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Columbia College Today November 2004
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 Making Holidays
 A Life in Jazz
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    Director Dianne
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A Life in Jazz

Orrin Keepnews ’43 has spent a half-century as a jazz producer, writer and editor, earning five Grammy Awards, including one for lifetime achievement

By Jesse Hamlin

Orrin Keepnews and Thelonious Monk
Orrin Keepnews ’43 says he not only learned the music business producing albums featuring Thelonious Monk (above), but also life lessons from the bebop pioneer, "who stayed true to himself."


Orrin Keepnews ’43 returned to Columbia in fall 1946, burned out from flying bombing missions over Japan in the final months of World War II and eager to engage his mind in loftier pursuits before getting a job.

Finding an apartment in Manhattan was just as hard then as now, so Keepnews moved back in with his parents at Broadway and 115th Street and enrolled in graduate school in English. Returning to campus after three years as a B-29 radar operator in the Pacific — an experience that made him a lifelong pacifist — Keepnews became close with a guy he’d known only by name during their undergraduate years, Bill Grauer ’43. Grauer was an avid jazz record collector who worked at WKCR and with whom Keepnews would later start what became one of the most important modern jazz labels of
the 1950s and ’60s, Riverside Records, which was founded in Columbia’s shadow on LaSalle Street.

Sonny Rollins and Cannonball Adderly
Keepnews worked with many jazz greats, including saxophonists Sonny Rollins (top) and Cannonball Adderley.


“I enrolled in graduate school for the express purpose
of making myself feel literate again,” says Keepnews, a renowned record producer whose 50-year career with great artists such as Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans, Wes Montgomery, Sonny Rollins and
Cannonball Adderley recently earned him a fifth Grammy award, this one for lifetime achievement. “I wasn’t looking for a master’s degree. I figured I’d go to Columbia for however long it took me to feel, ‘Hey, I’m now capable of going back into the world I wanted to be in,’ and then I’d look for a job, which is pretty much what happened.” Keepnews had no idea at the time that his friendship with Grauer would lead him into the financially precarious but creatively rewarding world of jazz recording, where he’s still active at 81.
Keepnews’ recent output in years has included major reissues of Ellington and Basie and a sensational five-CD Artie Shaw box released in 2001, as well as new records with artists such as tenor saxophonist Dave Ellis and singer Roberta Donnay. He’s also produced singer Weslia Whitfield’s records for more than a decade.

A Bronx-born Manhattanite, Keepnews went to P.S. 98 in Inwood, which was then a largely undeveloped middle-class enclave of Irish and Jewish families. His mother was a teacher and his father worked for the welfare department. “We weren’t as desperate as most people in the early ’30s,” notes Keepnews, who studied on scholarship at the progressive Lincoln School at 123rd and Amsterdam, run by Teachers College. A brainy child who had skipped two grades, he was pulled back by Lincoln officials, who felt it was important socially for a child to be with others around the same age.
Keepnews graduated from Lincoln at 16 and went on to Columbia, where he settled naturally into the intellectual milieu. Lincoln encouraged its students to “think for yourself, which was a pretty radical thing in education at that time,” Keepnews notes, and that ethos was cultivated at Columbia. He became “that most amorphous of things, an English major,” and began writing about music and other subjects for Spectator, where he served on the editorial board his senior year.

Keepnews became hooked on jazz while in high school, hanging out at 52nd Street joints such as Hickory House, where he heard famous artists such as Coleman Hawkins, and Nick’s in the Village, home to New Orleans-style players such as Pee Wee Russell and George Brunis. The legal drinking age in New York was 18 then, but the concept of carding didn’t exist and it wasn’t hard to belly up to the bar.

The Record Changer cover
One of the most famous issues of The Record Changer celebrated the 50th birthday of Louis Armstrong.


“If you were big enough to walk into a bar and put down the 75 cents or dollar for a drink, nobody asked if you were old enough,” Keepnews recalls, sitting in the San Francisco flat where he’s lived since the early ’70s, when he moved to the Bay Area to run Fantasy Records’ jazz program. “Friends told me a great place to take a date and have a cheap evening was one of the bars on 52nd Street or Nick’s in the Village. And incidentally, jazz music was played there. I wasn’t listening to records very much. But I heard live jazz in my mid-teens because I was illicitly able to hang out in these rooms. I was sucked into it and started going even if I didn’t have a date. There was something that reached out and grabbed me and held onto to me.”

