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Orrin Keepnews: Classic Producer of Classics


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Neither I nor anybody in the world discovered Thelonious. You don't discover a force of nature. It's there.
—Orrin Keepnews
This interview was originally published in August 2007.

As a city boy who took a liking to jazz music and extended it into a budding career as a journalist, Orrin Keepnews may have inadvertently veered into the record-producing arena that generated classic albums from a wide range of unforgettable artists. Maybe it was a fortunate accident. Maybe fate.

Maybe it's a word he uses about others: inevitable.

Born in New York City eighty-four years ago in 1923, Keepnews has lived a remarkable life in jazz during its golden years and amid most of its greatest innovators and interpreters. He can look back on album-upon-album with the likes of Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans, Sonny Rollins, Cannonball Adderley, Wes Montgomery, McCoy Tyner and so many more. As he bounced from the Big Apple to San Francisco over the decades, this city lad could count these valued people in music as colleagues and friends. Today, he could rest on his laurels.

But he doesn't. He's almost a country gentleman these days, away from San Francisco, a place that was home for decades, but still working, producing albums and heavily involved in the reissue game that this year resulted in the superb The Keepnews Collection. It's all in a day's work for the producer who seems unaffected by renewed interest in his life that has been spurred by The Collection. He's proud of his accomplishments, but lives in today and has an eye on tomorrow. Country gentleman? OK, maybe not quite.

"Actually, I'm still in the San Francisco area, says the affable and esteemed music executive. "We just, a few months ago, moved out of the city into an East Bay suburb, El Cerrito, which is just past Berkley. If you live in California, you might as well get a little ground under your feet once in a while. I came out here from New York over thirty years ago and have lived completely between New York and San Francisco—almost completely a city boy all my life. So it's nice for a change. I have an honest-to-god back yard. We have a lemon tree flourishing in it. Things like that.

In the meantime, he's doing what he has done for decades: listening to jazz, investigating new artists and projects worthy of producing, and keeping busy with reissuing classic sessions.

For reissues, 2007 is a big year for Keepnews. The Keepnews Collection from the Concord Music Group is a series of albums he did in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s and originally released either on his Riverside Records or Milestone Records. All titles are remastered in 24-bit from the original master tapes and allowed the producer to revisit some of his accomplishments. They're released in batches of five records; two batches out and more to come.

Early this year came Thelonious Monk: Plays Duke Ellington (1955), Wes Montgomery's Full House (1962), Jazz Contrasts (1957) with Kenny Dorham, Cannonball Adderley Quintet in San Francisco (1959) and Joe Henderson's Power to the People (1969). A second batch in June unveiled Everybody Digs Bill Evans (1959), Chet Baker's Chet (1959), Jimmy Heath Orchestra's Really Big (1960), Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers' Caravan (1962) and vocalist Flora Purim's Butterfly Dreams (1973). All the discs, with the exception of Purim's, feature bonus tracks.

"As I said when the idea was originally thrown at me, you certainly can't insult me by making me the focal point of it that way, says Keepnews, "and it does give me the freedom to do an eclectic mix. Some of these are some of the obvious high points of my career and others are things I have a great affection for and in a number of cases they should have gotten more attention. So it's a nice combination.

Each CD also contains updated notes, remembrances of the artist and events that place a further value on the disks. Keepnews' writing is of value because of the "I was there historical factor, but also the style in which it's presented. It's plaintive and to the point, as well as colorful and honest. Contrast his forthright description about has disdain for Chet Baker, even while producing a fine album, with his fondness for the Adderley brothers. Both descriptions, like the others in the collection, are unabashed. It's interesting to read Keepnews' recollections as he looks back.

One could go on and on about the music. The Adderley group live and blowing freely. Henderson with young firebrands Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Jack DeJohnette. Wes with Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers, Jimmy Cobb and Johnny Griffin, swinging like mad. Health's all-star band and Blakey with a horn section of Wayne Shorter, Freddie Hubbard and Curtis Fuller. Wailing. It's part of Keepnews' legacy, one that's still building. The collection gives a microcosmic view of why Keepnews has been honored by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences with a Governors Award for Outstanding Achievement and by the Jazz Journalists Association with its A Team award for contributions to the art form.

Keepnews isn't just digging into vaults for something to do. He is still producing new things when the right opportunity arises. But he admits things have changed in the recording business. He says there is an instability at present, that may one day correct itself. But until such time, producers and artists are dealing with an industry in flux.

