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Orrin Keepnews (1923-2015)


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Orrin Keepnews, a jazz record producer whose taste in music, integrity and respect for artists resulted in a vast body of legacy recordings by Thelonious Monk, Cannonball Adderley, Wes Montgomery and Bill Evans as well as dozens of other artists, died on March 1. He was 91.

His Riverside label operated from 1953 to 1964. What set it apart from the competition was Orrin's devotion to his artists, many of whom repaid his support by finding him new talent. For example, guitarist Mundell Lowe was the first to call Orrin about Bill Evans in the mid-1950s while Cannonball Adderley and his brother Nat found Montgomery in an Indianapolis club and called Orrin that night.

What Orrin lacked in musical training he more than made up for in critical judgment. His fearless ability to chart new courses came from serving as a navigator on a bomber in the Pacific during World War II, while his judgment was sharpened as a manuscript reader at Simon & Schuster in the late 1940s.

After co-founding Riverside with Bill Grauer, a grad-school acquaintance, Orrin ran the talent while Grauer manged the business. At first, the label shortsightedly viewed the 10-inch LP as a way to re-issue dusty jazz recordings from the pre-war era. By 1954, it became apparent to Orrin that Riverside could do better by recording modern jazz artists who were eager to record.

Throughout the decade, independent labels tended to reflect the taste of their owner. As a result, Blue Note developed a rigid, successful model using many of the same great musicians in different configurations while Prestige went after brand-name musicians like Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Art Farmer and John Coltrane. By contrast, Orrin specialized in discoveries and artists who hadn't been fully maximized.

When Riverside went bankrupt in 1964 following Grauer's fatal heart attack and other labels began cherry-picking his discoveries, Keepnews struggled. In 1968, he co-founded Milestone with pianist Dick Katz. Fantasy bought the label in 1972 and Keepnews worked for the label before leaving in 1980 to start Landmark.

I interviewed Orrin twice, once for JazzWax just after I started this blog in 2007 and again in 2011, when I traveled to his home just outside San Francisco for a Wall Street Journal profile. My first conversation with Orrin was a cold call that didn't go so well. I made the tragic mistake of asking him to tell me what he loved about his five favorite Riverside albums.

Admittedly it was a quick-and-dirty way to produce a post given my tight schedule back then. Orrin would have none of it and he took my head off. There were no short cuts with Orrin. I waited Orrin out and then asked him if yelling at me made him happy. I admitted that my original request was stupid and that I'd much prefer to do a full-blown career-spanning interview. Orrin liked that idea and settled down. The result was the birth of the five-part interview series, which became standard at JazzWax.

When I visited Orrin three years later in December 2010, much had changed. What had started as a random call gone bad was now a formal interview for the country's largest newspaper. We had a wonderful conversation at Orrin's kitchen table, after which he took me on a tour of his office space. He showed me all the awards and framed letters on the wall. Orrin was most proud of correspondence from Prestige's Bob Weinstock to Monk acknowledging a check for $108.27 that Monk had provided thanks to Orrin, releasing Monk from his Prestige contract, freeing him to sign with Riverside.

Before I left, I took out my first-edition copy of Orrin's The View From Within: Jazz Writings 1948-1987 and asked him to sign it. I totally forgot that I had asked Orrin to do that when I reached for the book yesterday afternoon. Upon opening it, there was Orrin handwriting: “To Marc, a man who sure can play a mean interview." At least he didn't take my head off.

Here's a list of my 20 favorite Riverside albums:

Sonny Rollins—The Sound of Sonny (1957)

Thelonious Monk Quartet (1958)

Thelonious Monk—Thelonious in Action (1958)

Cannonball Adderley Quintet—In San Francisco (1959)

Bill Evans—Explorations (1961)

Bill Evans—Sunday at the Village Vanguard (1961)

Bill Evans—Waltz for Debby (1961)

Wes Montgomery—Movin' Along (1960)

Wes Montgomery—Incredible Jazz Guitar (1960)

Wes Montgomery—So Much Guitar (1961)

Don Friedman—A Day in the City (1961)

The JFK Quintet—New Frontiers From Washington (1961)

Don Sleet—All Members (1961)

Bev Kelly—In Person (1960)

Bobby Timmons—This Here (1960)

Yusef Lateef—Three Faces of Yusef Lateef (1960)

Yuself Lateef—The Centaur and the Phoenix (1960)

Benny Golson—The Modern Touch (1957)

Benny Golson—The Other Side of Benny Golson (1958)

Lenny McBrowne—Eastern Lights (1960)

JazzWax note: One of the best on-camera interviews with Orrin was the series conducted by Bret Primack for Concord in support of the label's Keepnews Collection in 2008. Here are two clips:

Here's Orrin Keepnews on Bill Evans...

Here's Orrin on Wes Montgomery...

Here's Orrin on recording Sonny Rollins...

Here's an overview used for the 60th anniversary of Riverside in 2013...

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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