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Legendary Jazz Producer Orrin Keepnews News | Concerts
Legendary Jazz Producer Orrin Keepnews Feted at Memorial

When four-time Grammy award-winner Orrin Keepnews passed away at his El Cerrito home on March 1, 2015, the day before his 92nd birthday, he left behind an unparalleled legacy as a jazz producer, advocate, and entrepreneur. Keepnews's brilliant career spanned more than 60 years, during which time he founded three forward-thinking labels (Riverside, Milestone, Landmark) and produced hundreds of major jazz artists including Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans, McCoy Tyner, Cannonball Adderley, and Mulgrew Miller.

Several of the artists he worked closely with — vocalist Wesla Whitfield, pianist Mike Greensill, saxophonist Dave Ellis, and the Grammy award-winning Kronos Quartet — were among the performers at the Orrin Keepnews Memorial Concert Sunday, November 29 at Yoshi's in Oakland. Bassist John Wiitala and drummer Lorca Hart rounded out the Dave Ellis-led "house band" for the occasion, and proceeds from the benefit concert are earmarked for the Orrin Keepnews Scholarship Fund at the California Jazz Conservatory.

"I met Orrin in the 'Washbag' [the Washington Square Bar & Grill, a legendary San Francisco watering hole] in 1984," recalls Greensill. "I was playing saloon piano and had just finished a version of Cy Coleman's 'It Amazes Me' when I felt a tap on the shoulder and this guy says, 'I didn't know anybody still knew that song.' And so I met, and drank with, Orrin Keepnews, a man with impeccable taste in songs, singers, and saloons. We became friends and I introduced him to my wife Wesla Whitfield and the rest, as they say is history."

"Orrin Keepnews was a master record producer," says Whitfield. "His decision to sign me to his Landmark Records label was the beginning of a wonderful recording relationship that spanned 16 albums. Orrin loved the 'songbook' as much as he loved jazz. He once told me that it was Cannonball Adderley who introduced him to legendary cabaret singer Mabel Mercer."

Jazz producer, advocate and record label entrepreneur Orrin Keepnews

"Orrin and I first met when we were both on a panel for the California Arts Council, after which he drove me home from Sacramento," says David Harrington, Kronos Quartet's violinist and artistic director. "What a fantastic drive that was — Orrin introduced me to the life of Thelonious Monk in the most riveting way, with his detailed accounts of various recording sessions and intriguing stories. What a fabulous storyteller Orrin was and what a force in music! By the time he dropped me off at my home we had it figured out that Kronos would record an album of Monk's music for Orrin's new label Landmark Records. I felt almost like I was on a first-name basis with Thelonious Monk because of Orrin's vivid recollections. And so began our 31-year friendship..."

In addition to the musical performances by the above-named artists, other musician friends will be on hand for a jam session, and friends and family — including Orrin's widow, Martha Egan, and his sons Peter and David Keepnews, flying in from New York City — will offer commentary from the stage.

An Extraordinary Life in Jazz

Keepnews — like the music he's loved, nurtured, cultivated, produced and ultimately brought to the ears of jazz fans around the world for more than 50 years — has a long and celebrated history that simply can't be told in one sitting.

Although the feisty, often cantankerous producer professed a strong disdain for interviews in general, and in particular the well-worn stories recounting his work with jazz legends like Monk, Evans and Sonny Rollins, he's a man who clearly relished the telling of the tale ("I do enjoy the sound of my own voice," he slyly admitted in a conversation years ago). Interviews — even ones disguised as conversations — can go on for hours and hours.

Such contradictions are a integral part of the jazz producer's personality. Keepnews was one of the most highly opinionated people you'd ever meet, and yet he was remarkably open-minded. He was fiercely independent, and yet remained a generous collaborator in the studio. Raised on the music of the swing era, he could wrap his ears around bebop, post-bop, and beyond. He never learned to play a musical instrument, yet he spoke the language, and understood intuitively how to elicit the best performance from a musician. In conversation, like in the studio, he was infinitely patient, but he was also, without a doubt, someone who wasn't likely to suffer fools lightly. Or at all, really.

