Orrin Keepnews

Producer, Author (Award for Jazz Advocacy)
Portrait of Orin Keepnews

Photo by Frank Stewart


"I have been deeply involved in the jazz record world for appreciably more than a half-century, and now that they have gotten around to labeling me a "jazz master" I guess I probably can't count on ending the association any time soon.  Not that I really would want to stop: I remain quite proud of what I have at times accomplished in a varied career -- which might perhaps more accurately be considered an overlapping series of careers.  I have primarily thought of myself as a producer, which to me means working with a series of artists to help combine their talents with the realities of recording, editing, promoting, and in various other ways assisting them in achieving a reasonable degree of success and recognition."

Recognized as one of the outstanding record producers in the jazz world, Orrin Keepnews—recipient of the 2011 A.B. Spellman NEA Jazz Masters Fellowship for Jazz Advocacy—co-founded Riverside Records in the early 1950s, launching or furthering the careers of several of the most notable names in jazz, beginning with such significant artists as Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans, Wes Montgomery, Sonny Rollins, and Cannonball Adderley. He was long been at the forefront of producing reissues of both traditional and modern jazz recordings, and known for his informative, incisive and extensively detailed liner notes.

Graduating from Columbia University in 1943 and then serving in the Air Force for the balance of World War II, Keepnews returned to Columbia for graduate studies in 1946. Two years later, he became editor of The Record Changer magazine, which was newly owned by his former college classmate and noted jazz record collector, Bill Grauer. Beginning in 1951, Grauer and Keepnews produced a series of reissues on RCA Victor?s "Label X". The following year, the two men founded Riverside, which originally focused on reissues of traditional jazz and blues recordings. In 1954, they signed pianist Randy Weston, their first modern jazz artist and a disciple of Thelonious Monk. From that point on, the label began to focus on the burgeoning modern jazz scene, with Keepnews doing the producing. Promising new artists such as Clark Terry, Johnny Griffin, and Jimmy Heath were signed to the label, quickly making Riverside a major force among the New York-based independent labels. But at the end of 1963, Grauer died following a heart attack and Keepnews was unable to save the company from bankruptcy several months later.

Keepnews launched Milestone Records in 1966 with a new partner, pianist Dick Katz, attracting such high quality artists as Joe Henderson, Lee Konitz, and McCoy Tyner. In 1972, he relocated to San Francisco, heading jazz activities at Fantasy Records (which had acquired the Riverside catalog). Keepnews oversaw the reissue of many of the albums he had produced earlier in his career at Riverside, frequently including unissued alternate performances.

He left Fantasy at the end of 1980 to concentrate on independent production and after a few years founded another label, Landmark Records. Among its first releases were two unique albums, one of compositions by Bill Evans and the other primarily involving Thelonious Monk material, both performed by the Kronos Quartet. He sold the company in 1993, but remained active in the recording industry, primarily by working on extensive reissue and remastering compilations on compact disc (including the complete Duke Ellington 24-CD RCA Centennial Set in 1999 and the "Keepnews Collection" compact-disc series of material originally issued on Riverside.) A substantial collection of his essays, album notes, reviews and other commentaries was published in book form in 1988 as The View from Within: Jazz Writings, 1948-87.

Keepnews won four Grammy Awards: Best Album Notes for Bill Evans' The Interplay Sessions (1983); Best Album Notes and Best Historical Album for Thelonious Monk's The Complete Riverside Recordings (1987); and Best Historical Album for The Duke Ellington Centennial Edition ? The Complete RCA Victor Recordings (1927-1973) (1999). In 2004, he was awarded a NARAS Trustees Award for Lifetime Achievement.

Selected Discography:
Thelonious Monk, Brilliant Corners, Riverside Records, 1956
Bill Evans, Everybody Digs Bill Evans, Riverside Records, 1958
Cannonball Adderley, The Cannonball Adderley Quintet in San Francisco, Riverside Records, 1959
Wes Montgomery, The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery, Riverside Records, 1960
McCoy Tyner, Fly with the Wind, Milestone Records, 1976

2011 A.B. Spellman NEA Jazz Masters Fellowship for Jazz Advocacy
Interview by A.B. Spellman for the NEA
September 21, 2010
Edited by Rebecca Gross


Q: Do you remember when you first got hooked on jazz?

