For someone browsing through record stores in the 1960s and 70s, it was easy to spot albums from Impulse Records. The label's distinctive orange and black packaging really stood out. So did the music.

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MONTAGNE: Although it's been mostly forgotten today, Impulse Records was one of the most influential labels in jazz. It featured the likes of Sonny Stit, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and the musician who helped recruit other major artists to the label: John Coltrane.

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MONTAGNE: Music journalist Ashley Kahn has written a new book about Impulse. It's called The House that Trane Built. Impulse Records started in 1960. Ashley Kahn says it was a year that, on the surface, seemed an unlikely time to start an edgy, experimental label.

Mr. ASHLEY KAHN (Author): It was very much a sort of white bread, pop type of year. There was Elvis, Chubby Checker. One of the biggest hits of the year was Itsy, Bitsy, Teenie Weenie, Yellow, Polka Dot Bikini.

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Mr. BRIAN HYLAND (Singer): (Singing) She was afraid to come out of the locker. She was as nervous as she could be. She was afraid to come out of the locker. She was afraid that somebody would see.

MONTAGNE: Well, Itsy, Bitsy, Teenie Weenie, Yellow, Polka Dot Bikini aside, what that year exactly was going on?

Mr. KAHN: Well, 1960 - at least in the jazz world - it was a golden age for jazz then, because you had more jazz legends simultaneously alive, and more jazz styles simultaneously active - from swing, to bebop to hard bop to avant-garde. And no record label tried to embrace this wider and get it all onto its label as much as Impulse did.

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MONTAGNE: Talk to us about the sound, the style that was Impulse.

Mr. KAHN: Well, the signature sound of Impulse I think in many people's minds is that it's angry, it's black, and it's a tenor saxophone, and Archie Shepp is the perfect example.

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Mr. KAHN: That's the signature sound of Impulse. And yet, there were many, many different artists on the label of many different ethnic backgrounds, black and white. And all you have to do is listen to Charlie Mingus' tune, Theme for Lester Young to see that it wasn't all angry.

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MONTAGNE: One interesting thing about Impulse, though, was that it was part of a major mainstream, corporate label - ABC Paramount. And usually, one thinks with these labels that are edgier or experimental that they would have to be independent. Now, it's parent company was known for releasing pretty sedate pop music.

Mr. KAHN: Absolutely. Frankie Avalon, Edie Gourmet, Fabian. I mean, this was what the label was famous for. But Impulse was born within the belly of the beast, the corporate side of things. And yet for 15 years, they were able to bring out music that really challenged and pushed the whole jazz world forward.

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MONTAGNE: How did that happen? How did ABC Paramount just sort of allow itself to create this quasi-independence?

Mr. KAHN: Well, the person who really planted the seed was a gentleman name Creed Taylor, and he was an expert at dealing with the diplomacy that was necessary to survive in the music industry. And he talks about sneaking jazz in. He signed some really big names at the beginning - trombonist JJ Johnson. Ray Charles did his first jazz album on Impulse. And most importantly, it had one fully contracted artist, one exclusive artist on the label name John Coltrane, who led the way through the '60s not only for Impulse, but for the jazz scene in general.

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MONTAGNE: And other artists?

Mr. KAHN: Well, you've got Sonny Rollins doing the soundtrack to Alfie. You've got Pharoah Sanders with what was a huge radio hit back in 1969 called The Creator has a Master Plan. And in all of this music, you can hear the seeds of what would become the jazz in the '70s and to this day - smooth jazz, world beat music, Alice Coltrane's albums, the exotic blend of Indian Ragas, and modal jazz from, you know, from our country.

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MONTAGNE: What would eventually happen to Impulse?

Mr. KAHN: Well, Impulse still exists, as the corporate mergers took place. From the '70s into the '80s and '90s, Impulse became this smaller and smaller element within a larger and larger corporation. These days, Verve, which is the company that owns it, uses it only pretty much for music that connects back to that whole Coltrane mystique. The other way it still exists is if you look at a lot of hip-hop deejays and producers, they're going back to a lot of the music that was on Impulse. And you can still see that orange and black peeking out of those deejay crates now and again.

MONTAGNE: Ashley, thanks very much for talking with us.

Mr. KAHN: Thank you, Renee.

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MONTAGNE: MORNING EDITION music journalist, Ashley Kahn. His new book is titled The House that Trane Built: A Story of Impulse Records. And you can hear more music from John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, and other Impulse artists and read about Coltrane's legendary Live at the Village Vanguard album at

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steven Inskeep

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