Ashley Kahn reading and book signing
Garden District Book Shop
2727 Prytania Street; 895-2266
Saturday, July 15, 1-3 p.m.
Ashley Kahn’s love and understanding of jazz and those who create it resounds throughout the pages of his latest book, The House That Trane Built: The Story of Impulse Records. Kahn, whose two-and-a-half year stay in New Orleans in the mid-1980s cemented his decision to pursue a career in music journalism, returns to town for a book signing and reading at the Garden District Book Shop.
The award-winning author of critically praised books Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis’ Masterpiece and A Love Supreme: The Story of John Coltrane’s Signature Album, continues his in-depth and personal approach when telling the story of the revolutionary Impulse label, a subsidiary of the major ABC-Paramount. With the enthusiasm of a fan and restraint of a seasoned archivist, Kahn uses extensive interviews and researched data to paint a picture of a company that proved artistic excellence and commercial viability can be achieved through talent and trust.
Talking by phone from his home in New Jersey, Kahn, 45, was still exuberant from a book/performance launch party that took place at New York’s Blue Note with the McCoy Tyner Septet, which included New Orleans’ Donald Harrison. In front of a house packed with a who’s who of jazz musicians, the ensemble performed works from the Impulse catalogue. It kicked off a whirlwind period for Kahn’s Impulse project, which has grown to that include not only the book but also radio shows, CDs and the touring of the Tyner group under the title “The Story of Impulse Records.” The journalist and radio and TV producer who also managed tours for the likes of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Henry Threadgill and Cassandra Wilson, recently offered insight into his work and his ongoing romance with New Orleans, a city he deems an oasis in America.
What is your connection with New Orleans?
I fell in love with New Orleans music while doing college radio [at New York’s Columbia University]. And basically, I credit New Orleans for being the place where I grew up. You go to college and that’s great for four years, but the place where I really settled on what it was I was going to pursue, which was a career in music, was New Orleans. It was really boot camp for life. I settled in there working with Stephenson Palfi, who sadly we lost recently.
I arrived on Sept. 3, 1985, my 25th birthday. It was after a hurricane or a hurricane scare anyway. I remember Xs on the windows. I was wondering what the heck what was going on. No one was on the street and there were tree branches on the ground and cars were parked on the neutral ground.
The way I describe it is that I was never busier in my life and never poorer. I was doing three radio shows. I was writing for The Times Picayune and also Wavelength intermittently and for national magazines. And I was doing press writing for Jazz Fest.
What radio shows were you doing?
I was doing the Kitchen Sink on WWOZ. I was doing a country show on ’TUL and I was doing fill-ins for the Radio for the Blind.
So why did you leave New Orleans? A real gig?
Yeah, exactly. There was a guy starting up a new festival up here in New York called the Central Park SummerStage. It was just a little neighborhood event. In three years it grew to international stature.
You still come back to New Orleans quite often.
Oh, God, yeah. It’s almost like an annual pilgrimage. Of course, I come for Jazz Fest but the trick is to come down there when it’s not Jazz Fest to actually get the real flavor of New Orleans and also have time for your friends.
Do you remember the first Impulse album you bought?
It was 1977 and I remember that it was Mingus, Mingus, Mingus, Mingus, Mingus. I remember just holding it in my hands at this used record store in Cincinnati. It had this breathing quality, breathing this sort of elegance out of it because of the design, the full bleed glossy photo and the fact that you could sit there and open it and really have this huge essay to study. When I took it home and put it on, the vinyl was so thick. You could hurt somebody with vinyl that thick. It had the feeling—even though I was totally in my rock ’n’ roll punk phase—that this was elegance and this was timeless music.
This is quite a project. It’s not just the book; it’s the series of retrospective CDs, the radio special, McCoy Tyner touring “The Story of Impulse” in celebration of the label. How did all of this take off from the book?
I think that at the beginning there was this sort of idea of the book and CDs. But I have friends who I’ve worked with before at WBGO, which is the local jazz station here in the New York area, and we have produced stuff before. I said, “Hey, I have all these interviews, there’s all this great music and there might be some support funding we might be able to get.” The fact that it took three years to put this together really helped. But one thing you can’t control is timing. You can try and get the elephants to dance together, but that doesn’t mean that everyone’s priorities and schedules will match up. At a certain point there was the momentum. The publisher created this wonderful image for the cover of the book and I emailed it to everybody and that really sort of kicked everything into high gear.
Tell me about the night when McCoy Tyner debuted his septet for the Impulse tribute at the Blue Note [June 5]. I’ve heard some reports and it just sounded, well, so sparkling.
