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Orrin Keepnews, RIP


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The influential jazz producer, record company head and author Orrin Keepnews died today at his home in El Cerrito, California. He would have been 92 tomorrow. Keepnews guided the recording careers of Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans, Wes Montgomery, Sonny Rollins and many other leading jazz artists of the 20th Century. The announcement of his death came from his son Peter Keepnews, who with his brother David had flown from New York to their father’s bedside two days earlier. Keepnews is pictured with his four Grammy statuettes, two for albums he produced, two for album annotations that called on his skill as a jazz journalist.

In the late 1940s, as managing editor of The Record Changer, Keepnews wrote one of the first extensive articles about Monk, then an obscure pianist. With Bill Grauer, Keepnews founded Riverside Records in 1953. They signed another pianist, Randy Weston, to Riverside a year later, and in 1955 signed Monk, whose series of Riverside albums brought him to prominence. Successful Riverside albums followed by other artists, including Evans, Montgomery, Rollins, Cannonball Adderley and Abbey Lincoln. After financial struggles and Grauer’s death, Riverside went out of business in the early sixties. Keepnews went to to co-found the Milestone label and then Landmark.

Among the Bill Evans albums Keepnews produced were those of the pianist’s trio at the Village Vanguard in New York in 1961. They were among the most influential jazz recordings of the period and helped to determine directions that jazz took as it developed through the rest of 20th century and into the 21st. Evans showed his regard for Keepnews by titling one of his compositions as an anagram of “Orrin Keepnews”—“Re: Person I Knew.”

For an extensive biography, see Nate Chinen’s obituary in The New York Times.

I will miss Orrin as a close friend of more than half a century.

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