Orrin Keepnews: Yeah. Ralph Burton had a show on WNYC that was on at noon. The public school that I was going to was quite close to home, and I used to come home for lunch a lot. [Ralph] was playing this record, and it was obviously the trumpet player's record. The guy was all over it. I knew nothing about music, but there were names that had filled into my life. I remember saying to myself, "That must be either Louis Armstrong or Bix Beiderbecke." I figure that I was, at that point, searching for the answer. I don't remember which one it was, but searching for the answer I guess is when I got hooked.

Q: You went to the Air Force in '43, and you actually participated in some bombing raids over Japan. That must have been pretty harrowing.

Orrin Keepnews: I'm glad that there are now follow-ups to that in my life, let me put it that way. I had a period shortly after I got out of the Air Force where I was apparently doing a lot more drinking of hard liquor than I was necessarily aware of. There are a couple of interesting stories, which I'm not going to get into, that involve me with Jack Kerouac and things like that.

Q: What was your role on the plane?

Orrin Keepnews: I was actually a radar operator. That was the big deal in the B-29s at that point. I did the bombing runs. The one really disturbing memory for me is that just a few days after the end of the war, we were ferrying a handful of generals around who wanted a fairly close look at the situation.

It's something that I rather successfully have wiped out of my life. The Japanese have been very good about not recalling that. I mean look at the way they have, over many years, embraced jazz. That was very forgiving of them, I think. 


Q: After the war you went to work for Simon & Schuster, but you also were working as an editor for The Record Changer.

Orrin Keepnews: The job at The Record Changer was about as close to a contribution as anything. I may have occasionally, when things were looking very good, gotten a $20 bill or something from my publisher there, Bill Grauer. If we think of it as an unpaid job, we're very close to the truth.

Q: What was the experience at The Record Changer?

Orrin Keepnews: I saw it as being an opportunity, if I was going to be really governing what the editorial content was. I had more than anybody else, really, to say about what was published. For most of existence, it was close to being the only jazz magazine. The few legendary earlier things had pretty much collapsed because those kinds of publications do have short life spans.

Q: So what were you interested in writing about?

Orrin Keepnews: I did a number of variations on interview-type stories. The very first significant piece that I wrote turned out [to have] a good deal of influence on the later phases of my life. I think the first issue of the magazine that Bill Grauer and I edited was a rather fatuous editorial statement about how we were not going to follow in the path of our predecessors at this magazine who had been strictly, you know, moldy figs, New Orleans traditionalists. We were going to be open to everything that was going on.

As the guy who made that statement, I can say I didn't know what the hell I was talking about. But what did happen was there was a label rather more well established than I got to be for a number of years -- Blue Note Records. Not only was it run by Alfred Lion, but by his then wife. Her next husband was Max Gordon, who ran, for so many years, the Village Vanguard, the iconic nightclub of the jazz scene.

[The Lions], as it turned out, decided, "Hey, if these guys are talking like that, let's jump on them and make sure that it's us they're talking about." Well, they had a specific goal in mind. They had just done their first sessions with Thelonious Monk. What happened was I was invited to their home to meet this new artist of theirs and I didn't have the faintest idea what I was being let in on. This was the opportunity. I was there, they wanted me to talk to him. I thought it was a great idea to talk to him. 

So in one of the very first issues of The Record Changer that I was involved with, there I was, interviewing Thelonious in great detail. If I'd known more about him I probably would have been terrified, but I didn't really know the full depth of this strange man that I was being exposed to at this point.

I later discovered that he didn't communicate with people; he didn't really do much talking. He was not an easy man to ask questions of. But none of this came into the picture during this very extensive, early interview that I had with him. I found him delightfully easy to talk with. We talked about his life, which was just starting in that sense. They hadn't been issued yet -- I remember I heard a couple of test pressings from that first Monk Blue Note session.

So I was in there at the very beginning of Monk's recording career, and then proceeded to have absolutely no contact with him for several years thereafter. Several years later, when we were in a very different picture, I was with the same partner, Bill Grauer. We had started Riverside Records. 

And I got a phone call advising me that Monk was -- this was several years later; he was gone from Blue Note -- at Prestige and not at all happy there, nor they with him. As a matter of fact, it was immediately after [that] there had been a really legendary almost-fight at a session. 

