Keepnews went to Columbia University. "I was one of those amorphous things called an English major. I thought that I was going to grow up to be a writer of some kind, an editor or a newspaperman or a creative writer, he says. He graduated with a degree in English, but World War II was on and he entered the military. Upon his return, already a jazz fan, he "fell in with a crowd that was very jazz oriented. I did a lot of listening. Then I had this nice accident where one of the people I was hanging out with took over the ownership of a jazz magazine (Bill Grauer's Record Changer
magazine). At that point, I was working as a young editor at a book publisher in New York, at Simon & Schuster. I guess one way to describe me is the only professional literary person that Bill Grauer knew. So he asked me to help edit the magazine he had just taken over.
It seemed like an ideal spot for a budding writer and music fan. It had its pros and cons. "I quickly realized I not only had the responsibility of editing some pretty lousy prose by people whose enthusiasm was not necessarily matching their literary talent, but I also was in a position where I was the one who was deciding what the magazine was publishing. It made it kind of easy for what I wrote to get published, right? That's what sprung me loose as a jazz writer.
He says around that time he and Grauer got started reissuing jazz records for an RCA Victor label. "It inevitably developed into working with living artists and new material. I almost could say that I was in the record business before I quite knew how. I have, and I will not deny it, been quoted as saying I ruined a perfectly good hobby by turning it into the way I was making my living.
The scene was new to the young pair of entrepreneurs. They had to learn techniques on the job, as well as keep their eyes open and their ears to the ground to determine what was going on in the music. If he didn't know it initially, Keepnews learned he could trust his instincts.
l:r Orrin Keepnews, Thelonious Monk
"The period that I'm talking about, the '50s, there was really a tremendous number of people doing very much the same thingpeople who were fans, where if they said they were a producer, there was nobody to say, 'No, you're not.' If I'm one of the owners of a company and I decide I'm qualified to be a jazz producer, exactly who's going to tell me I'm wrong? Presumably, I was not wrong, he says.
Keepnews also had the benefit of coming up in a time where many of the key creators of the art form were participating, rounding into form, growing. Many have called that time the Golden Era. The music became more challenging on the paths laid out by Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk, and pushed further by Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman and others. Meanwhile, there were great interpreters, and there were also the greats of the previous developmental stages, like Lester Young and Louis Armstrong. And timeless artists like Duke Ellington.
"It is quite true there were an inordinate number of highly talented young musicians. For reasons that I don't understand, all I can do is point to the record, that's the way it happened. But I did form good personal and working relationships with some people who were extremely valuable artists and who turned out, in many instances, these were the people that I lived with. These were my closest friends. Almost without my having any control over it, that became my way of life. I'm damn pleased that's the way it happened.
Keepnews and Grauer founded the Riverside label in 1953. That label signed up Monk in 1955 and other important artists. It ended in 1964, and Keepnews continued producing. In 1966, he founded the Milestone label, running it until it was purchased by Fantasy in 1973. Sonny Rollins, Gary Bartz, Lee Konitz, McCoy Tyner and Joe Henderson were among those signed on Milestone. He served as vice president of Fantasy throughout most of the 1970s and in 1985 he founded Landmark, which was acquired by Muse in 1993. Bobby Hutcherson had important albums on that label. In addition to continued producing, Keepnews always kept his hand in writing. He won two 1988 Grammy Awards for Best Historical Album and Best Album Notes for Thelonious Monk: The Complete Riverside Recordings.
For Keepnews, being a producer went beyond technical aspects. He was a member of a community and made friends with the people he did business with; or in some cases, did not. It required different ways of handling individuals. It could require kid gloves or a hard-line stance.