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Before Rock, There Was Jazz: Tom Wilson And Transition Records

Tom Wilson, who produced some of the 1960s' most monumental rock records, started out in the 1950s by recording jazz artists such as Sun Ra on his own label.

  • jazz in transition

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    Photo: album art

    A label sampler of various artists, "Jazz In Transition."

  • Tom Wilson with Bob Dylan

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    Photo: Wikimedia

    Producer Tom Wilson with Bob Dylan in the 1960s.

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    Photo: album art

    Avant-garde pianist Cecil Taylor made his vinyl debut in 1955 on Transition with the LP JAZZ ADVANCE.

Transition Records merits a mark in music history for two reasons. On one hand, it was the first label to record two of modern jazz’s most adventurous artists: charismatic bandleader Sun Ra and the pianist Cecil Taylor.

Secondly, the founder and producer of Transition Records was Tom Wilson, a young, African-American political science/economics graduate from Harvard who would go on to produce some of the most important rock records of the 1960s.

An Aptly Named ‘Transition’

It was Wilson who put a rock backing to Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sounds of Silence.” It was Wilson who signed Frank Zappa and The Velvet Underground to MGM/Verve with promises of artistic freedom that were fulfilled when he produced their debut albums. And it was Wilson who worked with Bob Dylan on such classic LPs as Bringing It All Back Home, culminating in Dylan’s breakthrough single, “Like a Rolling Stone.”

His love of rock ‘n’ roll belies the fact that the Waco, Texas native and amateur trombonist had gotten his start in the music business as a jazz lover. After graduating from Harvard, where he was involved with the Harvard New Jazz Society and the radio station WHRB, Wilson borrowed nine hundred dollars to start up his own record label, which he called Transition. He continued to finance his project in part by teaching courses on jazz at several Boston-area colleges. From 1955 to 1957 Wilson would record a variety of up-and-coming jazz artists, including Donald Byrd, Paul Chambers, John Coltrane, Herb Pomeroy, Sun Ra and Cecil Taylor.

Wilson also helped document the hardbop and avant-garde jazz that was thriving in Boston’s 1950s jazz scene. He was an African-American trailblazer in jazz and rock production; the Transition label is an early entry in the annals of what would come to be known in the music business as “D.I.Y.” (Do It Yourself).

For More About Tom Wilson And Transition Records…

UPDATE Since the original broadcast of this program, a website has emerged that easily serves as the definitive repository of information about Tom Wilson online:
• Read about Transition founder Tom Wilson.

• View a discography of Transition Records.

• Listen to previous Night Lights programs about Sun Ra and Cecil Taylor in the 1950s.

• Check out these Transition album covers at the Birka Jazz Archive.

Sun Ra — Sun Song (Delmark, 1993)
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Porta Desks and Tuxedos
Herb Pomeroy — Live at the Stable 1955 (Fresh Sounds, 2008)
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Rick Kick Shaw
Cecil Taylor — Jazz Advance (Blue Note, 1991)
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Hank's Other Tune
Donald Byrd/Doug Watkins — The Transition Sessions (Blue Note, 2002)
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Little Rock Getaway
Donald Byrd/Doug Watkins — The Transition Sessions (Blue Note, 2002)

Notes: Midpoint music bed.

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High Step
John Coltrane/Paul Chambers — Chambers' Music (Capitol, 1995)

Notes: Also available on the Mosaic Select set of Chambers' mid-1950s recordings.

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Sun Ra — Sun Song (Delmark, 1993)
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Planet Earth
Sun Ra — Sound of Joy (Delmark, 1994)
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Tribute to Brownie
Louis Smith — Here Comes Louis Smith (Blue Note, 2008)
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  • Dan Stewart

    This is a terrific session. The Transition Records history is very interesting. I am a Transition Records collector and really appreciate you bringing the story to a wider audience. I also enjoyed your earlier session on Nocturne Records. I record most of your programs, making CDRs of them, and add them to my jazz collection. Keep up the good work!

  • Vivi Ripianti

    nice post..

  • laura

    I have an original envelope addressed to Transition Records postmarked 1958…from London to Boston…from a collection of a friend of mine, one of the musicians Transition signed, Raphael Boguslav. I kept it in case it had some historical value and would be happy to donate to your collection.

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