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Statement on the Death of NEA Jazz Master Orrin Keepnews

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A man in a tuxedo speaks from a podium while another man in a brightly colored tie looks on smiling

Orrin Keepnews and Jimmy Heath at the 2011 NEA Jazz Masters Awards Ceremony & Concert. Photo by Frank Stewart

It is with great sadness that the National Endowment for the Arts acknowledges the passing of producer and author Orrin Keepnews, recipient of the 2011 A.B. Spellman NEA Jazz Masters Award for Jazz Advocacy, which is bestowed upon an individual who has contributed significantly to the appreciation, knowledge, and advancement of the art form of jazz. We join the jazz community in mourning Keepnews's death while celebrating his life and many contributions to jazz.

Recognized as one of the outstanding record producers in the jazz world, Orrin Keepnews 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 at the forefront of producing reissues of both traditional and modern jazz recordings, and is also known for his informative, incisive and extensively detailed liner notes.

In a 2011 interview with the NEA, Keepnews described how he convinced Thelonious Monk to write new material based on Duke Ellington songs for his first recording with the Riverside label: "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."

The full interview is available at arts.gov as well as NEA Jazz Moments, audio clips with Keepnews about his life and career in jazz. These audio clips are available for radio stations to use free of charge and can be downloaded via iTunesU and PRX.

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