Orrin Keepnews

Last updated
Orrin Keepnews
Orrin Keepnews.jpg
Background information
Born(1923-03-02)March 2, 1923
The Bronx, New York, U.S.
DiedMarch 1, 2015(2015-03-01) (aged 91)
El Cerrito, California, U.S.
Genres Jazz
Occupation(s) Record producer, writer
Years active1952–2015
Labels Riverside, Milestone, Fantasy, Landmark Records

Orrin Keepnews (March 2, 1923 March 1, 2015) was an American jazz writer and record producer known for founding Riverside Records and Milestone Records, for freelance work, and for his work at other labels.



Early life

Keepnews was born to a Jewish family [1] in The Bronx, New York, on March 2, 1923.. [2] His mother was a public school teacher and his father worked for the Department of Welfare. [1] Keepnews graduated from Columbia University with a degree in English in 1943. Subsequently, he was involved in bombing raids over Japan in the final months of World War II, before returning for graduate studies at Columbia in 1946. [3]

While working as an editor for the book publishers Simon & Schuster, Keepnews moonlighted as editor of The Record Changer, a small jazz magazine, after fellow Columbia graduate Bill Grauer became its owner in 1948. Keepnews wrote one of the earliest profiles of Thelonious Monk, then little known, for the publication. [2]

In 1954 and 1955 Grauer and Keepnews produced a series of reissues on RCA Victor's Label "X".

Riverside Records

In 1953, Grauer and Keepnews founded Riverside Records, which was initially devoted to reissue projects in the traditional and swing jazz idioms. "It was an act of more than moderate lunacy, to start a business on nothing but enthusiasm", he once said years later. "We had the arrogance of ignorance." [4]

Pianist Randy Weston was the first modern jazz artist signed by the label as a conscious move into the jazz scene of the day. According to Keepnews, Grauer heard him at the Music Inn in the Berkshires, Massachusetts, in 1953, and persuaded his partner to sign him after Keepnews had heard Weston for himself, after which Keepnews learned not to question Grauer's musical taste. [5]

Their most significant early move came in 1955, when they were made aware of the availability of Thelonious Monk, who was able to terminate his contract with Prestige Records and sign with Riverside. Monk was not easy for Keepnews to work with: "He was as demanding of other people as he was of himself, but he was self-contained and also impatient. He knew what he wanted, but I didn’t, so I had to catch on to this express train as it went roaring by," [4]

With Keepnews as producer, and adding such artists as Bill Evans, Cannonball and Nat Adderley, Wes Montgomery, Johnny Griffin and Jimmy Heath, the label soon rivaled Prestige and Blue Note Records as a leading New York-based independent jazz label. In 1961, Keepnews produced the highly regarded live jazz recordings of the first Bill Evans Trio, Sunday at the Village Vanguard and Waltz for Debby .

During this period, Grauer concentrated on business affairs, which ultimately proved to be marred by "creative accounting". [6] In mid-December 1963, Grauer died following a sudden heart attack, and Keepnews was unable to save the company from the bankruptcy that followed in mid-1964.

Milestone and Fantasy Records

After a period of freelance activity, Keepnews started Milestone Records in 1966 with a new business partner, pianist Dick Katz. Among their most significant artists over the next few years were McCoy Tyner, Joe Henderson, Lee Konitz, and Gary Bartz.

Late in 1972, Keepnews relocated to San Francisco as director of jazz A&R at Fantasy Records, which had just acquired the bulk of Riverside's masters. Milestone was bought by Fantasy in the same year, and signed Sonny Rollins, whom Keepnews had worked with at Riverside. At Fantasy, Keepnews oversaw the repackaging of the company's holdings in the idiom as "twofer"s, including many albums he had produced at Riverside. Bill Evans, whose 1962 song "Re: Person I Knew" is a tribute to Keepnews (the title is an anagram of his name), [7] joined Fantasy at this time, reuniting their previous partnership; however his manager, Helen Keane, later a successful producer in her own right, took charge of Evans's recording projects. After resigning as Vice-President of Fantasy in 1980 [8] because, as he said, "even under the best of circumstances, I can't be happy working for someone else," Keepnews returned to freelancing.

Later career

In 1985, Keepnews founded Landmark Records, whose catalog included albums recorded by the Kronos Quartet of music by Bill Evans and Monk, as well as straight jazz albums. [9] For Landmark, Bobby Hutcherson recorded his most extensive sequence of latter-day albums. Landmark passed to Muse Records in 1993.

