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Creed Taylor, legendary producer who guided and expanded jazz, dead at 93

Creed Taylor sits for an interview, set to be included in a forthcoming documentary on the producer's life.
Courtesy of Snapshot Foundation
Creed Taylor sits for an interview, set to be included in a forthcoming documentary on the producer's life.

From 1953 through the '90s the record producer Creed Taylor, who died Monday at the age of 93, brought a regal touch to jazz, showcasing its players like aristocrats. Employed at the Verve label in the '60s, Taylor backed pianist Bill Evans with a symphony orchestra; he took bossa nova, a music created by the Rio de Janeiro elite, and gave it to the world. He packaged his artists' work in stylishly illustrated gatefold jackets that bespoke class. His death was confirmed in a statement from Verve Records.

Taylor's productions sent numerous jazz stars, including saxophonist Stan Getz and organist Jimmy Smith, onto the pop charts. "He was a visionary," says trumpeter and A&M Records co-founder Herb Alpert, who along with the Snapshots Foundation is helping to finance a forthcoming Taylor documentary.

At his own company, CTI Records (Creed Taylor Incorporated) — whose daring and grandiosity defined jazz at its most extravagant — Taylor produced impactful work by George Benson, Herbie Hancock, Wes Montgomery, Stanley Turrentine, Hubert Laws, Airto Moreira and other masters.

"I credit my career to Creed," says keyboard player Bob James, a pillar of smooth jazz and fusion; Taylor had launched him on CTI with four albums and made him a house arranger. "Every time I go anyplace to tour," James says, "I have instant credibility because I was so involved with the CTI sound."

To Herb Alpert, Taylor looked "like an accountant"; his speech was measured and soft. "But he was hands-on," notes James, "with very definite ideas about how he wanted his projects to go."

Growing up in rural Virginia, Taylor sat by the radio, addicted to late-night broadcasts from Birdland. After earning a degree in psychology he headed to New York, eager to join the jazz scene. In 1954 he volunteered to produce records for a floundering label, Bethlehem.

From there, says jazz historian Dan Morgenstern, Taylor "proceeded according to his own taste."

He gave the company a lifesaving boost when he launched Chris Connor, a frosty-voiced ex-band singer, as Bethlehem's First Lady of cool jazz. After producing other budding greats, including Charles Mingus and Carmen McRae, he moved on to a startup company, ABC-Paramount. There he spotlighted Quincy Jones as a big-band arranger and launched a historic singing trio, Lambert, Hendricks & Ross. In 1960, ABC-Paramount allowed him to start a subsidiary, Impulse, where he signed John Coltrane and produced Ray Charles.

The next year, Taylor traded Impulse for Verve, where his love of Brazilian music burst forth. "Without Creed," says his colleague Arnaldo DeSouteiro, a Rio-based music producer, "the world would probably never have become aware of bossa nova." In 1962, Taylor produced Stan Getz and guitarist Charlie Byrd's Jazz Samba, America's breakthrough album of Brazilian jazz. Out of it came "Desafinado," a Grammy-winning single.

The next year, Taylor teamed the saxophonist with singer-guitarist João Gilberto, one of bossa's creators, on the album Getz/Gilberto. Taylor opted to release "The Girl from Ipanema," an unknown song in the U.S., as a single. It shot to No. 5, won a Record of the Year Grammy, and made Getz a household name. The track also brought global renown to its pianist and composer, Antonio Carlos Jobim, and to João and his wife Astrud Gilberto, whose languid, deadpan vocal epitomized the beach nymph in the song.

In 1967, Herb Alpert and his business partner, Jerry Moss, invited Taylor to launch CTI as an A&M subsidiary. Quickly he helped launch another Brazilian legend when he released Milton Nascimento's American debut, Courage.

CTI went independent in 1970, and the jazz that Taylor released there began to cross bridge after bridge. Bop trumpeter Freddie Hubbard made his fusion debut with the album Red Clay. Brazilian pianist Eumir Deodato's bombastic funk treatment of the Richard Strauss composition "Also Sprach Zarathustra" became a Grammy-winning No. 2 single. Yusef Lateef, who played world music on an array of wind instruments, recorded Autophysiopsychic — "a laid-back rap record," said Taylor. R&B/jazz singer Esther Phillips scored a disco hit with the Dinah Washington trademark "What a Difference a Day Makes." Jackie & Roy, a married jazz vocal duo whom Taylor had recorded for years, received the grandest production of their lives: Time and Love, a symphonic album whose arrangements, by Don Sebesky, quoted Debussy and Bach. But for all of its successes, CTI was hemorrhaging funds; in the late '70s the company went bankrupt and fell into messy litigation. Taylor revived the label for a few years in 1989; thereafter he devoted himself to reissues of its classics. Hip-hop artists have also brought Taylor into the present — recordings he produced have been sampled thousands of times.

Seen from a distance, Taylor's contribution becomes clearer: "He brought elegance to jazz," says Herb Alpert. "He was a soulful guy, caring about the musicians and wanting the best for them. Money wasn't the issue with him. He went with his gut."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: August 29, 2022 at 12:00 AM EDT
This article originally identified Mr. Taylor's date of death as Tuesday, Aug. 23. It was Monday, Aug. 22.
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