Keepnews was seduced by the energy and beauty of music created anew every night. He continued hanging out on 52nd Street while studying at Columbia, where he remembers taking Mark Van Doren’s Shakespeare course, Harrison Steeves’ comparative literature seminar and a colloquium on great books taught by Buck Weaver, whom he fondly remembers telling some long-winded student, “Having said that, what have you said?” It remains “the greatest academic put-down I’ve heard,” Keepnews, a warm, crusty character with a brown-fringed pate and a white Vandyke beard who’s known for his straight-talking volubility and wit, says with a laugh.

Keepnews began reviewing shows for Spectator, writing about artists such as Pearl Bailey and Carol Channing, who performed at the Village Vanguard, where Keepnews would produce two live recordings in 1961 by pianist Bill Evans’ seminal trio. Keepnews recalls how the Vanguard’s now-fabled owner, the late Max Gordon, cut him off after two rounds of drinks. When he asked why, Gordon replied: “The reviews you write in the college paper aren’t really worth more than two rounds of drinks to me, but I don’t want to see you spending your money for drinks at my prices. So that’s why you can’t have a drink after the free ones.” After a pause, Keepnews adds, “That was my first experience with a club owner, and it hasn’t gotten any easier to deal with them since.”

Keepnews recalls being on campus with his folks for an event on December 7, 1941, when the proceedings were interrupted by the news that the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor. “It was a horrible shock,” he says, “but that fact we were being plunged into a war was not a big surprise to anybody. You grew up knowing it. World War II began when Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, when my life at Columbia began. During my undergraduate career, there was the knowledge that we were all on borrowed time.”

Keepnews joined the Aviation Cadet Corps and was called up in spring ’43, a few months before graduation. By joining the service, he was given credit toward graduation, but he wasn’t allowed to leave his training program at the University of Vermont in Bennington to attend Commencement.

After the war, Keepnews spent about three months at Columbia before landing a job as a “very junior editor” at Simon & Schuster (it was so long ago, he adds with a smile, that Mr. Simon and Mr. Schuster were there). It was there that Keepnews met his late wife, Lucy, then-assistant to the mystery editor. And it was there that he rejected, among other books, the first novel of Jack Kerouac ’44, whose The Town and the City was published after the success of his epochal On the Road. Kerouac apparently learned that Keepnews had rejected the book; a decade later, drunk at the Five Spot, where Monk was playing, Kerouac and Keepnews got into a row about which the producer remembers nothing except Kerouac’s punch line: “The trouble with you, Keepnews, is that you don’t like jazz.” That cracked up a usually serious young saxophonist named John Coltrane.

Keepnews was at Simon & Schuster when Grauer asked him to edit a magazine, The Record Changer. Grauer was the ad salesman and had just bought the publication. Keepnews took the gig, largely because it gave him a forum to write whatever he wanted, even if it was mostly a labor of love. In 1951, the two published a major piece about how RCA Victor — which had a custom record-pressing division — had unwittingly been pressing bootleg records from its early jazz catalog for a fly-by-night firm, Jolly Roger. RCA officials got the idea that the Record Changer boys wanted to lease RCA’s early Armstrong and Bechet masters for reissue, and contacted Keepnews and Grauer about doing it. Producing records hadn’t been on their minds, but they figured, why not?