"The reissue projects have been keeping me busy. The timing is nice, says Keepnews. "I'm glad to be able to devote the amount of care and digging into the existing tapes and such. When Fantasy sold itself to Concord, it opened a renewed burst of reissue activity with my own material for me. Actually, I'm delighted to have the regularity of the reissue package, even though there are projects and people I'm interested in. It's a real weird time, as far as new jazz production is concerned. As a matter of fact even as far as the reissue world in general. It's a very unstable time. So it is kind of nice to have an ongoing series like this.

Looking back over decades of outstanding work, Keepnews has a unique perspective. He's quick with his comments, no doubt enforced by the fact that he knows what he's talking about and has been through it all. Even so, the pride in his achievements is mixed with some modesty and an unfailing sense that, in many of life's achievements, there is a degree of serendipity involved. Still, there aren't that many people out there with Keepnews' experience. His matter-of-fact manner of discussing music, including the current scene, is informative and worthy of note.

"I consider the record business unstable when there isn't any Tower Records to go look at your product. To an almost a complete extent, the majors [record labels] are not messing with jazz at all, he says of the state of recording today. As for the Internet and how some artists are turning to it exclusively, "I think it is an overreaction. We're some place in the middle of an exaggerated pendulum swing here. I do think if we're all able to survive, we'll get a more normal relationship between the owners of the masters and the producers and re-producers of it, and the public. We'll get back in synch, but I certainly don't think we're in synch right now.

"The majors are always hard to predict simply because their attitudes, first of all, are always rather severely affected by corporate considerations—profit and loss sheets, which jazz rarely looks good on. I've been in this business an incredibly long time and I look back and I see that given enough time, the majors will completely reverse their position on specialty product—jazz or classical or what have you. But by the same token you have to start looking at it a little differently because we don't have 'majors' to the same extent and the same quantity we used to have in the record business.

Then there's the plethora of recordings and ease of cranking out independent CDs. "Theoretically, we have technically gotten to the point where anybody's bathroom is a recording studio, the affable producer says, and not particularly tongue-in-cheek. He adds with a grin, "And you can quote me.

With many artists recording in their own studios, Keepnews feels results can be good, but not always up to par. "Sometimes they know what they're doing and sometimes they don't. The problem is, when technology goes marching ahead, they don't always hand out free lessons to the right people. The technology may be in wonderful shape, but it's not necessarily being optimally operated, which makes technological advances risky things, at times.

When Keepnews got into the business, technology certainly wasn't what it is now. He was never a technician anyway, relying more on his intuitive feel for the music and his feelings about how the musicians he met and heard mixed in with what was going on. Who was important? Who would go on to be important? What impressive sounds were out there and how can they get to the public? Those were more important than technical issues.

He was born 1923 in the Bronx and admits there was no musical background in his family from which to draw. He listened on the radio to pop music of the day, which was swing music of the big bands. And he wasn't afraid of the night life.

"I am fond of pointing to the fact that when I was in high school and first in college, I was in New York, there was a hell of a lot of music going on. Nobody was being carded because we hadn't come to that stage in life yet. Before there was a draft, before the approach of World War II, nobody was carrying universal identification. The legal drinking age in New York was eighteen, but long before I was eighteen, I was able to stand at a bar and put down my 75 cents or a dollar and get a drink. The odds are that there was some pretty interesting music going on in that environment. That very much was the beginning of it for me.

Keepnews went to Columbia University. "I was one of those amorphous things called an English major. I thought that I was going to grow up to be a writer of some kind, an editor or a newspaperman or a creative writer, he says. He graduated with a degree in English, but World War II was on and he entered the military. Upon his return, already a jazz fan, he "fell in with a crowd that was very jazz oriented. I did a lot of listening. Then I had this nice accident where one of the people I was hanging out with took over the ownership of a jazz magazine (Bill Grauer's Record Changer magazine). At that point, I was working as a young editor at a book publisher in New York, at Simon & Schuster. I guess one way to describe me is the only professional literary person that Bill Grauer knew. So he asked me to help edit the magazine he had just taken over.

It seemed like an ideal spot for a budding writer and music fan. It had its pros and cons. "I quickly realized I not only had the responsibility of editing some pretty lousy prose by people whose enthusiasm was not necessarily matching their literary talent, but I also was in a position where I was the one who was deciding what the magazine was publishing. It made it kind of easy for what I wrote to get published, right? That's what sprung me loose as a jazz writer.