Miles [Davis and] Milt Jackson both were there and both were acting up. It was primarily Miles deciding that he did not want Monk comping behind him on a particular solo on a specific number. According to those who were there, they were about an inch away from coming to blows on the subject.


Q: This was the session for the recording of Milt Jackson's song "Bags' Groove."

Orrin Keepnews: Oh yeah. This was kind of like the catalyst. There was a letter from Bob Weinstock, the head of Prestige, announcing that if Monk would repay the actual amount that'd been over advanced -- they had calculated this, something close to $108 dollars -- [they would let him go.] So we had been put in touch with Monk. It was true, he wanted to get out of there, and they were willing to let him out for practically no money.

The situation that was set up was I lent Monk the money that he needed to pay them off. We just did it on a basis of, "Look, here's the money. I'm not saying that you're committed to come to us, but we will be in a position to discuss what I think we both want, which is for you to get involved with us and to become our label's star act." You know, that's exactly what happened. What would have happened if that really had been treated as a loan, and I was trying to get that money back from Thelonious…that's another story. We're not going to talk about that now.

Q: Some of Monk's best work was on Riverside.

Orrin Keepnews: That's the way I like to look at it. It was a very good period for him in a number of ways. First of all, it had never seemed very difficult for me to understand what it was I was trying to do. Here was an artist who I had developed tremendous respect for and tremendous enthusiasm for, and we were in a position to give him some interesting opportunities and to create a body of work.

Of course there was a good deal of timing in there. After a few albums, we hit this period where after having been denied the New York City police permit that you need in order to be able to work with any regularity in New York, [he got it]. He had friends who had friends in high places. So the baroness [Nica de Koenigswarter], who was really his patron, was able…

Q: The Rothschild heiress…

Orrin Keepnews: Yeah. She was able to arrange some things, and he was able to get his permission back. He was able to function on the New York scene, which was, as it so often has been in the history of jazz, a -- if not the -- major scene. So I was presented with an opportunity to present Monk to the public. I'm not saying that I knew what we were doing. We were by no means hotshots at publicity or promotion. 

But what we did have was a sincere belief in the validity of this artist. When you get down to it, that is not a terribly usual thing for a jazz musician of this quality and this rarity and this difficulty to have a cooperative and enthusiastic record company. 

If I had been in the business a couple of years before getting involved with him, I probably would have developed a hard coating by that time already. But I was full of enthusiasm and I'd like to think that some of it resulted in some very interesting records.

Q: Monk had been recording his most famous compositions over and over before then, but you managed to get him to write some new material.

Orrin Keepnews: One of the big strengths was that I didn't really know what I was doing, so I wasn't frightened by the fact that I was recommending to him a course of action that was unlike anything he'd ever done before. 

Basically I said, "I want to do two albums trio. Let's get rid of those damn bebop horns, at least for the time being, and just have you presented directly to the audience. The other end of the scale, though, is I would like you to work largely or entirely with standard material, my theory being -- and it's not a very remarkable or revolutionary one -- [that] if we give the audience the material that they have at least a basic amount of familiarity with, that's going to give them a bridge to you that they don't have otherwise."

The subject had come up very heavily in that initial interview in Alfred Lion's home that I had done about [Monk's] tremendous respect and enthusiasm for Ellington. I didn't just say, "Hey, I want you to do a bunch of tunes." [I said,] "Let's do an all Ellington album." I didn't know enough about the man I was dealing with at that point to even be surprised by how easy it was for him to agree to do that.

It worked in a sense. I mean, it didn't create an overnight change in anything, but what it did give us was a totally different presentation of Monk.

Q: And of Ellington, I think it's one of the best Ellington interpretations out there. [Monk's] son T.S. said that he was very much afraid of how Ellington would respond to his recording, but he got a phone call from Duke saying that he loved Monk's work on his music.

Orrin Keepnews: I didn't know that.

Q: You helped to raise to prominence a lot of real genius musicians such as Randy Weston, who was, I think at the time one of the only other pianists who tried to sound like Monk.

Orrin Keepnews: He very specifically considered himself a disciple of Monk. He spent as much time with him as possible. The first record that I ever served as producer on was a ten-inch record because those are the LPs that we made in the early 1950s.

I did a Randy Weston record in which this idea of having the jazz piano player concentrate on a specific popular composer was very much in evidence. Back in those days, it wasn't that much of a cliché as it has become over the years. Randy Weston's first Riverside album was something called Cole Porter in a Modern Mood.