Keepnews and Grauer became independent producers at RCA, and also reissued 1920s Paramount recordings by Ma Rainey, Armstrong and others on the new label they named Riverside after the magazine’s Manhattan telephone exchange (like Artie Shaw and The Gramercy Five). They began making contemporary jazz records in April 1954, starting with an album by pianist Randy Weston. The next year, they signed Monk, the great iconoclast whom Keepnews had met and interviewed in 1948 at the Greenwich Village apartment of Alfred Lion, founder of Blue Note Records. Monk’s mysterious and beautiful music had spoken to Keepnews in a way that the music of other pioneers of bebop, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, hadn’t. It opened his ears to modern jazz. Keepnews was amazed when he phoned Monk several years after their only meeting to ask him to record for Riverside, and the pianist knew who he was — the kid who’d written the first article about him in a national publication.
“He was willing to take a chance on this new label because, well, he wasn’t doing anything better, but also because I was somebody who had related to him in the past,”‘ Keepnews says. He put out a series of Monk albums in the ’50s, among them Brilliant Corners (1956), which introduced Keepnews to saxophonist Sonny Rollins, with whom he would work at Fantasy in Berkeley in the ’70s, and Thelonious in Action, recorded live at the Five Spot in 1958 with the quartet featuring tenor saxophonist Johnny Griffin.

Orrin Keepnews
Keepnews says his job was "to provide the best possible environment in which the musicians could express themselves."

Like Lion and Bob Weinstock, who founded Prestige Records, Keepnews says, “We were fans who became record companies. If you had your own company and said you were a producer, who was going to say you weren’t?”

Keepnews learned the ropes working with Monk, whom he calls the greatest artist he’s been associated with. It was on-the-job training. “Monk was not about to show any mercy. He had his standards. I probably learned as much about living from him as I did about music. This was a man whose music was initially ridiculed by people who damn well should’ve known better, a man who stayed true to himself. I learned how to conduct my life, what to insist on for myself and of myself.

“Our goal wasn’t to sell a lot of records and get rich,”‘ continues Keepnews, whose son, Peter, is an editor at The New York Times and whose other son, David, is in public health planning. “Our goal was to sell enough records to make the next one. We built something out of wanting to build, out of being in love with the music. I don’t know if we were particularly naive or particularly dedicated; either we were very bright or very stupid, but we weren’t mediocre.”

Riverside went broke in 1964, a year after Grauer’s death. Fantasy bought its catalog and acquired a later Keepnews label, Milestones, and the producer had the rare pleasure of reissuing, augmenting and putting out alternative takes of his earlier work.
Working with Monk, Keepnews developed a technique without being aware of it. “I’ve always thought of myself as more of a catalyst than anything else,” he says. “I never played an instrument, and I finally figured out that is one of my strengths as a producer. I’ve never felt that I was competing with the musicians or that I could play that solo better. My job became to provide the best possible environment in which the musicians could express themselves. It’s not easy, and it’s never dull.”

Keepnews came to love live recording after taping Monk live at the Five Spot, and he had his first major hit with The Cannonball Adderley Quintet in San Francisco, recorded live at the Blackhawk in 1959. Eighteen months later, he recorded Evans’ groundbreaking trio with drummer Paul Motian and gifted young bassist Scott LaFaro on a Sunday at the Village Vanguard. The sessions resulted in two classic discs: Sunday at the Village Vanguard and Waltz for Debby. Keepnews knew something special was happening because “everything was sounding right.” He wanted to record this band, whose improvised interplay changed the shape of trio playing, before it split up. There’d been tension between Evans and LaFaro over the pianist’s heroin habit, and Keepnews had a feeling this might be their last date. He was right, but for another reason: Less than two weeks later, LaFaro was killed in a freeway crash.

“I was never in any danger of a habit of my own because I was supporting too many other habits,” says Keepnews, who sometimes finds it difficult to listen to Evans’ music, just as it pains him at times to hear Adderley and Montgomery, close friends who died young. Other times he feels great pride and pleasure listening to the records he made with them.

“Sometimes I’m very sad, and sometimes I feel very reminiscent,” he says. “Unfortunately, a favorite quote is from Casey Stengel in his later years: ‘Most people my age are dead by now.’ Well, most people a hell of a lot younger than me are dead by now. I know and love an awful lot of dead people, and it bothers me sometimes. But there’s nothing I can do about it, and I’m in no hurry to join them.
“I’m not just the guy who made the Riverside Records, although as far as I’m concerned, there are some unequaled achievements and unequaled artists there,” Keepnews says with pride. “I’ve been doing it right up to yesterday.”

Jesse Hamlin has written about jazz and art for the San Francisco Chronicle for 20 years.




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