Swinging Through the 20th Century: An Appreciation of Orrin Keepnews

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Orrin Keepnews in 2004, at the nominee reception for the 46th Annual Grammy Awards. (Photo: R. Diamond/WireImage)

In a business replete with boasters, scammers, hustlers and thieves, Orrin Keepnews was a mensch and a legend.

By the time he moved to San Francisco in the early 1970s, Keepnews was already recognized as one of the most influential producers in jazz history, responsible for overseeing classic recordings by many of the music’s most creative figures, including pianists Thelonious Monk and Bill Evans, guitarist Wes Montgomery, vibraphonist Milt Jackson, and saxophonists Cannonball Adderley, Sonny Rollins, Benny Golson, and Jimmy Heath, just to name a few. His death on March 1, one day shy of his 92nd birthday, leaves only one man left from the small cadre of pioneering producers responsible for ushering jazz into the age of the LP (Columbia Records’ George Avakian turned 95 last month).

A daring entrepreneur, incisive writer, and close ally of numerous musicians, Keepnews won an NEA Jazz Masters Award and four Grammys -- including a Grammy Trustees Award for non-performers, which he received with his characteristic growl, declining the career-capping implications of the honor. He founded three record labels: Landmark, Milestone, and most importantly Riverside, which from 1953-1964 was surpassed only by Blue Note as the era’s definitive independent outlet for modern jazz. In the '70s and '80s, when his peer producers were gone or retired, he did some of his most important work out of the Fantasy building in Berkeley, overseeing a series of great albums by McCoy Tyner and Joe Henderson (on Milestone) and Bobby Hutcherson (on Landmark).

Cannonball Adderley's Live in San Francisco.
Cannonball Adderley's Live in San Francisco.

By listening to the advice of musicians, Keepnews was often able to sign brilliant players overlooked by other labels. Trumpeter Kenny Dorham tipped him off about tenor saxophonist, arranger and composer Jimmy Heath. The trumpeter Clark Terry, who died last month at 94 and also recorded memorable sessions for Riverside, introduced him to Julian “Cannonball” and Nat Adderley, brothers who became jazz stars with the release of the blazing 1959 Riverside album recorded at North Beach’s Jazz Workshop, The Cannonball Adderley Quintet Live in San Francisco. And it was Cannonball who turned Keepnews on to a little-known guitarist living in Indianapolis.

“Cannonball came busting into my office and said, ‘I heard this incredible guitar player Wes Montgomery and we’ve got to get him on the label,’” Keepnews recalled. For Keepnews, the fact that the saxophonist referred to Riverside as a collective endeavor was the real triumph: “My principal artist referred to the label as ‘we’! That’s what it’s all about.”

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Jimmy Heath had been off the scene for several years when Keepnews signed him to Riverside in 1959. He had been courted by Blue Note, but Heath decided to go with Keepnews because he offered Heath opportunities to work as an arranger. Heath, who often recorded with his brothers, bassist Percy Heath and drummer Albert “Tootie” Heath, appreciated that Keepnews treated Riverside artists like family.

“The thing that strikes me as unique about Orrin is that he allowed me to choose my material and instrumentation -- in other words, artistic freedom,” Heath said. “He was also a good friend of my whole family, my mom and pop. My wife Mona was close with his wife Lucy.”

Thelonious Monk Plays the Music of Duke Ellington.
Thelonious Monk Plays the Music of Duke Ellington.

With his wry, side-of-the-mouth delivery, Keepnews often said that he was an unlikely person to turn into one of the preeminent producers of modern jazz’s golden age. He grew up with “not a drop of music” in a middle-class Jewish household in upper Manhattan. His mother was a public school teacher and his father worked for the Department of Welfare, civil-service jobs that shielded the family from the brunt of the Great Depression.

After graduating from Columbia University and serving in the Army during World War II flying bomber missions in the Pacific theatre, he returned to New York City and took a job as a junior editor in a publishing firm. When his college buddy Bill Grauer took over The Record Changer, a publication in 1948 that specialized in jazz, Keepnews came on board as editor, following his passion for 1920s jazz.

Though at first unimpressed with bebop, the modern jazz movement that had come to the fore during the war years, Keepnews had the musical insight to champion an obscure pianist/composer named Thelonious Monk when Blue Note producer Alfred Lion introduced him to the artist and played him Monk’s first recordings as a leader. His prescient 1948 Record Changer piece was one of the first ever written on Monk, and in comparing the pianist to Jelly Roll Morton and Duke Ellington he was certainly the first non-musician to foresee the central role that Monk would play in post-war jazz.