We were trying to get him to do a solo album, which was entirely a function of how little money we had to spend on anything. We compromised. He wanted very much to be able to do a normal trio album, but we ended up just using him and his bass player. I don't think that put the thought in my mind of how to deal with Monk, because these were not the same guys, but obviously there was some merit in the idea. Although, I like to think the merit is not just in the idea but in the fact that the idea turned out, in both of these cases, for very different reasons, to be a very appropriate way to handle the work of a particular artist.

Q: Your article in The Record Changer

Orrin Keepnews: In The Record Changer article, I had advanced a theory of mine that, in a sense, Monk could be looked on logically as being the third figure in a sequence that could start with Jelly Roll Morton, go through Duke Ellington to Monk. Meaning that there was a great deal of comparison that could be made. These were piano players who were leaders, who were composers, who were definite stylists of their own making. 

And in a sense, there was a lot to be learned from looking at them as sequential figures that way. As it turned out, a few years after the interview, there we were with Monk discussing the possibility of his working with us. He made the point to me how much he appreciated the comparison. It was a very positive thing to him to be compared in that way to Ellington. He didn't have anything to say about the Jelly Roll Morton references, but Ellington he appreciated.


Q: Sonny Rollins recorded with you at Riverside, and this was a time when he had just found his voice, in a way.

Orrin Keepnews: Very much so. After those first two records, in which I succeeded in barring horns from being there, the next thing that we did with Monk was a quintet record that, entirely at his suggestion, involved Sonny. The album: Brilliant Corners.

When we were making that record, Sonny had already recorded -- it had not been released yet -- Saxophone Colossus for Prestige. So there was Sonny just about to happen. That was a very dynamic record, which just ripped up the whole thing. Sonny went from nowhere to the top of the heap in that one record.

Brilliant Corners was very difficult to record. In a sense, I had forced Monk to do two albums of standards and then we proceeded to do an album that was basically built around new material of his. It was rough stuff.

The night that we recorded "Brilliant Corners," the title tune, that's all we did that night. That's not what a struggling, dead-broke young jazz record company wants to find itself doing, but we did. The whole point though is that Sonny was of tremendous value, purely by accident of timing. Sonny, through the immediate prominence that he got from Saxophone Colossus, was as responsible as anything, possibly more so, for the initial attention that Brilliant Corners got.

Q: Sonny's recordings as a leader for you were also some of the best that he made.

Orrin Keepnews: Actually, what happened was Sonny burst on the scene in this way. He'd been through what was a frequent pattern for young artists. They would work with Blue Note first, and at Blue Note they got this almost hero-worshiping approach. I mean, Alfred Lion and [Blue Note co-founder] Frank Wolff were essentially jazz fans.

They were kneeling at the shrine of the guys that they were recording. One of the reasons that it wasn't that difficult for us to have initial success at Riverside was we were adding a third possibility. After you got through with Blue Note and Prestige, you weren't through. There was another label going on, and there were a number of people who came to us in sequence that way.


Q: Another pianist of great originality whom you recorded was Bill Evans, early in his career.

Orrin Keepnews: Whereas Monk had been on the scene and ignored or rejected by a lot of people, Bill Evans was something new. The story of the discovery of Bill Evans is, again, another of these…the early modern period in jazz was nothing but a series of weird events.

In this particular case, I got a phone call at the office. A guitar player named Mundell Lowe knew Bill and had worked with him. Bill had gone to college in New Orleans and Mundell was in the area at that time. Mundell was basically the world's first Bill Evans fan, in a sense.

Bill was generally not a man given to pushing himself forward. It's been my experience that most young jazz musicians can hardly wait until the next time they're going to get into the recording studio. Well, there was, for several reasons, an extremely long period between [Bill's] first and second record as a leader. He was perfectly serious in saying, "I don't feel I have anything new to say." That was his excuse for not dashing back into the studio.

We had done this first record. It didn't sell. Oh my God, it didn't sell. Bill Evans' first album as a leader, his first album for Riverside, in the first year that it was out, sold a total of 800 copies. Not 8,000, not 80,000. Eight hundred was our original figure.

He got better than that, sales-wise, after a while. But the funny thing is, I don't think anybody who was involved in the recording would have given a damn if it had taken a hell of a long time. It wasn't that his music was simple in any way. You were certainly aware of this man's tremendous involvement in what he was doing, his tremendously dedicated view of himself in the jazz world. He was for real.

