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Article on Orrin Keepnews
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Wed Sep 10 09:57:19 EDT 2008
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His Virtuoso Instrument Is the Recording
By TOM NOLAN
September 9, 2008; Page D9
When Orrin Keepnews, the Grammy Award-winning jazz-record producer,
writer and reissue master, was growing up in New York in the "30s and
"40s, a teenager -- for the cost of a beer or two, when the legal
drinking age was 18 (and, says Mr. Keepnews, carding was lax) -- could
listen for hours to world-class jazz musicians at one of the clubs
along 52nd Street or in Greenwich Village. According to Mr. Keepnews,
now 85 and speaking from his home in Northern California, "It was
advertised as: "Hey, this is a good way to have a cheap date," and I
ended up getting interested in the music. That's being a little too
cute about it -- but that's really, basically, where it started from."
Following service in World War II, the Bronx native did graduate study
at Columbia University, where he met another jazz lover named Bill
Grauer and became managing editor and writer for Mr. Grauer's "very
obscure and very esoteric" music journal, The Record Changer. In 1953,
Messrs. Keepnews and Grauer began Riverside Records, an independent
label that at first reissued classic jazz sides from the 1920s and
"30s but soon was recording original material. Following Mr. Grauer's
death and the folding of Riverside in 1964, Mr. Keepnews and another
partner began the Milestone label, which merged into Fantasy in 1972.
Many old Riverside and Milestone LPs are now on Concord CD -- with new
liner notes and (when possible) bonus tracks -- as part of a
continuing series supervised by Mr. Keepnews. The latest, released
this summer, includes discs by Sonny Rollins, Coleman Hawkins, Nat
Adderley and McCoy Tyner. Later this month, another group of Keepnews
Collection entries will be available, including a "live" set by
pianist Bill Evans.
Gathered in earlier Keepnews Collection batches are vintage sides by
one of the first significant artists signed by Riverside: the
brilliant composer-pianist Thelonious Monk. "When we were told about
his possible availability as a recording artist, we set up a meeting
with him -- and to my total surprise, he knew exactly what our past
relationship had been: Seven years before, I had interviewed him for
what he informed me was the first article about him ever to appear in
a national magazine. So that really made it very feasible for us --
and, seriously, Prestige wasn't a damn bit interested in retaining
him; he wasn't selling records, and he was difficult to deal with... .
So we signed him. And that really was the beginning of me as a jazz
It was also the start of one of the most highly regarded jazz catalogs
of the 1950s and "60s -- one that would include epoch-shaping LPs by
such artists and ensembles as pianist Bill Evans, the Thelonious Monk
Quartet with John Coltrane, the combos of saxophonist Julian
"Cannonball" Adderley and his cornetist-brother Nat Adderley, and
guitarist Wes Montgomery.
Much of the label's development reflected the improvisatory nature of
the music it documented, Mr. Keepnews says, at a time when audio tape
and the long-playing record were changing producing in radical ways.
"Nobody was an expert at what it was we were fumbling around trying to
do," Mr. Keepnews says, "because the whole basic technique was brand-
One of the key elements in the development of Riverside and other
independent labels, Mr. Keepnews says, was the "postwar deflationary
period": "At that point, union-scale pay for a sideman for a three-
hour session was $41.25; double that for the leader. Among other
things, you could do a trio album for a total musician cost of, in
round numbers, $250. That is probably the most important factor in the
growth of independent jazz labels -- and why, as it turned out, the
"50s was such a golden age for recorded jazz, I think."
Sales figures then were low -- an average of 2,000 to 5,000 units per
album -- while aesthetic standards were high. "Our first set of goals,
literally, were "Let's be able to sell enough copies of record No. 1
to be able to finance record No. 2." We were far more interested --
naïve as it may sound, naïve as it was -- in the art form."
Producing recordings of that art form required Mr. Keepnews to develop
"a good, two-way-street kind of working relationship" with all sorts
of sensitive or difficult personalities, he says. It also required him
to deal with certain realities not often covered in Small Business 101.
"Let's take Bill Evans," Mr. Keepnews says, "who for various reasons
becomes a man with a serious heroin addiction. Now, he's going to come
to his record company, one of his few regular sources of income, for
advances of money to enable him when he doesn't have any other source
to go to. What are my choices? I either advance him money to the
extent that it's feasible and sensible and perhaps a little bit more
than that -- or I get self-righteous and say, "No! I am not going to
make it easy for him to go about being a heroin addict; I won't give
him the money."
"Basically, if the people he tries to get money from -- the friends
and the business associates -- don't come through, he's got choices
like he could mug a little old lady and get some money off of her; or
maybe he could borrow money from the kind of people who would break
his fingers if he didn't pay them back, you know? So I always figured,
you got to look at the thing in terms of realism. My saying "no" is
not going to be the end of the man's habit. And I have no idea whether
those were right or wrong decisions on my part, but I felt they were
Public taste caught up with Riverside artists, or vice versa, at the
tail-end of the 1950s. "The first record that I did with Cannonball
Adderley's Quintet was the first record that I did that sold enough so
that I could be accused of "selling-out,'" Mr. Keepnews says.
"Cannonball Adderley Live at the Jazz Workshop" sold about 50,000
copies, he says. "It was a huge hit, for its time and place."
But times and the music changed. By the 1980s and "90s, Mr. Keepnews
had mostly stopped producing contemporary recordings and was putting
together -- as a producer of reissues and a writer of liner notes for
major labels -- award-winning packages of the jazz he had grown up
with: Duke Ellington, Artie Shaw, Count Basie.
Then times changed again. "You stick in this business long enough," he
says, "and the damnedest things happen." The archival materials he's
now repackaging are the once-contemporary albums he himself produced
half a century ago.
"I'm not complaining," Mr. Keepnews says with a chuckle. "I'm not
bragging. But it's there -- and I must say that I find these things
hold up rather well."
Mr. Nolan is editor of "The Archer Files: The Complete Short Stories
of Lew Archer, Private Investigator," by Ross Macdonald (Crippen &
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