Orrin Keepnews won several Recording Academy Grammy Awards in the 1980s: Best Album Notes for The "Interplay" Sessions performed by Bill Evans in 1984 and Best Historical Album and Best Album Notes for Thelonious Monk: The Complete Riverside Recordings in 1988. A collection of his writings, The View from Within, was published in 1988. [10]

In the CD era Keepnews continued to be responsible for extensive reissue compilations, including the Duke Ellington 24-CD RCA Centennial set in 1999 and Riverside's Keepnews Editions series.

In 2004, Keepnews was given a Trustees Award for Lifetime Achievement by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. In June 2010, Keepnews received a 2011 NEA Jazz Masters lifetime achievement award from the National Endowment for the Arts in the field of jazz, including a stipend of $25,000. [11]

Personal life

Keepnews died at the age of 91 on March 1, 2015, a day before his 92nd birthday, at his home in El Cerrito, California. [2] He was married to the former Lucile Kaufman from 1948 until her death in 1989. He was survived by his second wife, a clothing designer, Martha Egan, and by his two sons, Peter Keepnews, an editor at The New York Times and a writer on jazz subjects; and David Keepnews, [2] [10] a nurse, attorney and policy analyst who is Executive Director of the Washington State Nurses Association.[ citation needed ]


See also

Related Research Articles

The 30th Annual Grammy Awards were held March 2, 1988, at Radio City Music Hall, New York City. They recognized accomplishments by musicians from the previous year.

<i>New Jazz Conceptions</i> 1957 studio album by Bill Evans

New Jazz Conceptions is the debut album by jazz musician Bill Evans, released in 1957 on Riverside Records.

<i>Sunday at the Village Vanguard</i> 1961 live album by The Bill Evans Trio

Sunday at the Village Vanguard is a live album by jazz pianist and composer Bill Evans and his Trio consisting of Evans, bassist Scott LaFaro, and drummer Paul Motian. Released in 1961, the album is routinely ranked as one of the best live jazz recordings of all time.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Milestone Records</span> American record label

Milestone Records is an American jazz record company and label founded in 1966 by Orrin Keepnews and Dick Katz in New York City. The company was bought by Fantasy Records in 1972. Since then, it has produced LP reissues as well as new recordings. Sonny Rollins and McCoy Tyner are among the musicians who recorded for the label.

Riverside Records was an American jazz record company and label. Founded by Orrin Keepnews and Bill Grauer, Jr, under his firm Bill Grauer Productions in 1953, the label played an important role in the jazz record industry for a decade. Riverside headquarters were located in New York City, at 553 West 51st Street.

<i>Brilliant Corners</i> 1957 studio album by Thelonious Monk

Brilliant Corners is a studio album by American jazz musician Thelonious Monk. It was his third album for Riverside Records, and the first, for this label, to include his own compositions. The complex title track required over a dozen takes in the studio.

<i>Monks Music</i> 1957 studio album by Thelonious Monk

Monk's Music is a jazz album by the Thelonious Monk Septet, which for this recording included Coleman Hawkins and John Coltrane. It was recorded in New York City on June 26, 1957, and released in October the same year.

<i>The Wes Montgomery Trio</i> 1959 studio album by Wes Montgomery

The Wes Montgomery Trio is an album by the American jazz guitarist Wes Montgomery, released in 1959. The track "Missile Blues" is named after the club in Indianapolis where Montgomery played before moving to New York City to record for Riverside. At this club, he met Riverside's record producer Orrin Keepnews. The album was reissued on the Original Jazz Classics label.

<i>Thelonious Monk Plays Duke Ellington</i> 1955 studio album by Thelonious Monk

Thelonious Monk Plays Duke Ellington is an album by jazz pianist Thelonious Monk that was released by Riverside in 1955. It was also released under the title Thelonious Monk Plays the Music of Duke Ellington. The album contains Monk's versions of songs by Duke Ellington. The album was reissued by Riverside on March 27, 2007, in the United States and on April 16, 2007, in the United Kingdom.

<i>Misterioso</i> (Thelonious Monk album) 1958 live album by Thelonious Monk Quartet

Misterioso is a 1958 live album by American jazz ensemble the Thelonious Monk Quartet. By the time of its recording, pianist and bandleader Thelonious Monk had overcome an extended period of career difficulties and achieved stardom with his residency at New York's Five Spot Café, beginning in 1957. He returned there the following year for a second stint with his quartet, featuring drummer Roy Haynes, bassist Ahmed Abdul-Malik, and tenor saxophonist Johnny Griffin. Along with Thelonious in Action (1958), Misterioso captures portions of the ensemble's August 7 show at the venue.

<i>The Cannonball Adderley Quintet in San Francisco</i> 1959 live album by The Cannonball Adderley Quintet

The Cannonball Adderley Quintet in San Francisco is a 1959 album by The Cannonball Adderley Quintet.