I have never gotten straight as to how Miles Davis was made aware of Bill. It's one of those crucial moments that there aren't a suspiciously large number of stories about. To this very day, if somebody wants to come up [with a story], and it's convincing, I'll be willing and eager to accept it. 

Now in terms of circumstances, there were signs that Miles wanted to do a big shake-up in his band.  His piano player at the time was Red Garland. Red Garland was one of the seriously underrated players of that period. He was a damn good piano player for that particular group. The strange thing is, Miles was working in a quintet format at that point, which was almost inevitable. It was the way the guys who work in the jazz clubs generally managed to get their gigs. In that particular Red Garland period, the tenor player was John Coltrane, but it was John Coltrane before he in any way became JOHN COLTRANE, capital letters.

I had listened to that band a good deal, and Coltrane never reached me in any particularly moving way. Maybe part of it was that Miles tended to put him down.

Finally Miles just said, "I'm sick and tired of being the only non-junkie in this band," conveniently overlooking the fact that he was only very recently an ex-junkie. But he decided he was going to throw his band away and have another one instead. He knew about Bill -- I don't know how – [and] hired Bill to replace Red.

He got rid of Coltrane but didn't stay rid of him very long. [He] had the good sense to bring him back in very shortly after that.

Q: After he had worked with Monk for a while.

Orrin Keepnews: The Monk situation happened immediately upon [Coltrane's] leaving or being thrown out by Miles. Monk had been aware of Coltrane before a lot of other people. Now, I had been hearing Coltrane play with Miles, and like everybody else in the world was not terribly impressed.

Monk got into this position where, with the help of his good friend Nica pulling some strings and whatnot, he became able to work on the New York scene. He immediately put together a group that involved Coltrane, and they went into the Five Spot. It had, in a couple of years, superceded Café Bohemia, which had been where Miles was playing.

There was this whole situation of Coltrane exploding on the scene. There was a lot of ferment and movement going on there. It was a very strange period. In this whole bubbling and churning situation, we didn't quite get ahold of Coltrane. My first recording experience with Coltrane is on one track of an unaccompanied [Monk] record called Thelonious Himself. We were in the middle of this solo album and Monk said that what he wanted to do was to bring in Coltrane and a bass player for one number. The only thing that I'll say positive about myself in those circumstances was that I had had enough experience with Monk that no matter how ridiculous that sounded, [I added] these two guys for one number on a solo album when I had been pushing like crazy for Monk to do a solo album.

They went into the studio. There was one false start and then there was a complete take. At the end of that I got up and walked into the studio and said to Coltrane, "John, what's your record situation?" He said, unfortunately, "I just signed with Prestige."

The reason that he signed with Prestige was not that Prestige was particularly bright or interested in having him, but a very good friend and bandmate of Mr. Coltrane's was Red Garland. Red Garland was selling quite well for Prestige at that point and pretty much forced Weinstock to sign Coltrane.

It was clear from the start that that was not going to be a good marriage. We took the Monk Five Spot quartet into the studio and did an album knowing that we were probably going to have to wait until the end of Coltrane's Prestige career before we'd have any possibility of putting the album out. It's a good album.

Not counting that one track on the solo piano album, it's the only album made by that original world-shaking Five Spot quartet. But I was perhaps not fated to have a voice in the development of John Coltrane. It just never came. [But] I had a very good relationship with him.

I remember things like sitting at the bar at Birdland with Mr. Coltrane, and he was having a Coca-Cola. I was saying, "Gee, I really wish I had known you a little bit earlier in your life." And he said, "No you don't. I wish I hadn't known me earlier." He was talking about the time when he was good and hung up with alcohol and drugs, before he broke himself loose in that way.

Q: Wasn't Monk's Music yours? And Coltrane was on that, wasn't he?

Orrin Keepnews: Yeah. That was the only other opportunity that I had to work with him. For people to record for other labels as a sideman, on their friends' date for a comparable label, was no big deal. Happened all the time. We were working for a relatively small group of people, and there wasn't that much of an emphasis on what exclusivity might mean. So as it stood right there, that was no big deal.


Q: Let me ask you about Wes Montgomery, because he had enormous impact on the music and on his instrument.

