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Book Excerpt: 'The House That Trane Built'

'The House That Trane Built' book cover

Orange and black. Fire and ebony. Fury and pride.

From 1961 through 1976, Impulse Records wore its signature colors proudly and raised its exclamation point high, producing albums with hinged, brightly hued covers that opened wide, attracting generations of listeners into an exciting and far-ranging world of improvised music. The sound in its grooves bristled with the spirit of the sixties, swinging with the musical experimentation and political outrage of the day. To many who made it through the era, the label was an inherent part of the velocity, keeping pace with -- and at times predicting -- the sound and politics that lay ahead.

"That’s where it's at right now," explained Bob Thiele, the veteran record producer who headed Impulse through most of that period, in 1966. "Jazz music has always reflected the times. Today, there are violent social transitions taking place, and these changes that are sometimes confusing come out in musical expression."

But Impulse did so much more than reflect a revolutionary time. It fit perfectly into the golden age of jazz, that brief window from the late fifties to the seventies when more jazz players than ever before (or since) were alive and active, representing every era of the tradition. Think Armstrong to Ayler, swing to the "New Thing." No, Impulse didn't record them all. But it certainly tried harder than any other label, and managed to unify all these styles and approaches into a uniformly modern sensibility that has yet to fade.

Modern enough to still be a leading go-to record label for today's top mixers and hip-hop producers. The proof can be found in the orange-and-black spines peeping out of deejay record crates, and in the Impulse samples popping up in the freshest dance-floor grooves.

Invoke the label to anyone today who is music-aware, not only the jazz-savvy. The typical response mentions the music, the sixties-seventies overlap, and, just as often, fold-out covers and something about orange.

"In school, I could tell how much someone knew his music by the orange I saw on the shelf," states Daniel Richard, a record executive who, among other duties, is responsible for marketing Impulse recordings in France. "There was a certain mystery about those records," says jazz journalist and critic Gary Giddins. "When I was in high school, the question with Impulse was, did you alphabetize them with all the other albums or did you keep them together so you could have the big orange stripe on your wall?"

"The branding was terrific," offers Don Heckman, another veteran jazz critic. "I seem to recall that we were annoyed by the gatefolds initially because it took up more space on the shelves, but then you valued having that additional space for the liner notes and photographs and so forth."

It was branding that reached far beyond the jazz sphere, helped attract a whole new generation to jazz, and burned itself into the public consciousness. The rhythms and freedoms that resounded when Impulse LPs spun on turntables in the sixties and seventies resound as strongly today. In its day, the Impulse logo promised forward-looking music in a design that was unforgettable -- and functional.

"Those gatefolds were a wonderful development because they served as a deluxe rolling tray to manicure your marijuana," sixties political gadfly and jazz booster John Sinclair recalls. "The best Impulses had the most seeds stuck in the middle."

From The House That Trane Built: The Story of Impulse Records Copyright © 2006 by Ashley Kahn.

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