Keepnews: "My job is to produce the best possible record"

Throughout his career as a producer and record label owner, and his tireless efforts as a jazz historian and writer, the sum of his contributions to jazz have entertained, inspired, informed and educated four generations of jazz lovers and musicians alike. He was honored on both coasts by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences with a Governors Award for Outstanding Achievement, and lauded in a tribute concert at the San Francisco Jazz Festival that featured performances by veteran pianist Randy Weston and the young pianist Mulgrew Miller.

The accolades and awards barely scratched the surface of Keepnews' storied career. As a producer, he worked with a phenomenal range of musicians, from jazz giants such as Monk, Evans, Cannonball Adderley, and Wes Montgomery in the 1950s and 60's to some of today's younger jazz talents. As a record label owner — first with Riverside (along with partner Bill Grauer), and later with the Milestone and Landmark labels (now both under the umbrella of Fantasy Records in Berkeley), his personal and professional history was inexorably intertwined with the history of the music itself.

"I've spent most of my life in the middle of jazz," mused Keepnews during a Sunday afternoon chat in the living room of his modest flat in San Francisco's Richmond District several years ago [he originally moved to San Francisco in 1972, and later moved to El Cerrito]. "I've been listening to jazz all my life, and I've been professionally involved in the music for more than 40 years."

"Not just in the music," he added, after a brief reflective pause, "but in the community as well."

Producing the Unpredictable

Keepnews came to jazz as a fan, and as a writer. Graduating from Columbia University with a degree in English and working for a small New York magazine for record collectors, The Record Changer, the aspiring jazz aficionado wrote what would become the first national profile of the iconoclastic, innovative pianist, Thelonious Monk, then little-known outside of the inner sanctum of East Coast musicians, in 1952.

The 1950's were a golden age of independent jazz labels — Blue Note, Prestige and Riverside in the East, and Contemporary and Pacific Jazz in California — started by fans as labors of love rather than money-making machines. Keepnews and Grauer launched the Riverside imprint as a means of reissuing out-of-print jazz sides from the previous decades, and gradually added more contemporary artists to their growing roster. His first recording session as a producer was with the often-unpredictable Monk.

A lifelong New Yorker, he moved west to the laid-back ambiance of California, and was almost immediately sidelined by a heart attack. Now imbued with a revitalized sense of purpose and a renewed sense of determination, he worked for Berkeley's Fantasy Records as an A&R man for a spell, but found he was "never cut out to be somebody else's employee."

Record producer Orrin Keepnews

"I've always felt that one of my strengths [as a producer] is that I wasn't a musician," said Keepnews. "There are three different professions at work in the studio: the producer, the engineer, and the musician. And each one doesn't have to understand exactly how the others do what they do. I think that a very important part of making jazz records is a mutual respect on the part of the different people involved for each other's professionalism.

"I understand why the artist's name is in much larger type than the producer's, and I don't have a problem with that," said Keepnews. "We have to create something together. My job is to produce the best possible record by the artist I'm working with, and anything I have to do to achieve that goal is what I must do."

Keepnews' high standards, impeccable taste, and love of jazz carried him through some lean years after the Riverside label folded in the early 1960's, in part from the onset of rock and roll, and in part from what he obliquely calls his partner's "creative bookkeeping." The Milestone label, founded by Keepnews and Dick Katz in 1966 in New York City, had been purchased by Fantasy Records in Berkeley; in 1972 Keepnews had joined the West Coast label as its Director of A&R, and set about recording seminal works by Joe Henderson, McCoy Tyner, and saxophone colossus Sonny Rollins.

In 1985, he began yet another label, Landmark Records, releasing albums by Adderley, Evans, Bobby Hutcherson, Donald Byrd, Jack DeJohnette, Jimmy Heath, and Mel Lewis, among others, and acted as a consultant and resident Monk expert for Columbia. When the compact disc revolution demanded instant catalogs of titles, Keepnews found himself in demand as a reissue producer, for which he earned three of his four Grammy awards.

Finally, at the end of a rambling conversation posing as an interview (or perhaps the other way around), Keepnews offered this final summation of his life's work, citing three reasons why he was still active as a producer. "First, I haven't got anything better to do," he said. "Second, I love the music. And third, having been involved in jazz all my life, I still need the money."

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