Orrin Keepnews: Wes came to my attention entirely through Cannonball [Adderley]. I got into the office on a Monday and the latest issue of [The Jazz Review] had an article by [Gunther] Schuller based on his having been in Indianapolis, where Wes was living at the time. He was writing about how incredibly good Wes was. That's not something that in itself necessarily would have knocked me out.

But shortly after I'm taking the opportunity to look at this thing, I get a visit from my artist Mr. Adderley, who has just gotten back from Indianapolis. This was just before he went out on the road with the quintet that did the live recording at the Jazz Workshop. That was the big hit, blockbuster occasion for him. And he wanted to tell me that there's this guitar player in Indianapolis and we've got to get him for the label.

I knew that something unusual was happening when a selling artist was saying to the guy who was running his record company, "we." I was more used to people like Miles, who would have nothing but serious contempt for his record company.

So Cannonball just simply knocked me over with this absolutely serious enthusiasm of his for Wes. It was one of these things where I didn't even have any choice in the matter when you get right down to it. I was told that I needed Wes Montgomery, and Cannon was right. We did need him.

Wes was something quite special, so I guess it's almost inevitable that he had such a short life. He was a teenager before he even started to notice the guitar. He spent about four years with Riverside. The end of our period with Wes was just about the end of the period in which the company was gathering ourselves together to fall apart.

He then had four years or a little less at Verve, working all over the celebrated records that he did with Creed Taylor. And then he died. He had a heart attack at an incredibly early age. I guess he was just about 40 years old. I still think about what we didn't get to hear because he wasn't there to give it to us.


Q: Al Lion once told me that his profit margin on an LP was five cents.

Orrin Keepnews: Oh, I don't know about that. Before you start talking about profit margin, you've got to realize that in every record that you make, you're starting off with a negative, you're making an investment in that record. 

Q: Given the fact that it made no business sense to do it, why would you start another record company like Milestone?

Orrin Keepnews: What the hell else was I going to do? What happened was I had no more business producing jazz records than doing anything else around them. I began to discover that I had a good creative relationship with any number of people. God knows my partner did not.

So [Grauer] was running the business end of the company. Like Mr. Montgomery, Mr. Grauer had an early heart attack and went. It was then revealed by taking a look at [the company that] there was nothing there. We were out of business in a matter of six months.

Q: At Milestone you continued this pattern of signing really great musicians.

Orrin Keepnews: It's obviously because I'm some kind of genius and I can smell a talented jazz musician a mile away. I don't know. I've spent my whole working life coming to the conclusion that it doesn't really matter whether I know or not. I certainly don't have a perfect record.

I have had, for just about all of my more or less accidental working career, an ability to create a good, functional working relationship with more than a few incredibly talented people. If somebody would like to tell me how come that happened, I'd be kind of curious to know.

Q: You moved to San Francisco in '72 to head the jazz division at Fantasy and you also started the Landmark label in the '80s.

Orrin Keepnews: I went out there to work on reissues of my own stuff, and also to try and generate some kind of new jazz activity, such as I had been doing before. The '60s, as such, were a very good time. People were selling records, and not just jazz records.

I spent the '70s at Fantasy. You know, if people are telling you that you're pretty good and it looks like they're kind of right, I felt that it would make a lot more sense to be on my own.

Dick Katz I knew because one of his sons and one of my sons were classmates in high school. Dick had a little money because his father had died not too long before that and had left him a little money. We decided it would be a good idea to be in the record business together.

Landmark came into existence in the early '80s. I simply went out and talked to a number of people that I knew in the business. I said, "I want to start this thing as a limited partnership, and would you like to run and take a chance with me on this thing?" They were a strange, ill-begotten group of people.

The whole freelance production situation was such that I kind of lost my enthusiasm for being, "Oh boy, I've got a record company of my own." There were some pretty significant personal problems that came in there. My first wife died in '89, which was really the end of that period in which I had been operating. 

You know, it's very strange. I have not the faintest inkling of musical talent of my own. One of the things that I have said is maybe it's that there's no possibility of my feeling competitive with the people I'm working with.

But there are things that I can do in terms of creating the right atmosphere in the studio, putting the right combinations of people together and whatnot, all these hard to describe and hard to define things that a record producer supposedly knows how to do. So I have been, over the years, not wildly successful or I would have retired a long time ago, but I have functioned for quite a number of years as a producer in a strange world.


