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Orrin Keepnews' Studio Secrets


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In early 1953, Orrin Keepnews, a magazine editor and writer, and Bill Grauer, a bean-counter, started Riverside Records. Both had had some experience producing jazz reissues for RCA. As Orrin told me when I first interviewed him in 2007, “We were too damn dumb to be scared." The label was named after the office's telephone exchange following unfruitful attempts to come up with something better.

At first, Riverside's strategy was to use the new 10-inch LP format as a way to offer previously released pre-war jazz singles issued on the defunct Paramount label. Three singles would fit snugly on each side of the 10-inch LP. Then in 1954 Grauer heard a young pianist in Lenox, Mass. whom he thought Riverside should record. But Riverside could only afford a solo effort by Randy Weston, who wanted a trio session. A compromised was reached, and Randy was backed only by bassist Sam Gill.

As LP production costs declined rapidly, the 12-inch LP became feasible. Riverside cut a deal with Reeves Sound Studio in Manhattan and began recording modern jazz—a form Orrin had been championing in print since the late '40s. Over the next nine years, the label would capture the creative works of dozens of musicians, from Thelonious Monk and Bill Evans to Cannonball Adderley and Wes Montgomery. It's fair to say that without the Riverside label, a significant chunk of jazz history would not have been documented.

In October 2007, Bret Primack [pictured above], the Jazz Video Guy, conducted an extensive on-camera interview with Orrin at Fantasy Studios in Berkeley, Calif. The purpose of the interview was to produce a series of mini promotional clips in support of Concord's re-issue of key Riverside albums.

The clips were boldly and brilliantly edited by Bret, who had the courage and smarts to open each with him asking Orrin, “Can I ask you some general questions?" and Orrin sourly interrupting: “You do whatever you want, you're running that end of the show, sir. I'm just here to respond." If that doesn't hook ya, I don't know what will.

Now Concord, in coordination with Bret, is posting more material from this fabled interview in support of Riverside's 60th anniversary this year and its latest batch of Riverside reissues... Here's the new interview material. Concord decided to give JazzWax and its readers an exclusive first look, so enjoy. Personally, I could watch this interview for hours... 

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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