He says around that time he and Grauer got started reissuing jazz records for an RCA Victor label. "It inevitably developed into working with living artists and new material. I almost could say that I was in the record business before I quite knew how. I have, and I will not deny it, been quoted as saying I ruined a perfectly good hobby by turning it into the way I was making my living.

The scene was new to the young pair of entrepreneurs. They had to learn techniques on the job, as well as keep their eyes open and their ears to the ground to determine what was going on in the music. If he didn't know it initially, Keepnews learned he could trust his instincts.

"The period that I'm talking about, the '50s, there was really a tremendous number of people doing very much the same thing—people who were fans, where if they said they were a producer, there was nobody to say, 'No, you're not.' If I'm one of the owners of a company and I decide I'm qualified to be a jazz producer, exactly who's going to tell me I'm wrong? Presumably, I was not wrong, he says.

Keepnews also had the benefit of coming up in a time where many of the key creators of the art form were participating, rounding into form, growing. Many have called that time the Golden Era. The music became more challenging on the paths laid out by Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk, and pushed further by Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman and others. Meanwhile, there were great interpreters, and there were also the greats of the previous developmental stages, like Lester Young and Louis Armstrong. And timeless artists like Duke Ellington.

"It is quite true there were an inordinate number of highly talented young musicians. For reasons that I don't understand, all I can do is point to the record, that's the way it happened. But I did form good personal and working relationships with some people who were extremely valuable artists and who turned out, in many instances, these were the people that I lived with. These were my closest friends. Almost without my having any control over it, that became my way of life. I'm damn pleased that's the way it happened.

Keepnews and Grauer founded the Riverside label in 1953. That label signed up Monk in 1955 and other important artists. It ended in 1964, and Keepnews continued producing. In 1966, he founded the Milestone label, running it until it was purchased by Fantasy in 1973. Sonny Rollins, Gary Bartz, Lee Konitz, McCoy Tyner and Joe Henderson were among those signed on Milestone. He served as vice president of Fantasy throughout most of the 1970s and in 1985 he founded Landmark, which was acquired by Muse in 1993. Bobby Hutcherson had important albums on that label. In addition to continued producing, Keepnews always kept his hand in writing. He won two 1988 Grammy Awards for Best Historical Album and Best Album Notes for Thelonious Monk: The Complete Riverside Recordings.

For Keepnews, being a producer went beyond technical aspects. He was a member of a community and made friends with the people he did business with; or in some cases, did not. It required different ways of handling individuals. It could require kid gloves or a hard-line stance.

"That's one of the damn problems. I have pointed to specific incidents that you can get yourself in a situation. I can think of nothing more difficult than what I was going through when I found myself at one and the same time Bill Evans' friend, his record producer, his record company. That is a series of conflicts that can wear you down pretty quickly ... When I look at several of the people in my earliest days—Monk, Bill (Evans), Wes Montgomery, Cannonball, and on to Sonny Rollins, McCoy Tyner, he says with pride. "My wife and I [recently] went down to a concert at the Stanford Workshop with Bobby Hutcherson. He's somebody that I really didn't catch up with until relatively well into my career, but who is, as far as I'm concerned, one of the most remarkable artists and one of the best human beings that I've ever been associated with.

"I make no secret of the fact that I am very fortunate in the profession that I either chose or it chose me—it's kind of hard to tell which—that it's worked out very well. I could be a hell of a lot richer if I worked in certain other ways. But I must say as far as creative satisfaction, I feel pretty smug.

He says the cycle of talent in music is a fluctuating thing. In hindsight, the validity of certain artists he worked with became apparent. But "it doesn't always turn out the way you think potentially great talent really is. Now, I look back and I did make some accurate assumptions and some accurate guesses. I don't have the faintest idea whether it was because I was brilliant or they were there and in the right place at the right time. Probably it was a combination, he says with a chuckle. "I hope it was.

While he's proud that he helped validate some artists over the course of his illustrious career, for some of them, the eventual rise to the pinnacle could not be denied. Even for someone like Monk, ignored and at times reviled in his early years, his genius was bound to shine through.

"With Monk, I'm always very careful to say neither I nor anybody in the world discovered Thelonious. You don't discover a force of nature. It's there. That's the only way he can be properly regarded.

