradigm, Funky Jazz, with his influential album Alligator Boogaloo. Strong groove rhythms, novel syncopations across bass-lines, break beats and electric guitar riffs drove Funk music. James Brown originated Funk. The music made an instant mark on jazz. The natural fusion between Latin and Funk soon became a popular niche with record labels. Creed began working in a different direction for jazz that could incorporate rock and soul.

Counterculture’s ambience may have driven Creed Taylor, still at A & M Records, into a swashbuckling move to establish his own CTI label. He set out to capture the Funk, Latin, Soul, and Rock fusions emerging, turning them into bestselling contemporary music. It worked. Creed pursued a meaningful association with Motown Records having Grover Washington Jr, Junior Walker and the All-Stars, and the Funk Brothers in his sights. Motown’s owner, Berry Gordy, refused to release Grover from his contract; Creed had no Luca Brasi to make him an offer. Kudu Records’ creation out of the partnership prospered and popular jazz-funk hits became custom, not the exception.

Now, what were the dedicated smooth jazz labels that preceded CTI anywhere? Blue Thumb, A & M, GRP, and other successful labels in that genre joined the CTI bandwagon. We must not dismiss that epoch of jazz fusion underpinned by electric bands and a few acoustic ones. Before 1960, there were no Fender Rhodes keyboards, synthesizers, Fender Bass guitars, electronic drums and other musical gear that defined smooth jazz from the 1970s. CTI’s stable of musicians included Grover Washington Jr, Wes Montgomery, Geroge Benson, Joe Farrell, Freddie Hubbard, Hank Crawford and more. Whoever played smooth jazz better than these msicians? Outside CTI, Dave Grusin, The Crusaders, Sadao Watanabe, Blue Mitchell come to mind. Every jazz fan has their lists.

The Smooth jazz ensembles featured by CTI Records and competitors began playing jazz unlike anyone had heard hitherto. The new brand of jazz was not a fad. Smooth jazz had become a definitive genre, discipline, and career. 

Creed Taylor’s legacy and contributions to the enterprise of jazz music are inestimable. Creed is the man who made jazz more popular, more acceptable, more appealing, and more commercially lucrative. He is an Okpike, who has my full respect. How about you?

Grimot Nane

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