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Impulse Records: 'The House That Trane Built'

If you browsed 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 stood out. So did the music.

Although it's been mostly forgotten today, Impulse Records was one of the most influential labels in jazz. It featured the likes of Count Basie, Charles Mingus, Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane.

Music journalist and Morning Edition contributor Ashley Kahn has written a new book about Impulse -- The House That Trane Built. The label started as an edgy, experimental unit of entertainment giant ABC-Paramount in 1960 during a golden age for jazz.

"You had more jazz legends simultaneously alive and more jazz styles simultaneously active -- from swing to bebop to hard bop to avant-garde -- all happening on the same stages at the same time," Kahn says. "And no record label tried to embrace this as much as Impulse did."

Impulse reflected the turbulent society of the 1960s.

"At a time when there was a lot of political outrage, musically nothing sounded louder, angrier or was more in your face than a lot of the jazz that was on Impulse Records," Kahn says.

Ownership of Impulse has shifted through the corporate mergers of the 1990s, but the label's sounds are still on the cutting edge. "Hip-hop DJs and producers are going back to a lot of the music that was on Impulse, and you can see that orange and black peeking out of those DJ crates now and again," Kahn says.

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Renee Montagne
Renee Montagne, one of the best-known names in public radio, is a special correspondent and host for NPR News.