It was very, very special not only because of the group—and you know the group was supposed to include Nicholas [Payton] but unfortunately he had to be replaced but he was replaced with Wallace Rooney, plus Donald Harrison, Steve Turre and Dave Liebman. Check out that front line, and then McCoy and his rhythm section with Charnett Moffett and Eric Gravat. What was really special was who was there in attendance that had connections to Impulse. It was like I wanted to check the ceiling to make sure it could contain all this creative energy. They included Gato Barbieri, Roy Haynes, Chico Hamilton, Ron Carter, Gary Bartz, Jimmy Cobb, Archie Shepp, Roswell Rudd and Creed Taylor. Clark Terry came in from New Jersey. He can hardly walk, and he brought his horn with him. So we brought the microphone out to him and he played a solo on “In a Mellow Tone.” McCoy was blown away by the number of legends in the audience. He was six inches above the ground. Of course, I was like two feet, thus my comment about the ceiling. There’s one last project I have in my mind, and that is that we get this project recorded. Why not?
I’m sure you had some wonderful moments while working on this book. Can you tell me a few?
I’ll give you my top three. Meeting all the musicians—that’s number one. Like Gato Barbieri talking about being flown down flying to Argentina to record for Impulse. McCoy Tyner talking about John Coltrane looking over his shoulder as he was putting together his first albums making sure in a big brother sort of way that everything was being taken care of. Archie Shepp talking about what it was like to be the lightning rod for the avant-garde scene. Those were just incredible moments because none of this is on paper. None of this is really a part of our jazz history yet.
Number two was being able to get some of the behind the scenes stuff. And the third most fun thing was going through all the images. If you look through the book, there are 120 images.
Have you chosen any certain things you’re going to read at your signings?
Well, there’s some obvious stuff, something from the introduction that answers the question, “Why Impulse?” Also, one of those wonderful album profiles—you have 38 stories within the big story. So 38 times during the course of this book, there’s a sidebar and that’s the story of one album in particular. So I’ll probably read one of those, too.
Since everybody around here knows John Sinclair, I’ve already told folks about his great quote about Impulse’s gatefold (a book-like fold rather than a flat fold) cover design [Sinclair says, “Those gatefolds were a wonderful development because they served as a deluxe rolling tray to manicure your marijuana…The best Impulses had the most seeds stuck in the middle.”]
I interviewed him for maybe an hour and it was great because it gave me a lot of background, but the only quote that I ended up using was that quote. [laughter] It said it all.
How long did it take you to write the book?
It was about a three-year process. But the A Love Supreme book came out in 2002 and there was a lot of extra text that I had written about Impulse. I kept thinking, “Is this a book?” “Nah, how would I structure it?” Then I got offers from both Mojo magazine in the U.K. and JazzTimes here to actually put together a 10,000-word article using that text. That’s really when things got going. Of course my book agent was like, “Not another jazz book.”
One of the aspects I enjoyed about this book is that you use so many quotes. Is that how you work?
Totally. The way I look at it is there are so many people out there who look at an album, a record company, and music in general in different ways. A record company executive who is worried about sales is going to look at music very differently than a critic or than a musician who is inside the creative process. All of these viewpoints, especially in a book about the overlap of arts and commerce, are very important. To create a virtual roundtable, that’s the perfect kind of roundtable. Somewhere in the middle of all that discussion, a general idea for the reader comes out about what’s really going on and they can decide for themselves.
Do you think there is a kind of moral to this story?
Yes, I think there is. The moral is with the right type of person running the ship, with the right type of artist being signed and with the same kind of generous support pop artists receive, real creative improvisational music can happen any time, anywhere and be commercially successful. In the belly of the beast, so to speak—the evil empire that we call the recording industry—an incredible flower grew and it was called Impulse Records. It managed to create so much important music and get it out there and get it sold.
Do you think that the political consciousness of the times played a role in the acceptance of creative music and thus Impulse’s success?
Not necessarily. It was a very important time and certainly added to its success. Yes, timing had a lot to do with it, however, I think that in a way Impulse was happening even before the times—remember the ’60s really began in 1965 or ’66—and Impulse was around beforehand doing very avant-garde, forward looking music. When the politics started to get very angry, there was no angrier sound than that on Impulse. There was no heavy metal; there was no hip-hop. There was no in your face music like Impulse was releasing. And there was no label that was as well distributed because it was part of this major label machinery. So I think that in the same way if a major label was to put the trust and belief in music that is very experimental, I think we would see the same numbers today. Impulse did not ever become in charge of ABC Records, but ABC for a good 15-year run never lost faith in that jazz label, never questioned, “Why are we doing this?”