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Orrin Keepnews, Jazz-Record Producer

by John Cobley

Friday Apr 30th, 2021





“It’s supposed to proceed so that all the players have to worry about is creativity; I’m supposed to worry about everything else.”  Orrin Keepnews 


Orrin Keepnews, one of the most respected record producers in jazz, worked at the forefront of his profession for more than three decades from the 1950s. On the Riverside, Milestone and Landmark labels, he recorded many of the leading musicians of his time, including McCoy Tyner, Wes Montgomery, Cannonball Adderley, Johnny Griffin, Bobby Hutcherson, Sonny Rollins, and Joe Henderson. From his many successful recordings, two stand out as jazz classics: Thelonious Monk’s Brilliant Corners and Bill Evans’ Sunday Night at the Village Vanguard. In his book of reviews, essays and reminiscences, The View From Within, Keepnews has written what amounts to a manual for producing jazz recordings. 




Not a musician himself, Keepnews studied English Literature at Columbia. After graduating in 1943 he served in the air force as a radar operator. After the war, Keepnews worked for seven years as an editor at Simon & Shuster. At the same time he worked for his Columbia friend, Bill Grauer, as managing editor of The Record Changer, a magazine serving jazz-record collectors. It was this secondary job that drew him deeply into the jazz world. He recalls how the magazine enabled him to visit Alfred Lion of Blue Note records to meet Thelonious Monk and discuss his new Blue Note recordings; this visit was according to Keepnews “directly responsible for altering the entire direction of my life.” (p. 4) He became involved in producing jazz records after investigating a bootlegging scandal for The Record Changer. ‘This investigation,’ he recalled, “shoved me straight into the record business.” (p. 5) Soon after in 1953, he and Bill Grauer founded Riverside Records, Grauer running the business side and Keepnews producing the recordings.


The initial success of Riverside Records was based on Keepnews’ ability to work with two musicians: Thelonious Monk and Bill Evans. He managed to deal with their temperamental personalities and guide them to record some of the most important music in jazz.



Thelonious Monk was his first major signing. Keepnews recalls, “Monk was the first artist of real consequence with whom I went into a recording studio. Certainly he was the most unusual and probably the most demanding.” (p. 117-8) Keepnews had first made contact with Monk back in 1948 when he was invited by Blue Note Records to interview Monk. And although the then-young journalist was told that he wouldn’t get “a whole sentence out of the High Priest, ” he managed to impress Monk and wrote an article that showed a good understanding of Monk’s unusual music. 


That successful interview paid dividends seven years later in 1955, when he was informed that Monk was looking for a new label. Riverside had started recording contemporary artists the previous year and was keen to sign up musicians. A meeting with Monk led to a three-year contract. “Signing this genius was not hard,” Keepnews wrote 30 years later, “[but] recording him was never easy.” (p. 121) 


Four months after signing the contract, Monk made his first recording for Riverside, agreeing to play Ellington compositions rather than his own. Keepnews felt that Monk’s highly original style would be more easily accepted if well-known tunes were used. In the studio Keepnews had his first taste of how difficult Monk could be: he claimed he didn’t know the Ellington compositions properly and proceeded to spend a lot of recording time going over each one. Keepnews managed to stay calm enough to complete the recording. 


Working with Monk taught him a lot: “I was beginning to learn the importance of being flexible, of instantly altering plans and schedules, not tightening up when faced with the unexpected, and remembering a major aspect of the producer’s role is to reduce the overall tension…. Above all, I was beginning to grasp a fundamental lesson that I suspect many jazz producers never fully appreciate: it is the artist’s album, not mine.” (p.124) It was during his first first major confrontation with Monk, when recording his solo album, that Keepnews learned another important lesson: “Working on behalf of the artist doesn’t mean that you have to turn yourself into a doormat.” (p.125)


The Monk-Keepnews partnership produced some of the finest albums in jazz with Thelonious Himself and Brilliant Corners.  Although Riverside signed Monk to another three-year contract in 1958, he was soon lured away by Columbia Records. Keepnews was of course upset, but he decided not to insist that Monk fulfill his contract: “It was a common enough procedure to let a small jazz company run the risks of early development and then have the giants move in.” (p.125) Anyway, Keepnews knew full well that it was no use recording a reluctant musician if he insisted on the contract terms.



Another early Riverside signing was Bill Evans. After his friend Mundell Lowe played him an amateur tape of Evans over the telephone, Keepnews was soon down at the Village Vanguard club to hear this young pianist. After several visits, he and Evans signed a basic contract at scale wages. But Evans, although he had already recorded several times as a sideman, was reluctant to record under his own name with a trio. Keepnews had to work hard to get Evans into a studio. He wrote later that this experience gave him “[his] first taste of the self-deprecating attitude [Evans] usually displayed during the years we worked together.” (p. 167) In the studio he “tried to put Evans under as little pressure as possible.” (Ibid.) Thus Keepnews’ perceptive ear and his persuasive skills enabled him to sign up a second jazz genius and record New Jazz Conceptions


He had a lot more persuading to do before he got Evans back in the studio two years later. Evans continued to be reluctant to record; he told Keepnews that he “didn’t have anything particularly different to say.” (p. 168) But again he overcame the young pianist’s low opinion of his playing and managed to have Evans enter the studio with a “very special feeling.” Everybody Digs Bill Evans was the result, an album that achieved high critical acclaim. 


A major concession was still needed to placate Evans: Keepnews agreed not to release any recorded material unless Evans approved it. Portrait in Jazz followed, and then Explorations with Keepnews and Evans working closely on the compositions and their order on the album. This fourth recording was successfully achieved despite an ongoing feud between Evans and his bassist Scott LaFaro.


