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Orrin Keepnews, Jazz Master


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What makes Orrin Keepnews special? As I point out in my Wall Street Journal profile today here, the 87-year-old former Riverside Records producer is arguably responsible for some of jazz's greatest recordings. Through his vision and encouragement, Riverside recorded many of the finest jazz works by Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans, Cannonball Adderley, Wes Montgomery and so many others in the '50s and early '60s. Not to mention his work on his Milestone and Landmark labels in the years that followed. That's why the National Endowment for the Arts is celebrating him tonight at Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York as one of its 2010 Jazz Masters.

From 1954 to 1964, Orrin's jazz taste and determination resulted in quintessential recordings for Riverside by some of jazz's greatest talents. Classics include Monk's Brilliant Corners, Evans' Sunday at the Village Vanguard, Adderley's In San Francisco, Montgomery's Incredible Jazz Guitar and about 300 others. The list really could go on and on.

Considering that Orrin does not know how to play an instrument or read music, and didn't know much about jazz when he started out in 1948, his efforts and accomplishments have been truly extraordinary. For my Wall Street Journal article, I traveled to Orrin's home outside San Francisco in search of how he managed to accomplish so much with so little initial facility.

When asked that very question, Orrin said he didn't know—or pretended not to know the answer in his huffy, humble manner. But little by little, a sense of what made his style as a producer special emerged during our lengthy conversation. Orrin's great skill was to find exceptional talent early and let leading lights record what they wanted—without trying to badger weasel, cheat or belittle them.

Seems simple enough, but the record business wasn't quite as noble as the music sounded in the '50s. Some independent producers were cool, determined characters who saw musicians as commodities. The goal often was to shuttle them through the process by having them record sellable album concepts, extracting the most amount of work as quickly as possible and holding less bankable original works to a minimum.

Unlike most of his independent-label contemporaries, Orrin allowed musicians to conceptualize albums. He made them feel as though they were part of the business of producing art, not merely employees. And he always showed profound respect and admiration for them as people and artists. In return, the musicians who worked for him delivered exceptional work in most cases, all of which is documented on the Riverside and Jazzland labels.

Though Orrin didn't know much about jazz at first and he learned how to produce on the job, what he did know well from the get-go was how to write. His literary liner notes cover the backs of most of the albums he produced at his labels and they are always precise and passionate. In fact, the reason he began as a producer was to write about what made the music special. His measured prose was especially admired by musicians like Monk and Adderley. In recent years, Orrin has updated his original notes for remastered Concord editions, providing fresh detail and drama.

After Orrin and I spent two hours talking, I finally could sense why artists rose to the occasion under his direction. To those who don't know Orrin well, he certainly can be intimidating and off-putting. But that's merely a defense mechanism to discourage fools and time-wasters.

Deep down, Orrin is a kindred spirit who cares ferociously about art and those who are capable of making it. Once Orrin senses that an artist is special, he's only too happy to serve as a radar operator—his job during World War II—confidently guiding them through unknown territory to their creative destination.

JazzWax clip: Here's Wes Montgomery's recording of Lolita for Orrin and Riverside in October 1963, with Melvin Rhyne on organ and George Brown on drums...

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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