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Orrin Keepnews: Classic Producer of Classics

R.J. DeLuke By

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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.


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