Q: Let me ask you about the recording of the string quartet Kronos Quartet playing the compositions of Bill Evans and Thelonious Monk.

Orrin Keepnews: In the very early '70s, one of the aspects of my doggedly freelance life was that I was arranging for myself. I'd gotten involved in things like the NEA jazz panel, so we were the ones who got together every once in a while and decided on giving money away.

At about the time that I started to feel antsy and wanted to get more formally back into being in the record business, I spent a week on panel work in Sacramento. One of the members of our organization that year was David Harrington, who is the first violin of the Kronos Quartet. David and I hit it off, and we were developing a personal friendship.

I don't know if you have any knowledge of Sacramento, but it ain't a wild center of nightlife. During those several days that we were up there, half a dozen of us that were on that panel had dinner together and sat around and talked. There wasn't a damn thing to do other than that. If you let me talk, there are certain things that I'll talk pretty endlessly about. Monk has always been one of those. 

David had -- still has -- a really serious interest in jazz. He's a non-traditionalist in his music in many ways. Somehow or other, by the time we finished, we both had this idea that it was worth following up a little further. I had absolutely no knowledge of classical music or of any of the techniques of recording that kind of music. It was him and his associates who were really trying to break every rule of contemporary classical music.

He enjoyed and respected Monk. I certainly was intrigued by the idea of Monk as a bridge between [classical and jazz]. I guess I was already thinking in terms of wanting to start a label again and putting this into it. So over the next couple of months or so, I got myself into this idea of trying to develop some financing to be able to start my third label. 

I said, "If I don't have a label of my own, I wouldn't have the faintest idea of where I would try to go to sell this project. The only way that it's going to happen is if I really do succeed in this equally foolish idea of creating a new label." We just went ahead and did it.

Bobby [Hutcherson] and I had a couple of ideas of things that we wanted to work on. I think he was finishing a Blue Note contract at that point. How much he could do what he wanted to do had to do with what the label had in mind for him. Nothing was happening in his career at the time, but I signed [McCoy] Tyner to Landmark.

Q: You had McCoy at Milestone…

Orrin Keepnews: Yes. I had made a deal with McCoy, and there was an idea that we had that we very much wanted to work [on] with him and Bobby.


Q: On becoming a record producer, you didn't just decide, "I'm going to become a record producer."

Orrin Keepnews: Yeah. The one thing I got to know pretty quickly was I certainly didn't want to turn my partner loose on the studio with musicians. I didn't think I was going to be able to get much out of that. It just happened.

For whatever reasons -- and there are no good reasons -- there's no music in my family background at all. Nobody plays anything. I think it's just that I was interested in music for whatever reasons, and if you go back and look at what I have to say about the starting of Milestone, it just kind of grew, that's all.

Q: Is there any one recording project that you wish you had been able to do?

Orrin Keepnews: Above all, you go back to that whole situation where because I could not get permission from Mr. Coltrane's label, we [only] did that one thing. I did it without any authorization and I knew I wasn't going to be able to put it out promptly, if at all. There was an assumption on my part that the relationship between Trane and me was strong enough that we'd work something out.

I would say that not being able to work freely with that quartet during the approximately six months that it was in existence was [a regret]. I did get to record a bunch of live recording with Monk's quartet when Johnny Griffin had replaced Trane. And those are damn good records.

In terms of an ability to understand Monk and to play like you understood him, Johnny [Griffin] was probably somewhat ahead of Trane at that point. They were very close and he had a very good understanding and there was a lot of commitment between them. 

It's not just that I didn't get the right opportunity to record those guys. It's that if things had been just a little bit different, I probably could have worked out a situation where we were putting them down on tape practically every night. That's the one above all. [But] look at how lucky I was that the Bill Evans trio at…

Q: The Vanguard.

Orrin Keepnews: Yeah.  The whole Scott LaFaro thing. The amazing thing is that that two-record set -- it was about three records worth of stuff when I squeezed everything out of it -- took place not only on the last day of that gig, but on the last occasion when LaFaro and Evans played together. So you think about the things you didn't miss. It's much healthier than to brood about the things that you did miss.

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Keepnews as a cult figure
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Keepnews as a cult figure
On his first session with Thelonious Monk
Peter Keepnews on his Dad
Questioning his secrets to success
Terri Hinte on Keepnews's atrributes