By now, Keepnews had a thorough understanding of his pianist. Thus he was able to facilitate perhaps Evans’ greatest recording at a live performance at the Village Vanguard in New York. (Photo below: Keepnews on left with LaFaro, Evans and Motian) He recorded five sets (two in the matinee and three in the evening) of the Bill Evans Trio on the last day of a two-week engagement. The trio had been playing really well, and it was Keepnews’ task to ensure that this high standard of playing continued for the recording. And despite a power cut during the very first number, everything went smoothly. In fact Evans the perfectionist was “unusually pleased with the results.” (p. 174) They had been hoping to have enough good material for one album, but they managed to put out two seminal jazz albums, Sunday at the Village Vanguard and Waltz for Debby. It’s worth noting that Keepnews was somewhat of a pioneer in live recording; his first live recording was a hugely successful for him: The Cannonball Adderley Quintet in San Francisco (1959)



His work with Monk and Evans was of course only part of the success that established Keepnews at the forefront of jazz-record producers. His tenure with Riverside from 1953 to 1964 left a legacy of almost 400 albums recorded by many of the leading jazz musicians of the day, including Earl Hines, Paul Gonsalves, Coleman Hawkins, Milt Jackson, Tadd Dameron, George Russell and George Shearing.  Then there were the other major musicians whom he recorded several times: Sonny Rollins, Johnny Griffin, Cannonball Adderley, Wes Montgomery and Clark Terry. He had a special relationship with these five and regarded them as friends rather than business partners. Among the most successful records were The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes MontgomeryThe Cannonball Adderley Quintet in San Francisco and The Sound of Sonny (Rollins).


Following the death of Bill Grauer, Keepnews’ business partner, Riverside went bankrupt in 1964. Not long after he set up a new label, Milestone Records, with Dick Katz. Milestone was another success. It issued albums by Joe Henderson, Lee Konitz, Nat Adderley and Gary Bartz among others.



In 1972 Keepnews signed up McCoy Tyner. The pianist’s previous recording contract had not been a happy one, so he was wary of signing a new one. Nevertheless, after recommendations from Joe Henderson and Gary Bartz, Tyner eventually signed a two-year agreement. Keepnews worked hard with Tyner until they eventually “reached an almost instinctive level of operation.” (p. 182) One of the changes Keepnews initiated in Tyner was an interest in recording technology, and together they improved the sound on disc of Tyner’s percussive and strong-left-hand. (p. 182) By 1980 Tyner’s sales had increased 700%, and he went on to record more albums with Keepnews than did Monk or Evans.  


When Milestone was bought by Fantasy in 1973, Keepnews moved from New York to San Francisco to work for Fantasy and to reissue both Riverside (bought by Fantasy in 1972) and Milestone albums. He also continued to produce recordings. In 1985, after leaving Fantasy, he set up yet another label, Landmark, producing over ten years more than 50 albums by such musicians as John Hicks, Ralph Moore, Elvin Jones, Bobby Hutcherson and Yusef Lateef.



As his work with Monk, Evans and Tyner shows, Keepnews was able to adapt to each musician’s individual needs. This essential ability was continually put to the test. “I’ve never worked with anyone who made it easy,” he once wrote. (p. 186) And he has described why it is so difficult to work with top musicians: “It is not at all uncommon for talent, genius, artistic superiority to be thoroughly intertwined with eccentricity, temperament, perversity of one sort or another, and a highly developed tendency on the part of the artist for both self-torture and the tormenting of those around him.” (p. 189)


As well as adapting to individual musicians, Keepnews also needed to work proactively. He has described the role of a jazz-record producer thus: “He should serve primarily as a catalytic agent. In a literal sense, my dictionary refers to this as something that ‘initiates a chemical reaction and enables it to proceed under different conditions than otherwise  possible.’ In a jazz sense, I mean that the producer’s job is to create, in whatever ways he can, a set of circumstances that will allow and encourage the artist to perform at the very highest level.” (p. 11)


Keepnews’ success also depended on a thoroughly discriminating ear for jazz. This was developed from an early age through his habitual visits to New York clubs and later through his years as a jazz writer for The Record Changer. Just as important were his interpersonal skills and a continual willingness to learn; these enabled him to recruit and retain some of the best musicians. Many of them showed strong loyalty to him, often becoming his friends and supporters. An anecdote from Keepnews illustrates the camaraderie he fostered: “Cannonball came busting into my office and said, ‘I heard this incredible guitar player Wes Montgomery, and we’ve got to get him on the label.’” For Keepnews, the fact that the saxophonist referred to Riverside as a collective endeavor was the real triumph: ‘My principal artist referred to the label as ‘we’! That’s what it’s all about.’” (Andrew Gilbert, “An Appreciation of Orrin Keepnews,” kqed.org, 1 March, 2015)


All quotations except the last are from Orrin Keepnews, The View FromWithin, Oxford University Press, 1988


1 Comment

Dave Koralewski Monday 24th May 2021

Hey, that Keepnews article went way beyond my reasonable expectations. I felt a warming familiarity with the music and musicians mentioned, and a remembrance of a phone call we made from the KBYU studios to Orrin. It was you that actually spoke to him, but as I recall, he was rather diffident about forecasting any future for jazz and jazz labels at that time. Major labels were forcing their artists to compromise with the current trends toward emasculated pop-rock. The personal integrity of those few producers like Keepnews was the suspension bridge that allowed the most introspective exploratory musicians to cross that daunting chasm between their insightful discoveries and an admittedly smaller audience, hungry for meaningful conversation with these soul-stirring geniuses. No wonder these artists tended to be socially timid, testy, awkward or angry about working with the people who were going to put their newborn concepts into a time-capsule that would simultaneously distribute and fossilize their improvised imaginings in the form of a few recorded snapshots. I love what you're doing with this project, John!

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