"What happened is despite some really dogged attempts to ignore him, belittle him, he was there and he made his presence felt. I'm very proud of the fact that I think I did play a role in helping that to happen, Keepnews says. "But essentially, as far as I'm concerned, what made Monk was Monk. It's just that there are some talents that are seriously helped by the circumstances that they develop under, and there are some that I believe are utterly inevitable. I have to believe that Louis Armstrong was inevitable, and Monk was inevitable and Ellington was inevitable. I agree with those people who feel that John Coltrane was inevitable. But not too damn many.

He says in the 1950s when he started, there was a lot of "extremely valid people who were just starting out or just beginning to be appreciated, and who were therefore available to someone in my position—a young producer with an independent record company. That might not be the case today.

Keepnews works on projects for some of today's artists, like tenor saxophonist Dave Ellis, "who is a young tenor player I feel strongly about, who I've been having trouble accomplishing with in the tough times that we live in now. But recently, the live projects are fewer and farther between. "That's one of the sad facts of life that I was commenting on. There's not a hell of a lot that is going on out there ... There are some projects that haven't really gotten to the point where I'm in the position to want to talk about them yet. But I have not stopped being interested in new talent. Thank god it's an active personal reissue period, because of a number of other things are slow in developing. But they're there. Jazz has not stopped inventing itself by any means.

The music business is always a challenge, he says, and the nature of the challenge changes. Though he personally feel like jazz is in a slow cycle, "it's not the first time. Jazz definitely goes in cycles, he says. "The finding and the developing, and the finding of proper homes for, and proper public for new jazz artists is as tough now as it's ever been.

Keepnews is aware that jazz programs in the colleges across the nation are producing well-schooled musicians. But the value of the nightclub scene of the 1940s and 1950s, and the ability for musicians to hone their crafts and develop before the public, and in the company of important jazz musicians, cannot be over estimated.

"What we did with the club scene when it was flourishing was bitch about it mainly, says Keepnews in his typical forthright style. "But the fact of the matter is when you look at it now, the club scene was an essential part of the dissemination and development of the music. There is no easy way for an artist to get new exposure. Having somebody make a record and have that record get heard and get appreciated and get bought—that's not a natural sensible way for artists to develop.

He adds that nightlife in the United States in general has changed. "If everybody had always stayed home with the television set and the computer, there's a lot we would have missed out on, he notes. "I'd sure be a lot happier if there was a lot more club activity in the world, in terms of the recognition and development of new talent. And it is a problem. It definitely is inhibiting the development of the next round of talent. Yes, there's a lot more academic attention being paid to jazz. It's not the same thing.

He adds, after pause for thought, "I guess what I'm saying is that it's dependent on people like me to be more creative in our ways of finding and developing talent. Then he ads with a laugh, "I think I've become to damn old to get into that rat race again.

Despite the self-effacing comment, Keepnews admits he has some irons in the fire still, projects he doesn't want to speak about yet. He's leery of some young musician getting plaudits that may be too big and to live up to early on, simply because the Keepnews name is attached to the project. "Unfortunately, my name has been associated with a lot of valuable people. That's not unfortunate; it's what I'm proudest of. But unfortunate in the terms of anything I want to do starting yesterday, today and tomorrow. I'm not trying to be cute about it. I just feel that it's protectively necessary to be kind of mysterious about what I hope to be working with.

At 84, why is he still working at it? His accomplishments are many.

"Working on a certain kind of reissue project is a very gratifying thing, he says of projects like The Keepnews Collection. "The knowledge that at least a reasonable number of people find continuing validity in what I had done, have been doing for a long time, was doing a long time ago, I appreciate the hell out of that kind of recognition.

But with all that, "I haven't figured out any way to stop listening. And if you keep listening, chances are you're going to hear some things worth hearing. At least I hope so.

So in the future? "I just plan to keep on trying to be myself, laughs Orrin Keepnews, an American classic. And he has the last laugh.

Selected Discography from The Keepnews Collection

Flora Purim, Butterfly Dreams (Milestone, 1973)
Joe Henderson, Power to the People! (Milestone, 1969)
Cannonball Adderley, Cannonball Adderley Quintet in San Francisco (Riverside, 1959)
Chet Baker, Chet (Riverside, 1959)
Kenny Dorham, Jazz Contrasts (Riverside, 1957)

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