<i>Nicas Tempo</i> 1955 studio album by Gigi Gryce

Nica's Tempo is the most common latter-day title of an album by the Gigi Gryce Orchestra and Quartet, recorded and first released in late 1955. The title track is a reference to Nica de Koenigswarter a.k.a. "The Bebop Baroness" or "The Jazz Baroness", a patron of jazz musicians such as Thelonious Monk and Charlie Parker.

Landmark Records was an American jazz record company and label founded in 1985 by Orrin Keepnews. Landmark's releases included music by Donald Byrd, Jack DeJohnette, Jimmy Heath, Vincent Herring, Bobby Hutcherson, Mulgrew Miller, Buddy Montgomery, and reissues of Cannonball Adderley.

<i>Thelonious Monk at the Blackhawk</i> 1960 live album by Thelonious Monk

Thelonious Monk at the Blackhawk is an album by jazz pianist Thelonious Monk. It was originally issued on the Riverside label as RLP 12-323 (mono)/1171 (stereo) and Original Jazz Classics OJCCD 305–2 in 1987.

<i>Mulligan Meets Monk</i> 1957 studio album by Gerry Mulligan and Thelonious Monk

Mulligan Meets Monk is a studio album by American jazz pianist Thelonious Monk and baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan, originally released on Riverside Records in 1957. It has been reissued numerous times. It was remastered for CD in 1987 with three additional alternative takes from the original session.

<i>Loose Blues</i> 1983 studio album by Bill Evans

Loose Blues is an album by jazz pianist Bill Evans released on the Milestone label, featuring performances by Evans with Zoot Sims, Jim Hall, Ron Carter, and Philly Joe Jones, recorded in 1962.

<i>Re: Person I Knew</i> 1981 live album by Bill Evans

Re: Person I Knew is a live album by jazz pianist Bill Evans with Eddie Gómez and Marty Morell recorded at the Village Vanguard in New York City in 1974 and released on the Fantasy label in 1981. Additional recordings from Evans' 1974 Village Vanguard performances were also issued on the album Since We Met (1974). The name of the album is an anagram on the name of Orrin Keepnews, who produced for Evans while he was signed with Riverside Records, and who was one of his earliest champions.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Paul Bacon (designer)</span> American designer

Paul Bacon was an American book and album cover designer and jazz musician. He is known for introducing the "Big Book Look" in book jacket design, and designed about 6,500 jackets and more than 200 jazz record covers.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Fantasy Studios</span>

Fantasy Studios was a music recording studio in Berkeley, California, at the Zaentz Media Center, known for its recording of award-winning albums including Journey's Escape and Green Day's Dookie. Built as a private recording studio for artists on the Fantasy Records label in 1971, it was opened to the public in 1980 for recording, mixing and mastering. It was permanently closed on September 15, 2018.

<i>In the Vanguard</i> 1987 live album by Bobby Hutcherson

In the Vanguard is a live album by vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson featuring performances recorded in late 1986 at the Village Vanguard and released the following year on Orrin Keepnews' Landmark label.


  1. 1 2 Gilbert, Andrew (March 1, 2015). "Swinging Through the 20th Century: An Appreciation of Orrin Keepnews". KQED . He grew up with 'not a drop of music' in a middle-class Jewish household in upper Manhattan.
  2. 1 2 3 4 Chinen, Nate (March 1, 2015). "Orrin Keepnews, Jazz Producer and Record Executive, Is Dead at 91". The New York Times .
  3. "Orrin Keepnews". NEA Jazz Masters | 2011. National Endowment for the Arts . Retrieved 25 October 2014.
  4. 1 2 "Orrin Keepnews, record producer – obituary". The Daily Telegraph . March 5, 2015.
  5. Weston, Randy; Jenkins, Willard (2015). African Rhythms: The Autobiography of Randy Weston'. Duke University Press. p. 66.
  6. Kennedy, Rick; Randy McNutt (1999). Little Labels-Big Sound: Small Record Companies and the Rise of American Music. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. p. 120.
  7. Pettinger, Peter (2002). Bill Evans: How My Heart Sings. Yale University Press. ISBN   978-0300097276.
  8. Kennedy and McNutt, p. 121.
  9. Palmer, Robert (February 20, 1985). "The Pop Life; A New Label, Landmark, Records Jazz". The New York Times.
  10. 1 2 Williams, Richard (March 4, 2015). "Orrin Keepnews obituary". The Guardian .
  11. Taylor, Kate (June 24, 2010). "NEA Will Honor 18 Artists". The New York Times.