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My Life With Orrin Keepnews

Walter Atkins BY

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The private Orrin who I fell in love with had a huge heart and was very sentimental.
—Martha Egan
The prolific record producer and label founder Orrin Keepnews passed away at his El Cerrito CA home on March 1,2015, a day before his 92nd birthday. The November 2015 memorial and benefit concert was a time for friends and family to come together to celebrate his full life and acclaimed 60 year recording industry career. His illustrious history includes working with and nurturing jazz giants like Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans, Cannonball Adderley, McCoy Tyner, Mulgrew Miller and much more.

San Francisco Bay Area clothing designer Martha Egan was married to Keepnews and they shared twelve wonderful years together. Egan gives some insight into her life and marriage to the eminent music industry producer and artist advocate.

All About Jazz: How did you two meet?

Martha Egan: We met at a Buddhist group meeting and then carpooled there a few more times. At one point, Orrin suggested we stop off for a drink in North Beach near my shop (I had a clothing store at that time), and in the course of our conversation I realized he was trying to get to know me better. Although much had been made to me of his celebrity in jazz, the person I talked to that night was not telling tales of way back when and his Jazz notoriety- -but talking to me about real things in his life and insights that were pretty remarkable and heartfelt. I didn't maybe realize it at the time, but I was very touched and probably hooked already!

AAJ: How did you know you wanted to marry Orrin?

ME: Some people seem very clear about their feelings and Orrin was that way. The private Orrin who I fell in love with had a huge heart and was very sentimental. He cried at movies and loved old love songs, which he would sing along with tears in his eyes! We seemed to know the same songs. He was easy to love and I could also see he needed a woman around. His first wife Lucy who was loved by everyone had been gone for 17 years so, it was time. I had just recently survived cancer and somehow our getting together was like my reward for all that. He spoiled me and wined and dined me! He loved baseball, was a lifelong Giants fan, and took me to many games at the new ballpark.

AAJ: What kept you together?

ME: The really disarming way with Orrin was that I always felt like I was his equal. He talked to me right from the start as if I were a close friend and equal partner in everything. He was very in touch with his feelings and very articulate about them... That was refreshing and of course he was very smart and could tell amazing stories. At 80 he was still quite energetic and loved to go out and hear music, especially people he knew and worked with. We enjoyed the going out and the quiet nights staying in. He started insisting I meet all his friends and introducing me as a very important person in his life. We had a similar sense of humor and when I was at his place it almost felt like home right away... Even the dishes in the kitchen were the same as mine and the art on the walls were artists I liked. Much of it was Lucy's touch so I felt like she and I had a lot in common.

So it wasn't ever a matter of how we would stay together... More it was how long will we get! Even our fights seemed comfortable... Like it was ok to disagree because it wouldn't change the fact that we loved each other.

AAJ: Share one of your favorite moments with Orrin, the husband.

ME: He made me laugh a lot!

Whether it was reading funny articles from the newspaper while I made him waffles or singing out of tune and making up new lyrics to the old standards.Also listening to Orrin and his sons tell old jokes from Danny Kaye or Groucho Marx -or the fact that he let me introduce him to his first pet... A handsome rescue terrier he named Lenny, for Lenny Bruce of course.

We had a happy life.

AAJ: Share one of your favorite moments with Orrin, the legendary record producer.

ME: Watching musicians faces light up when he would go backstage and call out to him and hug him. And seeing the love and respect they have for each other after all these years. I have a pretty good collection of photos of him with lots of musicians... Sonny Rollins, McCoy, Jimmy Heath, Bobby Hutcherson, Joe Zawinul, Mulgrew Miller, to name a few. And not just musicians... Old friends from the 50's like Paul Bacon the graphic artist who did a lot of Riverside covers, Dan Morgenstern, George Avakian, Lorraine Gordon, and Manny More as we would say.

AAJ: Is there anything you would like to add for our readers?

I got to learn a lot about Jazz and about life from being married to Orrin Keepnews. I recommend reading his liner notes and his book Jazz, a View from Within or any chance to hear his interviews on YouTube. Listen to the amazing music he helped record. He had an amazing life and a very good way of explaining it.

I think he understood the way life works and how to go with it. Maybe someday with his help, we'll write that book he always threatened to finish.

Photo credit: Walter Atkins

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