The House that Trane Built: The Story of Impulse Records

"The House that Trane Built: The Story of Impulse Records"

by Ashley Kahn

W. W. Norton & Co.

338 pages

$22.95/ 39.00$



There's something to be said for overcoming a color scheme. Red-and-green means Christmas, yellow-and-black looks like a bumblebee, and orange-and-black more often than not means Halloween. But in the 1960s -- and still today for a cadre of jazz faithful -- the combination of orange and black means something very different: Impulse! records and, by association, the great John Coltrane. The orange and black spines of the label's releases stood out on the record shelves and became such an enigma that fans began wearing the colors like avant garde mascots.


Telling the story of the label that more than any other brought the new, high-energy jazz of the 1960s to the listening public was a logical next step for author Ashley Kahn. His 2002 book A Love Supreme: The Story of John Coltrane's Signature Album is a remarkable and highly readable piece of jazz history. To follow it up, Kahn dove deep into the label that made the album, and arguably the careers of Coltrane, Albert Ayler, Archie Shepp and Pharaoh Sanders possible.


What stands out about Kahn (who also wrote Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece across these two books is his extraordinary focus. Either of the Trane tomes could have ended up as yet another bio of the saxophonist, but Kahn wisely chooses discrete subjects and sticks to them. As such, The House that Trane Built isn't so much about the saxophonist as the business behind him. Impulse's three primary producers -- Creed Taylor, Bob Thiele and Ed Michel -- get far more page space than do the horn players they worked for. (For a definitive Coltrane biography, see Lewis Porter's 1998 John Coltrane: His Life and Music. Kahn has set out to tell an industry, not an artist, story, and does it quite well.


The Impulse story is neatly bookended by its only two hit singles: "Mint Julep" by Ray Charles from 1961 (his only release on the label) and John Handy's 1976 "Hard Work." But over the course of six years in the interim, Coltrane released 16 albums on the label and was directly or not responsible for contracts signed by many of his bandmates and followers. But the story couldn't be told without the musicians, and the anecdotes along the way are rich. Sun Ra returned his contract with the addition of a clause guaranteeing that he retain rights for sales on planets other than Earth. Michels divided Sanders's long jam sessions into shorter tracks to increase the artist's royalties. And, as the label stumbled in the 1970s, the signing of rock band Genesis for a single-album deal. And as in the Love Supreme book, Kahn tidily inserts sidebars that are as valuable as the main text. Two-page entries on Charles Mingus, Sonny Rollins, Alice Coltrane, Charlie Haden, Keith Jarrett and Sam Rivers tell the story by way of the record shelf, interspersed within the story of a label the spared little expense gambling on a scene that befuddled the suits at parent company ABC, and for a good decade rarely made a misstep.


By 1970, however, Impulse was beginning to stumble after trends rather than setting them. Coltrane had been dead for three years, yet still represented 16 of the label's 40 top-selling titles. Free-form rock and jazz fusion were taking over from what had been the "New Thing," and the label slowly slid into it's own vaults. By 2000, some three-quarters of annual sales were back catalogue. Kahn follows the label and the people that made it to what is nearly a bitter end, with the "money talks" credo that made higher retail prices and bright, gatefold covers possible in the '60s becoming a knife in the back. Readers more interested in the artists than the accountants might be wise to turn to Kahn's previous book first. But like Fredric Dannen's Hit Men and William Knoedelseder's Stiffed, The House that Trane Built is an education in how those records get in your home.



This story originally appeared in \anchor(href=""){Coda} magazine.