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The New Wave in Jazz, at 60: Jazz United Considers the Legacy of Impulse Records

Alice Coltrane
Chuck Stewart Photography, LLC
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Alice Coltraine in 1970. 'Kirtan: Turiya Sings' is a new version of a recording she made at her ashram.

Sixty years ago, Impulse Records set a benchmark in jazz with a conscious, fervent sound that has endured, revealing subsequent generations of outstanding artists. We felt this legacy was the perfect conversation starter for Jazz United's second season.

Join us as we shine a light on the self-proclaimed label home for "The New Wave in Jazz" — describing its impact on us as listeners, its enduring significance on the musical landscape, and its cultural legacy of Black excellence and liberation.

In contrast with many of its peer companies, Impulse! appeared primed for success almost from the beginning. Its parent company was ABC- Paramount Records, a successful major label that provided sufficient budgeting to attract many of the top names on the scene. Its first resident producer, Creed Taylor, had some early success and a good instinct for commercially successful jazz recordings. And the fledgling company's graphic design, based on an orange-and-black color scheme and a logo that punctuated striking cover photography, stood out in the best way.

John Coltrane and Bob Thiele
Joe Alper
John Coltrane with Bob Thiele in 1963, during the recording of 'John Coltrane with Johnny Hartman'

Even with such an auspicious head start, the label's true engine was a cadre of creative and conscious musicians serious about their work and the world they inhabited. Impulse! quickly become a home for message music in jazz, led by recordings from the ever-evolving John Coltrane along with many of his peers and disciples. such as Pharoah Sanders, Alber Ayler, Yusef Lateef and Archie Shepp.

The work of those artists — and others, including Charles Mingus, Ahmad Jamal and Shirley Scott — is represented on a modishly designed commemorative boxed set, Impulse Records: Music, Message And The Moment. The label, now distributed by Universal Music Group, has also released albums this year by Sons of Kemet and Pino Palladino with Blake Mills, with acclaimed harpist Brandee Younger just up ahead.

Jazz United is produced by Trevor Smith for WBGO Studios. Catch up with our first season, and subscribe to get new episodes, wherever you get your podcasts.

Greg Bryant has been a longtime curator of improvisational music. At the age of 3 in his hometown of Nashville, Tennessee, he was borrowing his father’s records and spinning them on his Fisher Price turntable. Taking in diverse sounds of artistry from Miles Davis, Les McCann, James Brown, Weather Report and Jimi Hendrix gave shape to Greg's musical foundation and started him on a path of nonstop exploration.
A veteran jazz critic and award-winning author, Nate Chinen is editorial director at WBGO and a regular contributor to NPR Music.