Keepnews made the leap from journalist to active participant in the music business after writing an expose detailing how RCA Victor was allowing a label aptly named Jolly Roger to press bootleg copies of out-of-print 1920s and '30s jazz recordings owned by rival labels. The story led to the creation of Riverside Records in 1952, which he and Grauer founded as a vehicle for reissuing classic recordings by early jazz stars like Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong. By 1954, the two were ready to start producing new music, signing pianist and budding composer Randy Weston as their first artist.

But Riverside really made its mark by signing Monk, who had been languishing unhappily at Prestige, a rival indie, after his epochal stint at Blue Note.

“We were more than a little unhappy with our traditionalist reputation,” Keepnews said. “We said to ourselves, if we can come up with Monk it’s going to mean either we’re crazy or we’re serious about wanting to be on the contemporary scene, or maybe both. When we set up a meeting, Monk informed me that the the Record Changer piece I had written was the first article about him that had ever appeared in a national magazine.”

Bill Evans' Sunday at the Village Vanguard.
Bill Evans' Sunday at the Village Vanguard.

In the early 1950s, most jazz critics regarded Monk as an interesting composer with deficient keyboard technique. In a brilliant stroke of marketing, Keepnews successfully orchestrated Monk’s reintroduction to the public on Riverside with two trio recordings, 1955’s Thelonious Monk Plays Duke Ellington, and the 1956 standards project The Unique Thelonious Monk. Applied to familiar melodies, Monk’s knotty touch and thick harmonies became much more approachable, and opened many listeners' ears to later recordings of his ingenious original compositions.

By the time Monk left Riverside for major label digs at Columbia in 1961, he was recognized as a giant of 20th century music, a pervasively influential pianist and a composer of invigorating musical riddles that resisted pat solutions.

Like many artists associated with Riverside, Monk did much of his finest work for the label. Keepnews was also instrumental in convincing a reluctant, largely unknown pianist named Bill Evans to make his first recording as a leader in 1956. By the time he returned to the studio in 1958, Evans was a rising star with the Miles Davis Sextet, and he started recording a string of hugely influential albums that culminated with Sunday at the Village Vanguard, a session that became a beacon of telepathic interplay.

Sonny Rollins was the most influential tenor saxophonist in jazz when he started recording for Riverside as a freelance artist. One project was his politically charged 1958 album The Freedom Suite, which included liner notes making it clear Rollins was protesting American society’s endemic racism.

Sonny Rollins, The Freedom Suite.
Sonny Rollins, The Freedom Suite.

“At the time it was a somewhat controversial record,” Rollins told me several years ago. “It was sort of a black consciousness record made before the civil rights movement took off, and I’m not sure that a lot of other producers would have allowed that record to be made with the sentiments that I expressed. I thought Orrin had to be a standup guy to do that, and that’s some extra added respect I’ve had for him all these years.” Rollins later signed with Keepnews’ second label, and he recorded for Milestone under that contract until launching his own label, Doxy, in 2006.

Keepnews and his wife Lucy, who passed away in 1989, moved to San Francisco in 1972, when Fantasy bought Milestone and hired him as head of jazz A&R. For the past decade or so he lived in El Cerrito with his second wife, the clothing designer Martha Egan. In many ways, he spread his wings as a producer even further in the Bay Area, working with new-music champions Kronos Quartet and jazz/cabaret vocalist Wesla Whitfield.

I interviewed Keepnews numerous times over the years in various settings, and he was a skillful, if not concise, raconteur with a vast trove of stories about the artists with whom he worked closely. While he didn’t downplay his role in the creation of pivotal recordings, he never tried to take credit for an artist’s accomplishments.

“I’m not walking around claiming something or somebody happened because of what I did,” Keepnews said. “There are cases, however, where I’m not going to be bashful about the fact that what I did and the way I did it certainly contributed to what happened. Whether it’s the only way it could have happened, or I made it easier or even harder, I don’t know. But I do know that I did it and in a certain number of cases it worked.”

 

Thelonious Monk, Monk's Music.
Thelonious Monk, Monk's Music.

Keepnews' Legacy: The Top 10

Keepnews selected among his favorite albums for Concord Music’s "Keepnews Collection" reissue series, while the four-disc box set, The Riverside Records Story, provides a highly satisfying overview of his early career highlights. Here’s my list of Keepnews-produced albums that should be part of any well-stocked music collection.

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1) Thelonious Monk, Monk’s Music, 1957
2) Bill Evans, Sunday at the Village Vanguard, 1961
3) Wes Montgomery, The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery, 1961
4) McCoy Tyner, Song For My Lady, 1973
5) The Cannonball Adderley Sextet - In New York, 1962
6) Sonny Rollins, The Freedom Suite, 1958
7) Joe Henderson, The Kicker, 1967
8) Clark Terry, In Orbit, 1958
9) Milt Jackson, Invitation, 1962
10) McCoy Tyner, Horizon, 1979